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“Accessibility was overlooked”: Disability at DocFest 2022

While DocFest showed some incredible films this year, when even disability-focused events are inaccessible, something has gone wrong.

A pink sign on grass that says Step free route
Yomex Owo

Sheffield DocFest took place last month and the 2022 offering welcomed visitors and films from around the world. Showing a range of documentaries under different themes, venues across the city took part in one of the biggest and most well-respected documentary festivals in the world.

I was looking out for films by and about disabled people in particular, and there were several to choose from; I reviewed Man on Earth for Now Then. One event that stood out for me was an interview with Paralympian Ellie Simmonds about her upcoming documentary about disability and adoption. Ellie is a very impressive woman and the documentary sounds like it will cover some vital issues in understanding why a disproportionately high number of children in care are disabled.

But despite this being an event focused on a disabled woman, which would undoubtedly attract more disabled attendees than most, I ultimately couldn’t attend because it was made inaccessible to me.

It was initially to be held in a room in Sheffield Hallam University that, according to its photos, was essentially a staircase with seats on it. Not the kind of venue a disabled person relishes.

DocFest’s webpage about disabled access linked to pages on individual venues with accessibility information, but this varied wildly from the comprehensive and useful (such as the page about the Showroom) to the so-sparse-it’s-meaningless (such as Light Sheffield’s page).The theatre where the Ellie Simmonds event was to be held was not even listed on this page so I emailed both Hallam Uni and DocFest’s dedicated accessibility email address to ask about disabled access as the room looked, frankly, terrifying to somebody unsteady on her feet.

Hallam didn’t reply and, while DocFest did, it was somewhat bewildering to have them tell me that they had added a pin to Google Maps to show where the building was.

I replied asking for specific information about what I needed to know to see if I could attend the event: how far is the room from the entrance? Is the nearest Blue Badge parking really 350 metres away (given that if you have a Blue Badge, you by definition can’t walk more than 50 metres)? Is there step-free access to the room?

Ellie Simmonds
Sheffield DocFest

I heard nothing back. Then, at the last minute, I got an email saying the venue had changed. This meant I had to start again with the tedious process of working out accessibility, this time for a room in the Town Hall. You open Street View, Google Maps, the Council website, access review sites… I couldn’t find any accessibility information about the room in question but I knew the Town Hall had lifts at least, so was hopeful I would be able to attend. I checked the DocFest website, which told me where there was Blue Badge parking.

So far, so good. But the information was out of date. The area where DocFest had said I could park wasn’t even accessible by car; the road is closed to traffic. I couldn’t attend the event.

The event with the disabled speaker was inaccessible to me as a disabled person. It was shatteringly disappointing.

If this all sounds tiresome, that’s because it is. The sheer admin of being disabled is endless, and I’m so over being let down by organisations that should do better. So when I was offered the opportunity to talk about disabled access with Maria Stoneman, Head of HR & Participation at Sheffield DocFest, I took it.

We met at a(n accessible) café and it felt productive. I explained that saying somewhere “has disabled toilets” is not adequate accessibility information, that last-minute venue changes have a disproportionate impact on disabled people being able to attend, and that while having a dedicated email address for accessibility queries is great, when those queries are not answered, it renders it pointless. I also suggested including more films that did not present disability as a tragedy.

I pointed out inconsistent access information on the website, I said that there were not enough captioned, subtitled, relaxed, or audio-described performances, and that there also seemed to be an assumption that press and reviewers would be non-disabled. And that even by the time the festival finished, the accessibility webpage was still promising updates, suggesting the information was incomplete.

Barriers are what disable us, not our bodies, and all of the barriers I faced were avoidable.

In statements from Maria since our meeting, she tells Now Then that DocFest’s “biggest strength is the number of film screenings that we have which are available that are subtitled (118), closed captioned (9) and/or audio described (8), both in the cinemas and on our online platform.

“We’d acknowledge that the volume of subtitled films is partly due to the number of films that are not in the English language, but we also actively work with the film distributors to encourage them to give us English language films with captions or audio description too.”

She also talks about the relaxed and socially distanced screenings and only working with venues that are accessible to wheelchair users and have allocated spaces.

In terms of where she feels DocFest did less well on accessibility, Stoneman said,

“We neglected this year to undertake an in-person check that all of our disabled parking information was up-to-date. That will definitely be taken into our learnings for 2023, as well as the fact that we didn’t adequately consider the impact of a late venue change for ticket-holders with access considerations.

“We would also acknowledge that while we did a lot of work on website navigation this year to better reflect our programme structure, we also didn’t adequately check the journey regarding access information. We definitely need to do further work on our website for 2023 to provide a best practice experience for users with access considerations.”

For next year’s festival, Stoneman says that DocFest’s priorities include “deeper engagement with local communities and improving access”, including ensuring “that our planning properly responds, and our access offer is more tailored, including how we best develop access for audiences who use British Sign Language and the provision of live interpretation/captioning for in-person Q&As with filmmakers and artists.”

As well as referencing the Ellie Simmonds event and I Didn’t See You There, Maria also mentions Eat Your Catfish, Julie on Line, Electric Malady and more, as films shown this year that also had themes around disability.

But I want DocFest to go further. I want disabled people to be able to have the same experience of Sheffield DocFest as non-disabled people. I want people who need audio descriptions to be able to see more than three films, and people who need a relaxed screening to be able to see more than four. I want people whose first language is BSL to be able to access whichever discussions they want to. I want people who need to watch the films online to have access to captions, especially when those captions are already available to cinema goers. I want foreign-language films to have English soundtracks available through a headset. I want decent information about accessibility on the website, and for every venue to be included in that. I want disabled people to be recruited to help prevent the same pitfalls next year.

Given that Sheffield DocFest programmers choose which films they will show, I have suggested that they make captions / subtitles, BSL signing and audio description an essential criteria in the films they consider. This is a festival with considerable influence in the industry, and insisting on the very basics of accessibility in the films it chooses to show would transform next year’s event.

Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There was a stand-out from the festival for me. Understated and contemplative at times, uncomfortable at others, we see the filmmaker navigate life as a wheelchair user in Oakland. Writers are always told: “Show, don’t tell”, and that is precisely what disabled filmmaker Reid Davenport does in this UK premiere of the film. (You can see my other faves here.)

Davenport faces obstacles and annoyances, often the mundane things that won’t surprise any physically disabled person, such as people blocking dropped kerbs, while he offers deeper reflections on life and disability. A man congratulates him for living his life. He is offered help for no reason at all. There is humour and fury in a film that is sometimes soothing, sometimes grating.

The film creates ties between his life and the circus tent being erected near his home, discussing the legacy of the Freak Show: “about being looked at and not seen.”

It is well worth a watch, not least because most people are not at all familiar with navigating the world a few feet lower down. More than that, though, it’s another example of how hard disabled people have to work just to do the seeing.

Accessibility was overlooked at this year’s DocFest and I hope that promises to improve come to fruition in the 2023 events. Free tickets for PAs, wheelchair-accessible venues and large-print programmes are great but they are the absolute baseline from where we should all seek to soar.

Learn more

If local organisations or individuals are interested in participating in Sheffield DocFest’s consultations, or want to know how to get involved, please email [email protected].

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