Flexible Working

Mairi was invited to speak on behalf of PiPA at UK Theatres Theatre Means Business webinar with Parent and Carers in Performing Arts on Thursday 9th July 2020. 

Hi, I am Mairi, the Executive Producer at BOP. We are the only disability-led theatre company in Scotland. We, obviously, make theatre, though not right now, and also work to develop future disabled artists and workforce, and we work strategically with other organisations to improve disability equality in the arts. PiPA kindly invited me to talk today about our working practices and I’ll do this by talking about some of the ways that we work and the mechanisms we use to inform how we create accessible environments for others. In these five minutes I will also run touch on some headline points around disability equality and the workplace.

Above: Mairi speaking at a Disability Equality workshop at Tomie Ohatke, São Paulo.

There is a little bit of irony, given the context of this webinar, in the fact that I have struggled a great deal this ‘covid’ week to write the words I am now reading to you – and I have written them because I am aware the event is being captioned.  Truthfully I am a tad ashamed.  This level of preparedness is not generally necessary for a captioner, however it is a bit of a courtesy when you become one of the awful people who provides their talking points at the very last moment.  I KNOW BETTER. 

When the lockdown hit, BOP was better placed than most to react and adapt working practices.  We work flexibly and homeworking is a weekly norm for us.  In a team of five in which only one of us is fulltime, most have access requirements, we are spread across the central belt of Scotland, and have developed ways of working that suit us all.   This includes all our files being online, homeworking and team meetings where one or more member may be joining remotely.  On occasion non-disabled members of the team PA for disabled members and we often travel and deliver work in pairs or small groups to share workload and support one another. 

While we were able to adapt and continue working almost seamlessly this does not make the lockdown any less stressful or strange and it is important to remember that none of us have really been experiencing home working but rather working in the home during a pandemic.  Each individuals’ situation in that is unique and mine has involved two parents working around two children who required homeschooling- while there has been public debate about what lockdown has done for gender equality, I am not here to vent in that area… though to remember uniqueness of individual experience is key. I am here to talk about creating a more equal working environment for disabled people and how BOP goes about this. 

One thing to say before I proceed is that there is understandable frustration and fatigue amongst disabled people who have been campaigning and arguing for years for flexibility in the work place only to be told it is not possible. People have missed out on work, opportunities and life experiences due to stagnate attitudes and structures.  Many non-disabled people are now singing the praises of home working or declaring they identify with disabled people who can’t leave home.  To this I say, kindly, think before you emote.

As disability equality trainers BOP spends a lot of time explaining to people that knowing what a person’s ‘disability’ is does not allow you to prepare for working with or providing services for that person.  Using the didactic framework of the Social Model of Disability we can breakdown that being disabled is something that happens to the individual through the barriers they encounter in society and that by focusing on dismantling barriers we are able to create more accessible environments and experiences.  An individual’s impairment or health condition may not change but how disabled they are does.  What is key and what should always be asked is – “what are your access requirements?”.  In many ways, this is the simple process that we apply whenever we work with someone – we ask them what they need.  We don’t ask what is wrong with them, we don’t even ask if they identify as disabled, we simply ask what they need in place to undertake their work.  We provide everyone we work with with an access requirements form and an example of this is available on our website.  

Another tool we often use, especially with artists, is to ask them to provide an Access Statement, or help them to create one.  Several years ago we ran an artist development opportunity and someone informed me that one of the artists we were going to work with was renowned for never completing.  On a hunch, I made the decision that if that were the case I would ensure that if it happened with us it would not be to do with access.  We worked to meet all this person’s access needs and because we asked and planned and removed doubt and built confidence around those elements we and the artist were able to focus on the creative practice – and they completed.  An element of this was the success of an access statement and running through the barriers they might face in that particular project.  You can download an access statement toolkit, along with access statement examples, on our website.  I hope it is useful in thinking about the barriers that anyone can face and that it elucidates that while some people have barriers that need addressed, we all in fact have preferences that make working easier and more productive.

Before I end, I want to run through some headline points:

  • Disabled people do not always understand they are welcome and just because you say you are accessible they have no empirical reason to trust this – be explicit, for instance, use the positive about disabled people logo in recruitment  (Disability Confident: how to sign up to the employer scheme, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/disability-confident-how-to-sign-up-to-the-employer-scheme)
  • Not all disabled people identify as such – from distancing from the label to not understanding they have access requirements.  So why not make asking about access universal?
  • To understand your workforce better and create a culture where people can declare you can think about breaking down monitoring questions or defining disability through the social model.
  • A disabled person may be an expert in their access requirements but you are the expert in your workplace activities.
  • Not all disabled people are experts in their access requirements – so many people have masked all their lives to fit in.
  • Always ask and plan ahead of time.
  • Be ready to be flexible, truly flexible.

With planning flexibility is not chaos and should not be reactive – we need to think outside the norms we work in.  Hours that are not feasible for all, pointless presenteeism and the cost to productivity and creativity when people burn out because ‘that’s the way we have always done it’.  With no desire to preach to the converted equality (or access) is not about treating everyone the same but about treating everyone differently to reach equity of experience, to truly create opportunity for all.  To say you don’t see disability or you don’t treat anyone differently, you are in danger of denying the diversity, brilliance and reality of difference. 

I was recently in a webinar about race equality and found the parallel in the concept that to say ‘but I don’t see colour’ is to deny race startlingly resonate with disability equality.  If we learn anything from this period, it must be that we should not look away and we can all do more to truly challenge and change the discriminatory structures that persist around us.