29 Jul 2014
The New Zealand Festival opened its doors to welcome Deaf and disabled communities to this year’s festival events in Wellington, responding to an accessibility audit it had undertaken the previous year.
This proactive approach to addressing its accessibility was recognised by the judging panel in its selection of the New Zealand Festival as the recipient of the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Arts For All Award 2014.
The judges commended the New Zealand Festival for its “strong first steps on its accessibility journey” and said the evaluation showed its accessibility initiatives had a “significant impact on audience numbers”.
Sue Paterson, Executive Director, says the accessibility audit identified various barriers for disabled people attending festival events.
“Two of the key barriers were the cost of tickets and a lack of knowledge about the levels of access at our venues,” she says. “We created a section on our website listing all of the venues’ access points: for example, accessible toilets, hearing loops, wheelchair access and accessible parking.”
The festival programme also included a page providing accessibility information.
One of its largest and most popular events, The Contact Season of Power Plant, was a night-time walk through the Wellington Botanic Garden to view the many installations and lighting effects. Because the route was inaccessible to wheelchair users, the Festival created a wheelchair-friendly route and sold $10 tickets for all wheelchair users and companions (one-third of the original price).
In addition, two local community-based creative spaces were given the opportunity to take their learning disabled artists through the Power Plant event for free.
One of these was Alpha Art Studio. Support worker Aoife Ryan and two other staff members accompanied the six artists.
“A guide met the group and took us around the show and interacted really well with our artists,” Aoife says. “He explained the installations to them and they were mesmerised by the sculpture and the lighting effects.”
Aoife said the guide allowed time for the artists to experience the installations, alongside the general public. “It was such an inclusive experience. The free tickets enabled them to be part of something special.”
The accessibility measures went beyond The Contact Season of Power Plant. All tickets for wheelchair users and companions were sold at the lowest price in the house – in most cases $38 – regardless of their location in the venue. This translated into more bookings for wheelchair seating than in any previous festival.
The third part of the Festival’s response to its accessibility audit was the inclusion of sign interpreted events in the programme. With the support of Nicola Clements, Odd Socks Productions, research was conducted with the Deaf community to gauge the interest in sign interpreted events.
Based on the enthusiastic response revealed in the research, the Festival trialled using sign interpretation at some of its events. Five Writers Week sessions and one play, My Stories, Your Emails, were sign interpreted.
Nicola praised the Festival’s genuine commitment to accessibility. “The New Zealand Festival’s focus was on making the events accessible and increasing audience diversity. It wasn’t about making money. They understood that accessibility is about people’s right to access the arts.”
Green MP Mojo Mathers, who is profoundly deaf, praised the Festival for its inclusion of sign interpreted events. “This is a fantastic initiative. Providing interpreters across a range of shows is an inclusive move that provides much more choice for the Deaf community.”
The New Zealand Festival plans to use the award money to continue improving its accessibility at future festivals: for example, more sign interpreted events and audio described performances for blind and vision impaired patrons.