Oct. 11th 2023

Access Riders

by Kat Joyce, Co-AD


As part of our ongoing deep-dive into how we can make our working conditions safer, better, more accessible for everyone, we’ve introduced access riders for everyone who works for us. We are still on the beginnings of a learning journey with this, but we thought it would be useful to share where we are up to so far.


Listen to the recording of this blog here


I’ll admit this has a personal element for me: in 2021 I was very ill and experienced a lot of time in hospital (I was diagnosed with and treated for aggressive lymphoma). Although my cancer is in remission and (fingers crossed) I won’t need any more treatment, my illness/treatment has had ramifications for me, physically and mentally, and in terms of the impact on my family, that mean I’ll always have to make some adjustments in my life and work. It threw me into sudden menopause, which has had a whole other bunch of consequences. I had to face quite a lot of barriers, challenges and adjustments both during my treatment when I was in and out of hospital, and on my return to work. As a longer-term thing, I also have a hearing impairment and need to use hearing aids in some settings.

Consequently I’ve done a fair bit of thinking about what it feels like having to ask others to make adjustments for you. How can I use my privilege (as a salaried leader of an organisation) and the understanding I gained through being disabled by my illness/treatment, to advocate for better, more inclusive processes? How do we make sure that the thinking and conversations that happened during COVID around access are not lost as the industry gets back into gear? How do you best design conversations that open the door for people to be honest about their needs, that don’t make people feel inconvenient or even ashamed because of the adjustments that they ask for? 

I spent quite a lot of time while I was ill and recovering percolating thoughts about access riders and how they can be part of creating better working conditions, and came back to work very motivated to implement some new ideas. 


WHY an access rider? 

Access riders aren’t just for people who identify as having a disability. All of us, in one way or another, mask things about ourselves in order to ‘fit in’ to work environments which are inherently designed to white, male, heteronormative, ableist standards. Many of us carry invisible privilege on different levels and a lot of the time it’s hard to fully understand the barriers that stand in other people’s ways until you’ve experienced them yourself. I was shocked, during my illness, by my own internalised ableism which suddenly became apparent to me. How could I possibly be useful, productive, fun to be around, included - when I had to ask so many adjustments of everybody all the time?


In an industry like theatre, which has historically been very competitive and very cut-throat, we’ve been marinated in a culture where people will hide everything from children to medical conditions in the name of getting and holding a job – a situation that’s only begun to change slowly inside the last decade or two (PIPA  - Parents/carers In The Performing Arts has enabled great strides since it was established in 2015). In lots of ways, we are all very used to minimising our differences in order to not be the source of friction at work. But this takes and uses huge amounts of effort. 


It can cause people a lot of anxiety thinking about how they bring up their needs and ask for any adjustments to be made. We apologise in advance, and worry we won’t be employed again We are scared of being seen as unreasonable, demanding, fragile or inconvenient….

Going on the front foot as the employer, and asking people the question ‘what adjustments do you need in order to do your best work?’  - and making it clear that you as an organisation are open to hearing the answers – sets in motion some really profound changes. 


Coming from the mindset that we all have very different bodies, brains and life circumstances and that we all sometimes need to ask for adaptations in order to do our best work, we’ve approached the design of our access rider to be intentionally very ‘broad spectrum’.


We’ve designed the rider so that it asks everyone joining a project to think about the many areas that they – and their colleagues - might need adjustments. Using a series of prompts and examples, we lay out sections asking people to think about everything from neuro-diversity, sensory and mobility adjustments to caring responsibilities, effects of menstruation/menopause, religious practices, phobias and allergies. Everyone fills in an access rider – which helps us to build a culture where everyone is asked to spend a bit of time considering their own and others’ diverse needs: if that section doesn’t apply to you, it might well apply to one of your colleagues. 


The rider was designed and then trialled with two production teams last summer, who offered up feedback about filling it in and areas that weren’t covered. We’ve taken feedback on board and this year launched the access riders across all our projects. We are continuing to ask for feedback and expect to adjust the process further but currently this is how it’s working:


How it works: 

If you coming on board to work with us, you’ll be sent the access rider (either before or at the contracting stage). You can either fill it in yourself or spend some time considering the prompts. We’ll then arrange a zoom call with our General Manager, Aly, to talk face-to-face about the access rider and anything that it threw up for you. It’s made clear that anything you’d like to bring to our attention will be held confidentially by the project leads (usually Artistic Directors) unless you’d like to share it with the wider team. 


As we get deeper into the logistics of planning the project, Aly and the Artistic Directors will bear all the things that came up in access riders in mind, and try to make sure that as far as possible, we are making the adjustments that people need. We’ll do our best to balance out the needs of the team. 


Having set a culture of voicing our needs and differences allows us to openly address our intersectionality in rehearsal process. It means the door is (hopefully) open for someone to admit that something is challenging or to ask for a different approach, with the expectation of having their needs heard, held and considered. 


We won’t always be able to cover everything - we might be limited by external factors and time frames; peoples’ needs and preferences might not always align – but doing the access riders gives us a wealth of important information to help us plan things well.  For example, if we are booking accommodation, or a rehearsal space, we can look at the available options and know that one will be the better choice in terms of making that particular group of artists more comfortable. If we are designing a rehearsal schedule, we can adjust the start and end of the day, and the times we have breaks, according to how people work best, and other priorities in their lives. We can think about the ways we communicate with individuals and teams, and send info in a range of formats (emails, voicenotes, face to face) according to preferences. Sometimes the answer to making a working process easier for people is imagination and creative thinking, and not just doing things the same way because that’s how we’ve always done them. 


Sometimes the answer to removing barriers is £££. A lot of the adjustments we make are possible because we have the privilege of core funding from ACE. We are no longer having to always make work in the cheapest, fastest way possible, which inevitably means cutting corners and leaving peoples’ needs unmet (which is always, fundamentally, going to end in discriminatory practice that favours those who are able to be the most flexible and robust in un-ideal working conditions).

We also have a line in our annual overarching budgets (outside of individual project budgets) which is the ‘inclusivity budget’ *(thanks to X for that idea). This means that when the answer to removing a barrier to someone’s inclusion in a project or process is ‘spend some money on it/give someone some paid time to solve that’ we can put our hands in our metaphorical pockets and remove an obstacle or two. 


We are still working in a culture and an industry which has lots of structural problems and discriminatory processes, and where many people are excluded from even thinking about trying to make a career in the arts. The challenges we all face as we move towards fairer, more inclusive work practices are really significant. Access riders are a step in the right direction: by starting on this journey we hope to make people feel like they are working in a room and a process where their needs have been properly born in mind. We hope it will help us to continue to raise our organisational awareness of where people in our workforce are facing obstacles. This is even more important on processes like ‘Deep Adaptation’, where we know we’ll be working with people who have experience of big life adjustments like illness, trauma and/or grief. It won’t always be possible to get everything right, but as a company we aim to work with people over long periods of time. The plan is that access riders remain on file and can be updated/refreshed for each new period of work, and that we’ll know ahead of time what range of needs we’ll be considering, and can design, plan and cost our projects accordingly. 


We are more than happy to share our access rider, which in turn has been influenced by other peoples, and by a range of conversations and resources that happened as part of the Freelance Task Force during Covid. You can find the current draft here. If you use it, please credit Tangled Feet. 



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