Case Study: Cultural Value of Accessible Theatre

Lead Research Organisation: London Metropolitan University
Department Name: Computing


Many people in society cannot benefit from the full value of cultural events if those events are not made available for them to access.

While we tend to think of barriers to access as being geographical (the production I wish to see isn't touring to my part of the country) or financial (I'd love to see that production if I could afford the ticket price), people who have sensory impairments - either because of disability or aging - may additionally experience barriers based on lack of support for their access needs. People who have difficulty hearing a theatre production may need captions. People who are Deaf may need sign interpretation. People who have vision impairments may need audio description.

Just as people in rural communities can feel excluded from culture as 'it all happens in London, never here', people with access needs may feel that those who create culture do not care whether or not they are excluded from being able to participate in that culture.

Responding to this need, and prompted by legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, many cultural institutions have shown interest in making their cultural events accessible to the widest possible audience by making them inclusive.

The two organisations at the forefront of providing captioning and audio description services to theatres and live events in the UK are StageText ( and VocalEyes (

While these organisations collect anecdotal evidence and survey evidence from people who attend their captioned and audio-described events, to date there has never been a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of the cultural value that making theatre accessible to their audiences generates.

London Metropolitan University have partnered with StageText and VocalEyes to propose a research study that will seek to answer the following question - What is the cultural value of accessible theatre from the perspective of its two main stakeholder groups:
- to the theatres (and businesses around them) that choose to provide captioned or audio-described performances, either to develop new audiences, or to bring former audiences back into the theatre; and
- the audiences that those performances are aimed at (both those that choose to attend, and those who do not)

We envisage this research providing rigorous evidence for the value of accessible theatrical performance, and of inclusive cultural activity, for a range of stakeholders; supporting the on-going work of organisations like StageText and VocalEyes, and potentially contributing to increased opportunities for hearing and visually impaired people to engage in mainstream culture. It will further contribute to underpinning inclusive practice in the UK; supporting the nation's beacon status in this area. It will also aim to support and contribute to the on-going embedding of inclusion as cultural practice.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries from this research include:

o The rest of the Cultural Value project - providing an early case study to examine how well the other components identified in the Cultural Value Project describe the value that audiences for accessible theatre themselves assign to it, and uncover other possible components such as 'inclusion/exclusion' which might also be measured by other Cultural Value projects
o Researchers in cultural practice & inclusive practice - these researchers will benefit from a key case study in the value of inclusive practice in the UK; supporting the nation's beacon status in this area. It will also aim to support and contribute to the on-going embedding of inclusion as cultural practice.

Public Sector:
o Arts grant-funding bodies such as Arts Council England, that part-fund StageText and VocalEyes at present - these bodies will benefit from our findings in understanding the cultural value return on investment of their funding, and be better able to decide and justify such funding in the future, thus Influencing Public Policy

o All theatres considering the value of accessible performances - theatres will benefit from our findings of the full value (both economic and beyond) of them choosing to dedicate some of their performances to be captioned or audio-described, to enable them to make Commercial decisions about the number of performances they make accessible.

o Accessible Theatre suppliers (charities like StageText and VocalEyes) - these will benefit from our findings of the full value of the services they provide. This will help them to consider whether any Operational and Organisational Changes (such as concentrating resources on different aspects of their service) or Technological Changes (such as the understanding that sections of their audience might accept use of new and cheaper technologies - such as Google Glasses, for example - to reduce the cost or increase the value of their service) may optimise their work's value to their audiences. It may allow them to make better business cases for continued investment from existing funding sources, and potentially help them identify and attract new funding sources (

General public:
o People who are hearing impaired, vision impaired, older or who have English as a Second Language (and the people they would choose to go to the theatre with) - these people will benefit from our findings which will enable the cultural value that they ascribe to accessible theatre to be more widely understood, enabling them to feel more included in society. This will also strengthen the business case for the provision of accessible theatre and inclusive cultural activity, potentially contributing to increased opportunities for hearing and visually impaired people to engage in mainstream culture, both of which may impact their Health and Well-being.


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Description London Metropolitan University partnered with STAGETEXT and Vocaleyes to examine the cultural value of accessible theatre to:
theatres that choose to schedule captioned or audio-described performances; and to the audiences to whom those performances are aimed.

We found that, while the 2008 SOLT Access London Theatre project identified large potential audiences for accessible performances in the UK, and follow-up projects like See-A-Voice have since trained theatres in developing these audiences, the actual audience numbers attending are lower than anticipated. This doesn't negate the need to schedule accessible performances, due to the remaining legal and ethical business cases. However, the current fragility in the economic business case constrains producers' desire to hold accessible performances. We identified many barriers to audiences booking for performances, and the possibility of a 'Catch-22': that improved return on investment from holding accessible performances requires enough accessible performances to be scheduled to enable disabled people to develop and maintain a 'theatre habit'; until enough people develop this 'habit' accessible performances may actually lose the theatre money. In the current economic climate, without evidence that we are nearing this 'tipping point', progress towards it is stalling, as theatres 'lose their nerve' and fall back to levels of accessible performance provision that reflect a wish to prevent legal risk to the theatre rather than to develop the audiences for accessible performances.

This is disappointing because we found evidence that audiences who attend accessible theatre performances benefit from many of AHRC's components of cultural value, and that theatres that don't provide accessible performances may have an adverse effect on community cohesion as disabled audiences feel excluded from seeing shows other people are coming together around.

Our research identified technological and organisational interventions that might shift these barriers, to enable accessible theatre to better benefit all its stakeholders - users, suppliers, theatres and funders alike.
Exploitation Route We are working on dissemination of our findings: through AHRC to the wider Cultural Value Project; back to the captioning and audio description suppliers; and through them to funding bodies like Arts Council England, to international Arts and Disability conferences, and to other research work in this area, such as the Warwick Commission's research into 'measuring cultural value'.

We are also investigating working with digital product makers, theatres and accessible performance suppliers to create tools to get round the barriers the research identified - to find solutions, created in collaboration with users, to the barriers that currently restrict the full realisation of the potential benefit to disabled theatregoers, theatres who hold performances, funding organisations, and society as a whole.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Findings are being used by current providers of inclusive theatre services in their strategic thinking, partnership proposals and funding applications to government funding bodies like the Arts Council. Individual theatres, and groups of theatres, have also used the findings to inform their strategies. Companies involved with digital inclusion are reviewing the findings to suggest digital products that might help strengthen the market for inclusive theatre.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services