February’s highlights: Access to the arts in action

Access in Action blog_Trafalgar set

I’ve been to see some great plays and art exhibitions this month, which have proved to me once again how important great access to theatre and the arts is to deaf and disabled people.

At the beginning of February I saw a performance of Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming, which was captioned by STAGETEXT at the Trafalgar Studios in London. This is a Harold Pinter play and while I found the actual play pretty weird and disturbing (which I think it’s meant to be as it’s supposed to be shocking and thought-provoking), the access provided by the captioning was excellent.

We were seated close to the action on stage and I could read the captions really clearly as the caption unit was placed directly above the stage. I didn’t have to keep moving my head from side to side or up and down like watching tennis at Wimbledon to read the text and follow the action at the same time.

This is one of my favourite places to watch a play. The tickets are only £15 each on a Monday night, so it makes it accessible and inclusive to all. The audience is also quite diverse, with young and older people alike all sitting together in a cosy, informal atmosphere. There’s no elitism about the place. It was packed and everyone looked like they were having a good time.

It was a shame that the hearing loop didn’t work, even after I swapped it for another one during the interval. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the performance in any way as I could still hear most of it and I could read the captions very well from where I was sitting.

My experience of watching Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre about a week later was completely different, though. This was also captioned by STAGETEXT. When I first took my seat, I saw that there was a very elaborate stage set, designed like a large modern office, complete with desks, chairs and computers.

Access in Action blog_National office set

Two caption units were placed to the far left and right of the stage, instead of above the stage. At first, I wondered why they had been put there because it made it quite difficult to follow the captions and the action on stage at the same time when I had to keep moving my head from the caption units at the sides to the stage where the actors were.

It all became clear after a while though when suddenly, the whole set, complete with upside down chairs and tables was lifted and suspended in the air above the stage. The chairs and tables, which were hanging from the ceiling, had been transformed into a forest and they were now meant to be trees. The rest of the action took place in this atmospheric, misty half office/forest setting.

The effect it gave was really creative and different. I’d never seen office furniture transformed into a forest before, but it seemed to work somehow. From an access point of view though, it wasn’t ideal as although I could see how it would be impossible to have put the caption units above the stage with such an elaborate set, it meant that anyone relying on the captions would either have to follow the captions or watch the action on-stage, as it was impossible to do both at the same time.

Access in Action blog_Forest

Thankfully, the hearing loop was crystal clear, so I still managed to follow the dialogue and enjoy the play. The acting was brilliant, the plot really funny and the set design amazing. I also think that putting it in such a modern setting with the actors dressed in modern clothes made Shakespeare seem much more accessible and relevant to today’s audiences.

It made me wonder, though, whether theatre set designers should incorporate decisions about access right from the start when they are planning their sets. Later, I asked STAGETEXT about this and they told me that it can be difficult to find the perfect placement for the caption units across a range of different venues and complex sets. They said that their Theatre Programme Manager works directly with venues to ensure that the units are as close to the action as possible. But with theatres that have their own captioning equipment, they have less of a say where the units are positioned than they do if they are captioning it themselves.

Also, with some of the West End shows, STAGETEXT has to mark out an allocation of caption user seats as soon as the dates go on sale and this is often before there is even a set design in place for the production. This explains why sometimes the caption units are not in the ideal position for the caption users. I have to say though, that the majority of times I’ve seen a captioned performance, the experience has been excellent and fully accessible to me.

The access was really good at the exhibition I went to with my wife yesterday at the National Gallery too: http://bit.ly/1P9yDQw. It was a major exhibition of the early 19th Century French artist Delacroix’s paintings, whose work inspired the younger Impressionists and modern artists who came after him.

Access in Action blog_Delacroix National Gallery

I asked for a hearing loop for the recorded audio guide of the exhibition. The staff there were really helpful and made sure that the loop worked before I went into the exhibition. It was crystal clear and easy to use.

I didn’t really know much about Delacroix before or how important an artist and influence he was. The exhibition describes him as ‘The Father of Modern Art’ with a quote from Cézanne saying “We all paint in Delacroix’s language”. In the exhibition we saw original paintings by Delacroix alongside others by such famous artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Cézanne, who had all been inspired by his works.

Access in Action blog_Van Gogh flowers

What I love about these Delacroix paintings is that they are very colourful and it’s obvious that he painted them with a lot of passion and energy. He was one of the first artists to unleash his imagination and express on canvas the powerful emotions and ferocious intensity that were building up inside him like a volcano, whether it was in a still life painting, landscape, portrait, historical battle or religious scene.

I really loved his North African paintings in the exhibition, which showed scenes of rich luxuriant landscapes and architecture, bright colours, brilliant sunlight and exotic animals such as lions and tigers. These were all new and fascinating to a man such as him coming from Paris. The Delacroix exhibition is on until 22nd May so if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend you go and check it out!

Access in Action blog_Delacroix lion

 

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Kevin Spacey as Clarence Darrow: spellbinding!

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I recently saw one of the finest, if not the finest, pieces of acting I have ever seen in my entire life!

It was Kevin Spacey playing Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic Theatre in London in the play of the same name.

I have always admired Kevin Spacey as an actor, ever since I first saw him in such amazing films as ‘The Usual Suspects’, ‘Seven’, ‘LA Confidential and ‘Swimming with Sharks’. At the moment, I’m completely hooked watching him play the evil, manipulative American politician Frank Underwood in the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’. He is without doubt one of the greatest actors of our time.

Clarence Darrow_Frank Underwood

My wife and I were both really excited at the prospect of seeing him perform live on stage and we couldn’t wait to see this play.

The Old Vic theatre is ‘in the round’ which makes for a cosy, intimate experience when you’re sitting in the stalls as we were, although I found it difficult at times to follow the captions and look at the stage at the same time. The hearing loop was excellent too, which is something that I am still getting used to.

This is a one-character play, so Kevin Spacey played the role of Clarence Darrow on his own for a full 90 minutes. His acting was fantastic! He owned the stage the entire time. I found myself being absolutely magnetised by his presence that night.

In real life Clarence Darrow was one of the greatest civil liberties lawyers in American history. In his forty-year career, he defended people who were poor, black and otherwise discriminated against by the American legal system in the early part of the twentieth century. He defended the underdog and people who couldn’t even afford to pay his legal fees, so he didn’t charge them. He was very courageous and had a strong sense of doing what he believed was right to defend innocent people.

Clarence Darrow placard

In his career, he managed to save 110 people from the gallows for being wrongly accused of murder. There was only one person he didn’t manage to save early on in his career, which he deeply regretted.

Kevin Spacey stood on the stage as the older Clarence Darrow preparing to pack up his office and retire. He was looking back on his life and career, telling it in his own words in a very humble but convincing way. It was totally mesmerising to watch him perform so passionately and emotionally just a few feet away from me. He walked around the stage and down the aisles, engaging with and bringing the audience with him as he talked about his most memorable cases and his personal life.

It must be so difficult to act on your own like that all the time and yet keep the audience so gripped. He seemed to totally involve us all in the story as he was telling it. I thought it was really clever the way he used tricks like speaking to empty chairs on the stage as if he were re-enacting his famous courtroom scenes and cross-questioning key witnesses and defendants in the trials and holding up evidence.

kevin spacey

Through his acting we got a glimpse of how eloquent, but humble, Clarence Darrow was, and how he managed to win over trial juries and judges by a combination of logic and his strong sense of right and wrong. Apparently, in real life he managed to reduce some trial judges to tears with his passionate pleas for them to save his defendants’ lives.

He was also courageous because he wasn’t afraid of standing up for what he believed in, even when this made him deeply unpopular. For instance, Spacey as Darrow told the audience about when he was asked to defend the McNamara brothers in 1911 by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). They had been charged with dynamiting the offices of the Los Angeles Times building a year before, which resulted in the deaths of twenty people. This trial attracted a lot of public attention, with the AFL setting up a defence fund from donations to defend the brothers and many people convinced of their innocence.

Clarence Darrow_the man

But before the trial, when Darrow was going through the evidence, he discovered that the McNamara brothers were, in fact, guilty. He described how he didn’t know what to do as he was in such a moral dilemma. He eventually decided that the only right thing to do was to change their plea to guilty in order to spare the defendants’ lives and to plea for a custodial sentence instead. In the end, one of the brothers was imprisoned for fifteen years and the other got a life sentence.

Because of the change in plea, the ALF and other unions turned against Darrow, convinced that he had sold them out. He was also accused of bribing a member of the jury in the trial, which he denied strongly, but he faced a lengthy trial to defend himself of the bribery charge and although the jury did not find him guilty, he was forced to give up practising as a lawyer in California. It was only several years later that he decided to set up a practice again in another state, and he carried on defending people for many more years.

Clarence Darrow trial

Kevin Spacey’s performance was totally spellbinding. At the end the entire audience was on its feet applauding him and giving him a standing ovation. I have never seen such an audience reception in the theatre. After ten years of working as Artistic Director at the Old Vic, this is Spacey’s last season there, so I felt truly privileged to see him in one of his last performances.

I also came away feeling truly inspired by the legendary Clarence Darrow, who I had never heard of before, but I was really glad that I had discovered him. I know that times have changed since his day, but I wish that there were more people like him today who will always stand up for what they believe is right and fair, people who are never afraid to defend the poor, the vulnerable, the sick and disabled people in our society, particularly in this age of austerity and putting yourself first. People like him make our society a much fairer, better place.

Clarence Darrow_end pic

Churchill’s Chartwell and Rawson’s Legacy

As a late deafened adult, losing my hearing quite suddenly at the age of thirty-nine, I hadn’t learned how to lipread until then as there was no need. It was not something that had ever even crossed my mind.

It took me a long time to accept that I was deaf and even longer to begin to adapt to my new life as a deafened adult. Things that I had always taken for granted, like being able to follow and join in conversations in places like work, home, in the pub and noisy restaurants, became increasingly difficult and frustrating for me. As my hearing deteriorated I struggled to communicate and follow even basic conversations with my wife, family and friends.

Chartwell header

I started to go to lipreading classes about four years ago, shortly after my hearing suddenly dropped a lot. I enjoyed meeting other people at the classes, although I didn’t have much in common with them, as most of them were a lot older than me, in their sixties and seventies. I also found lipreading very tiring, as I struggled so hard to follow what people were saying. Over time, I gradually became better at it, although until I had my cochlear implant recently, I still struggled to communicate and understand everyday conversations.

Then just over a year ago, I heard about the NADP Rawson Bequest Events Programme, which organises regular lipspeaking events for deaf and hard of hearing people with a good understanding and knowledge of English, like myself. You do not have to be a member of the NADP to join an outing.

This programme has been donated to the NADP via a legacy bequest from the late Dr Annette Rawson. She qualified as a doctor and was one of the first female doctors to work at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. Then suddenly, at the age of thirty-two, she became profoundly deaf as a result of a rare debilitating autoimmune disease. She had to give up being a doctor as a result of her hearing loss and medical condition, which she struggled with for the rest of her life.

Chartwell_Lynne and Sara

Through her experience of becoming deafened as an adult Dr Rawson learned how important it was to have good lipspeaking support made available to deaf people with a good understanding of English. She wanted the arts and places of cultural or historical significance to be made more accessible to deaf people. When I heard about the Rawson Bequest Programme I immediately felt a personal affinity to Dr Rawson because she had a similar medical condition to my own, which caused my hearing loss.

I went on my first NADP lipspeaking event at Bletchley Park last year and I was immediately amazed at how well I could follow the talk with the support of the professional lipspeakers Sara Scanlon and Lynne Dubin. It really helped me that Sara used visual cues and signing as well as lipspeaking to help me follow what the guide was saying.

Last weekend I went on another lipspeaking event through the NADP Rawson Bequest Programme – a tour of Chartwell, the family home of Winston Churchill, in Kent. This estate is owned by the National Trust and although there was no official guided tour of the House, Sara and Lynne did an excellent job in providing the lipspeaking support throughout the tour of the House. Then one of the official guides also gave us a short talk afterwards with lipspeaking support about Winston Churchill’s painting in his art studio in the grounds.

Chartwell_Churchill speech

Chartwell is a very imposing country manor house with beautiful gardens and a huge estate set in the rolling hills of the Kent countryside, only about an hour’s drive from London. It was bought by Winston Churchill as his family home, but since his wife’s death in the 1970s, it has been bequeathed to the nation through the National Trust and a museum has been set up there.

I spent a brilliant day there with my wife and Jack Russell terrier Jake. I gained an amazing insight into the personal life of Winston Churchill and I learned a lot about some very important historical events in modern British and world history. He was friends with famous politicians, celebrities, artists and members of the aristocracy and Royal Family, many of whom visited him and regularly attended parties at Chartwell in the 1920s and 1930s, where he loved to entertain them.

Chartwell_Richard

Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister twice. He not only changed the course of world history for us all by playing a major role in helping us to win World War Two, but he was also a prolific painter and writer. He created over 500 paintings in his lifetime, and in the museum in the main house I saw the actual gold medal and manuscript of the original Nobel Prize for Literature for 1953, which was awarded to Winston Churchill for his life’s works, as he wrote forty-two books in seventy-three volumes during his lifetime.

His mother was American and because of this, Winston invented the idea of the “special relationship” between Britain and America, which we still have today. He was an MP for sixty-two years, being a great global statesman and diplomat. He was known for his rousing speeches, many of which he wrote in his study at Chartwell. He cultivated friendships with several American presidents, including President Roosevelt and John F.Kennedy.

Chartwell

His finest hour was when he served as Prime Minister during the Second World War. He was driven by his determination, sense of destiny and ‘British Bulldog’ spirit to win the war and always do what is right. His famous rousing World War II speeches inspired millions to fight for the cause for the sake of honour and duty. In one of his speeches in 1941 he said “Never give in – in nothing great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense”.

Churchill painted throughout his life to provide him with relaxation from his great trials and tribulations. He painted his last painting of Marrakech, a place he loved, at the age of eighty-five. Although he was an amateur painter, several famous artists mentored him, including Walter Sickert and John Lavery. A few of his paintings were exhibited in the Royal Academy and one of them even won first prize.

Chartwell_Churchill painting

When Churchill died in 1965, he left the world a completely changed place and he also transformed the course of world history. I found this tour of Chartwell absolutely fascinating as I had no idea about the extent of his life’s works as an artist and writer, as well as being a great statesman and one of the most iconic political figures of the 20th Century.

I hope to go on more of these Rawson Bequest events in the future. I have thoroughly enjoyed them and find them really educational and insightful. Lynne and Sara have also provided excellent lipspeaking and communication support to the groups. I would really like to thank them for making it so accessible to us.

SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL, KG, DL, OM, CH, PC, MP (1874) AND CLEMENTINE OGILVY HOZIER, LADY CHURCHILL (1885-1977) IN THE DINING ROOM AT CHARTWELL, 1932, by Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949) at Chartwell, Kent

 

My Discovery of Access and Human Rights

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I never really thought about human rights issues or equality before I lost my hearing. I didn’t think these issues affected me personally. My life then revolved around making money, watching football, going to the pub and socialising with my friends and family.

But then I lost most of my hearing and my whole life changed. I suddenly saw things from a different perspective, and many things that I took for granted no longer seemed accessible to me. It wasn’t just the obvious things, like not being able to make a simple phone call anymore, but also things that never would have occurred to me such as not being able to go to the cinema or theatre spontaneously anymore and not being able to go to hospital appointments on my own without taking someone with me. Without them I couldn’t understand what the doctors were saying to me and most of the staff there didn’t have any deaf awareness. Daily problems accessing public services have caused me real stress and frustration.

Through my voluntary work in my local community I became interested in learning more about social care. I did a course in Health & Social Care at the City Lit in London, which was excellent. It was so refreshing because of the good access, which is so important. They provided me with two electronic note-takers in the class to help me follow it and gave me the access I needed. The tutor Rebecca and the electronic note-takers Fiona and Anita were very supportive.  This is an example of equality and inclusion done at its best and I felt equal to the other students in the class.

On the course I learned about equality legislation in social care, which was directly related to my voluntary work. It really opened my eyes to how important it is to understand how equality and access affect our everyday lives. It is also about respecting other people’s values and rights, and how diversity and tolerance of other people’s differences are essential to a better functioning society.

It led me to thinking more about our basic human rights and how they affect us all, so I wanted to learn more. I saw on Twitter that there was a one-day introductory workshop last week on human rights run by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR). My wife called them up to ask about arrangements for communication support for me and they told her that they would arrange an electronic note-taker to support me. I was delighted to hear this and really excited about doing the workshop, as I wouldn’t have been able to do it without this support.

There was a mixture of people on the workshop from different backgrounds, but I was the only deaf person there. It was really interesting to learn about what human rights are, how they are the building blocks of a healthy democracy, what the legislation on human rights is about and how it is enforced on governments, which abuse their powers and deny people their basic human rights throughout the world.

I learned about the evolution of Human Rights legislation since its introduction after the Second World War, how it is applied in practice and how it affects all of us in our everyday lives. It was fascinating to learn about a subject which is so fundamental to our everyday lives, but which I knew very little about before.

I learned that human rights are universal protections for everyone and serve as a safety net for us all. In the UK we are protected by 16 fundamental rights in the Human Rights Act, which cover many different aspects of our lives. Human rights relate to the relationship between the State and individuals. Our society hands power to the government to make decisions for us and human rights are there for when it goes wrong, as it has done many times in history, such as during the Holocaust, and even now with the terrible situation going on in Syria.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that the Human Rights Act relates to all levels of government and public services provided, for instance the police force, local government, the courts and the NHS, as well as voluntary and community sector organisations. The situation becomes complex when private organisations provide a public service, for instance when a local authority hands over the operating of a care home to a private company or a charity or a voluntary organisation provides a public service. The net has been spread wide in the Human Rights Act so that any body or organisation, which delivers public services, is included in it.

The Human Rights Act is meant to act as a floor for basic human rights and freedoms, but it works in conjunction with other UK legislation, which is more detailed and specific, such as the Equality Act 2010, which includes legislation on disability discrimination, and the duty to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled person is put at a substantial disadvantage. All these laws are meant to be compatible with each other and work alongside each other.

I was so glad I did this workshop. The communication support provided by Simon, my electronic note-taker, and the BIHR, made it fully accessible to me so that I felt included and equal to the other people in the class. It made me realise that all too often there are instances where both public and private organisations are not taking their duties and responsibilities towards deaf and disabled people seriously and not providing us with the proper access to services that we need. In some cases they are actually breaching people’s human rights, such as the right to be treated with dignity.

I intend to do more accessible courses and workshops like the ones run by the BIHR. I want to learn more about how equality and human rights issues affect us all. This is particularly relevant to people with a hearing loss, as with any disability. I’d like to see more deaf and hard of hearing people attend these courses with good communication support. You learn a lot from them and they make you feel much more empowered and aware of your access and equality rights in an inclusive society. 

You can find out more about the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) and their training courses via their website http://www.bihr.org.uk and follow them on Twitter via @BIHRhumanrights

 

Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom: Access and Equality at the Cinema

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I really wanted to go and see the new film about Nelson Mandela called ‘Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ ever since I first heard about it a few weeks ago. But it proved to be a real challenge trying to find a subtitled show of it that my wife and I could go and see together this weekend.

Last week I looked on the website http://www.yourlocalcinema.com and saw that most of the shows in London were on weekdays at inconvenient times during the day when we wouldn’t be able to attend, especially as my wife works full-time. In fact, there was only one cinema in London with a subtitled show at the weekend, which was on a Sunday lunchtime at the Cineworld multiplex in Enfield.

I was really disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to watch it at our local multiplex, the Vue cinema at Westfield Stratford, and that I would have to drive for half an hour to Enfield, as it is not accessible on the tube. When I was hearing I could just go and see a film whenever I wanted to and it didn’t require so much effort planning it a week in advance because I wasn’t restricted to only one show a week.

I think it’s ironic that I couldn’t see it at the new big multiplex in Stratford because they only show two subtitled films a week there. This is the home of the Olympics and the Paralympics, where in 2012 millions of people across the world came together and saw how our society was changing into a much more equal and inclusive society to people with a disability.

Now that my choice of watching accessible, subtitled films is so limited, even in a major capital city like London, this makes me even more aware of my hearing loss. If I had the same choices and opportunities to watch an accessible film at the cinema as everyone else, this would make me feel equal and included, whereas now I don’t feel like I am treated equally.

Deaf and hard of hearing people in this country have a really raw deal when it comes to accessibility at the cinema. There should be a greater choice of subtitled films at reasonable times in the evenings and at the weekends.

According to http://www.yourlocalcinema.com, less than 1% of films shown at the cinema are subtitled. They state that there is not a huge audience for subtitled films and that cinema operators need to consider the wishes of all their audience, with some members of the audience finding the subtitles inconvenient. Cinema operators argue that there is just not enough demand for subtitled films and therefore they are unprofitable.

I believe that there is demand for subtitled films at the cinema from deaf and hard of hearing people, who are all paying customers. According to the charity Action on Hearing Loss, 1 in 6 people in the UK currently have a hearing loss, meaning that there are an estimated 10 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing. If we take a conservative assumption that say 50% of these people would like to go to the cinema if it was accessible to them, that is still an audience of 5 million potential paying customers who would watch subtitled films. With the ageing of the population, there is potential for this number to increase much further.

Instead of only 1% of films shown in the cinema being subtitled, I think this should be increased to 10%. I am sure that if there were a greater choice of subtitled films shown at more convenient times, more deaf and hard of hearing people would go there more often.

Going to the cinema is not cheap, particularly in Central London, so the cost of the ticket may be another barrier to many people. Perhaps the cinema operators could consider introducing special ‘access’ tickets at reduced rates to attract more people, like the theatres do for deaf and hard of hearing people attending captioned performances, which are very popular.

Becoming a member of a film group such as the Subtitled Cinema Group London or forming your own subtitled group, is another good way to secure tickets to see subtitled films at reduced rates. Recently, I went to see the film ‘Gravity’ at a cinema in Soho with this big group and it was a great sociable gathering where I met new people. I also think people should contact cinema managers directly to ask for more subtitled films at their local cinemas. I’d also recommend using Facebook and Twitter to contact cinema groups directly to ask for better access, as I find using social media like this is very effective.

However, there are plenty of other arguments given by cinema operators about why there is not enough demand for subtitled cinema, which are not directly related to profits. They say that the majority of deaf and hard of hearing people don’t need a film to be subtitled because having a hearing loop is a reasonable adjustment to provide access to them. I think that it depends on your level of hearing loss. They are not suitable for people with a severe to profound hearing loss.

Also, I found that when my hearing was better and I could use a hearing loop, the sound quality of the loop varied greatly from cinema to cinema and the volume of the soundtrack often fluctuated up and down, which I found really frustrating. I think hearing loops can be great if they are working properly and you only have a moderate hearing loss, but they didn’t work well for me personally. Subtitling is much better because it is universal and is accessible to people with all levels of hearing loss.

Another argument against subtitling is that in the future with new technology, there will be no need for open captions on the screen because people will be able to wear personal subtitled glasses, which will show the subtitles inside the individual wearer’s glasses. This means that the person wearing them will be able to see any film at any time with their own personal subtitles. I participated in a recent trial of these glasses at a cinema showing and personally, I did not like them. I found them heavy and irritating. I much prefer to watch a film with subtitles on the screen, which I find easier to watch. I would also feel really self-conscious wearing these glasses in the cinema. Maybe the technology will improve in the future and they will become lighter and easier to wear, but I didn’t like them. I also don’t think they would work if the user had a visual impairment too.

I really enjoyed the film today. It was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. The cinema screen was quite busy, despite the fact that the film was shown on a Sunday lunchtime and it was subtitled. The audience seemed to mainly consist of hearing people and young people. I don’t think anyone was distracted by the subtitles or found them inconvenient.

It was a really powerful and very moving account of Nelson Mandela’s struggle for equality and freedom against the backdrop of a repressive, apartheid regime in South Africa. It is so hard for a film to do justice to the life of Nelson Mandela but it got close and the actor Idris Elba played him excellently. It also showed the very human, vulnerable side of his character and how much fighting for the freedom and equality of his people cost him in terms of losing 27 years of his life in prison and the effect this had on his wife and not seeing his family grow up.

I find it such an enjoyable, sociable experience to go to the cinema with your friends and family and such a shame that I cannot go more often or more spontaneously like I used to. I would like to see large deaf-related charities campaign for better access to subtitled films at the cinema for deaf and hard of hearing people, and cinema operators championing equality and inclusion at their cinemas for anyone with a hearing loss, as with any disability. I also think cinemas should promote accessibility more. I would welcome your views and ideas on this and how we can campaign for better access.

In the words of Nelson Mandela himself “Social equality is the only basis of human happiness”.

All My Sons at the Royal Exchange: captioning restores passion for the theatre

This week I took my step-father Brian to see his first captioned theatre performance, something we’d all been looking forward to for a long time. Brian is a regular theatre-goer in his seventies and has been watching plays at the Royal Exchange in Manchester since it first opened over thirty years ago.

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Recently though, he told me that he’d been having difficulty hearing the dialogue and following the plot. He has a moderate hearing loss and wears a hearing aid but he doesn’t use hearing loops, as no-one as ever explained how they work to him. He has increasingly been finding it a real struggle to hear the plays. He usually has to ask my mother to explain the plot to him, which is really frustrating for both of them.

I said to Brian a while ago that I thought that he would really benefit from going to see captioned theatre performances, which would make the whole experience much more accessible to him. He was really pleased to hear this and seemed really enthusiastic to go and try it out for himself. So we booked the Talawa Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s play ‘All My Sons’, produced by Michael Buffong and captioned by STAGETEXT.

I grew up in Cheshire and regularly used to go into Manchester, but I’d not seen a play at the Royal Exchange before. When we arrived there the other night, I was struck by how beautiful the historic building was from the outside, all lit up in colourful lights. It used to be the old Corn Exchange, and is a landmark building in the city centre with classic architecture and tall ornate pillars.

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Inside though, the modern theatre sits under the dome of the old building like a round spaceship on scaffolding. As we went into the theatre space and took our places I was wondering how the position of the caption units would work in such a round theatre space, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were three caption units positioned at eye level, with one of them placed directly opposite us. Also, our seats were perfectly positioned on the lower tier, close to the stage.

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The theatre was packed. I didn’t see a single spare seat that night, reflecting the popularity of this production, which had received rave reviews. There were people of all age groups in the audience, from pensioners sitting close by to lots of young people standing in the top tier. I noticed disabled people in wheelchairs sitting close by us and many elderly people with hearing aids. I was pleased at how accessible it all seemed.

The play was set in America in 1947 and this production featured an all-black cast. All the action took place in the Keller family’s backyard. Since we were so close to the stage, I felt that we could almost touch the set. I really like these smaller, more intimate theatres where you are so close, you almost feel part of the action. It reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios in London, which is really cosy and informal.

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The play is focused on the Keller family and is based on a true story. The father and main character, Joe Keller, played by the actor Don Warrington from ‘Rising Damp’ fame, has a dark secret, which he and his wife Kate (played by the actress Doña Croll) have been hiding for several years. Joe is a ruthless businessman, who during the Second World War provided faulty machine parts to the military, which resulted in the death of twenty-one pilots. In order to cover this up and save his business, Joe allowed his weak business partner to take the wrap for him, who is still in jail for the crime while Joe is thriving with a successful business and family.

Meanwhile, Joe and Kate’s son, Larry, a pilot, has been missing in action for three and a half years. Joe’s wife Kate refuses to believe that he is dead and is still waiting for him to return home. She thinks that if she recognises that he is dead, that would be like admitting that her husband is guilty of killing him, along with all the other pilots. The story becomes more complex as their other son Chris, has fallen in love with Larry’s girlfriend, Anna, who has agreed to marry him. Kate is horrified at this and tries to force Anna to leave their home without Chris.

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The main themes of the play are all about the selfishness of putting money and business above humanity, and the guilt that that brings. It’s also about the grief of loved ones and regret for things people have done in the past.  Arthur Miller wanted this play to appeal to the common man, and these central themes are universal and just as relevant today as they were in the post-war period.

The play was full of dramatic tension throughout and the dialogue was gripping. The First Act seemed quite slow-paced to me at first, but it was a slow-burner, building up to the highly dramatic and unexpected finale at the end of the Second Act.

I thought that all the actors played their characters superbly, but Don Warrington particularly stood out for me. He gave a really powerful, dramatic performance as the patriarch of the family, who believed that the terrible actions he had done in the past were justified for the sake of his sons and family. But in the end his actions came back to haunt him and ended up destroying him.

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Afterwards, I chatted about the play with Brian and he told me he thought it was wonderful and very well acted. He also said that without the captions, he would have found it very difficult to follow the dialogue, particularly as it’s a round theatre. He told me he was surprised that captioning is not more widely available, as he thought it would be helpful to everyone. He seemed really enthusiastic about it and told me he’d love to see more captioned theatre.

My mum, who doesn’t have a hearing loss, agreed with Brian. She told me that she too found the captions useful, particularly when the actors had their backs to us, as they did throughout a lot of the First Act, and she couldn’t always catch what they were saying. I too sometimes found it difficult to understand their strong American accents, which weren’t always flowing and convincing, so it was easier for all of us to read the captions while watching the actors.

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My family and I really enjoyed this performance and we all really benefitted from the captions, whether anyone had a hearing loss or not. It just made the whole experience much more accessible to all of us. Brian seemed to have re-kindled his love of theatre through seeing his first captioned performance. He’s now looking forward to seeing many more in the future.

 

 

Propaganda: Power & Persuasion – innovative remote speech-to-text tour

This week I attended a landmark event with my wife Joanna. We went to a guided tour of the British Library’s ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ exhibition, which was made accessible by STAGETEXT via live speech-to-text (STT) technology transmitted over the internet. This was the first time that I’d attended an event like this using hand-held devices and the first time that this access has been made available at the British Library.  I was really intrigued to see if it would actually work. I’ve attended quite a few conferences recently with remote speech-to-text captioning shown on large screens and I’ve found that a lot of the time it doesn’t work well because often the wi-fi connection is lost or there is a computer problem, causing the speaker to have to pause for long periods of time before the connection is re-established and the problem fixed. This causes a lot of frustration for everyone.

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I needn’t have worried. We were all given our own hand-held tablets while the tour guide, Jude England, who is lead curator of the exhibition and Head of Social Sciences, spoke into a mobile phone, which was then transmitted simultaneously via remote speech-to-text onto our tablet screens. It all worked perfectly. This is in large part due to the careful preparation done beforehand by Roger the technical advisor at STAGETEXT, who on discovering that there was no wi-fi available in the basement of the British Library where the exhibition was being held, had spent the previous two days there setting up a temporary wi-fi connection and making sure that it would work well on the day.

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Deepa from STAGETEXT and Ria from the British Library, have also worked hard at facilitating access for this deaf and hard of hearing group tour, something which they both feel very passionate about. I found it easy to look at the speech-to-text on my tablet while looking at the exhibits and listening to Jude as the hearing loop system worked really well too. It was possible to change the font sizes and colours of the text on the tablet, which also makes it easier for visually impaired people to read it. I’ve been on quite a few different tours now with lip-speakers and BSL interpreters, but this makes it so much easier for me, as I find trying to understand the lip-speakers really difficult and tiring. It was great that I didn’t have to rely on Joanna to explain to me what the guide had said afterwards and this was really refreshing.

The tour itself was really fascinating and insightful. Jude explained how the exhibition had been put together and what it was all about in such a way that when I walked round it myself after the tour, what she said seemed to make perfect sense as I really understood what the exhibition was all about. She started off by talking about the various definitions of propaganda and how this has long been debated. On the wall, there was a quote by David Welch, a British historian born in 1950, which I thought summed it up well: “Propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way”. Jude explained that propaganda has been around for centuries and has been used by governments and rulers from Roman times, to Napoleon and right through to the modern day.

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The term was invented by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and originated from the idea of ‘propagating’ messages, but it now has a negative connotation, and has been replaced by the softer term ‘public relations’.

Propaganda also cuts through boundaries and has been used extensively by many regimes and governments across the world. I was surprised by this, as to me, the term ‘propaganda’ conjures up images of Fascist or Communist rulers and dictators showing images of hard-working proletarian peasants or soldiers fighting for the cause in places like Russia, China or Nazi Germany, but this exhibition also showed posters from democracies such as Britain and the US, for instance the First and Second World War posters urging men to join up and posters from the British Empire of the 1920s showing a very wholesome young British family sailing on a British ship with India ahead of them and a similar one showing them on a ship looking at a battleship opposite in front of the Rock of Gibraltar.

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Jude told us that this British Library exhibition focuses on the propaganda just used in the last century, showcasing items from the incredible 150 million items stored in the British Library. The last century has really been the age of propaganda, as mass communication via radio, TV, newspapers and the internet have made it an extremely effective and powerful means of communication to the masses.

The exhibition was divided into 6 main sections: Origins, Nation, Enemy, War, Health and Today. We were taken round each section and Jude explained what they were all about. The biggest section was the one on war, which was about how states make extensive use of propaganda to maintain morale during wartimes, to turn people against the enemy and to gain support from neutral nations. There were some great posters from the First and Second World Wars encouraging men to enlist to fight the War such as the famous American ‘I Want You’ poster and the British enlistment posters.

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Also, there were some Nazi Germany posters. There was a really poignant one, encouraging “All Germany to listen to the Fuhrer with the People’s Radio”. The Nazis produced very cheap wireless sets to encourage the nation to listen to German radio, considered “the voice of the nation”, but the catch was that the radios were designed with limited range, which prevented ordinary Germans from receiving foreign broadcasts.

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Another major highlight of the exhibition for me was the section on Health. Initially, I was surprised that health was considered to be propaganda and included in this exhibition. Jude explained that it was considered the most controversial section of the exhibition when they were planning it and a topic of much debate. However, as she talked about what this section was about, it did make sense to me that it was included and I found it really interesting.

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Health, in a propaganda sense, relates to any public health message to the nation via a state, which relates to some aspect of a person’s health, for instance it could be to persuade people to cut down on drinking or smoking, to grow their own vegetables, as in times of rationing in war, to observe better road safety, as in the British children’s ‘Tufty Club’ or the ‘Green Cross Code Man’. They also showed posters from the famous 1980s AIDS campaign, which significantly reduced the rates of transmission of AIDs.

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The final section was about propaganda today. The main message of this section was to show how the internet and social media is being used to transmit powerful messages instantly and globally without respecting any barriers or limitations. Jude asked the question of whether social media is a force for good or not. Sometimes it is, such as when it was used during the recent Arab Springs and sometimes it isn’t, such as during the recent London riots. Whether it is or not, it is an incredibly powerful force, transmitting messages with a speed and magnitude that has never been possible before in human history. As an example, the exhibition showed Barack Obama’s famous Tweet “Four more years” after he won his most recent US re-election, which has been the most re-tweeted Tweet ever (well over half a million times).

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For me, having lost my hearing fairly recently, this tour was the most accessible that I’ve been on so far. I liked the fact that I could glance at the exhibition while reading the hand-held device. I realise that good preparation and hard work are key to making tours like this seamless, and for that I commend Roger from STAGETEXT. I hope that there will be many more remote speech-to-text guided tours of major exhibitions around the country as it has great potential to increase accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people.