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Theatre companies rally behind deaf actors facing funding trouble

Matthew Gurney in Theatre Ad Infinitum's production Light
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Deaf-led theatre companies have criticised a “broken” government scheme which they claim is withholding support from deaf actors.

The Access to Work initiative provides funding for deaf and disabled people to hire support workers – such as sign language interpreters – required in order to find and sustain work.

In recent months it has been claimed to have become more difficult for people to access the support, and that new, unclear guidelines have restricted the funding they can receive.

Deaf and disabled campaigners protested against the changes at the end of October outside the Houses of Parliament, where an inquiry is taking place into the effectiveness of ATW.

Mark Sands, the executive director of Deafinitely Theatre – which hires a number of permanent and freelance deaf staff – told The Stage that he had an “excellent, supportive relationship” with ATW until earlier this year.

He said: “Since March I have spent hours chasing up phone calls, resubmitting lost paperwork, making spoken and written appeals. It’s been frustrating enough for me as a hearing person, so I can’t imagine how a deaf person without full-time interpreter support would have managed.”

Theatre Ad Infinitum company member Matthew Gurney had his ATW funding for an interpreter cut off this year, although his personal circumstances hadn’t changed. He now owes interpreters thousands of pounds.

“[An interpreter] gives me the freedom to be like a hearing actor: to go to auditions, to accept offers of work at short notice, to go to castings, meetings, and so on,” he explained.

“By cutting off my communication support ATW have disabled me, made me unequal and denied me access to communication support…in the harshest, most cold hearted manner.”

Speaking at the protest outside the Houses of Parliament, Graeae Theatre Company’s artistic director Jenny Sealey described the “bureaucracy” stopping people accessing the funding as “profound”.

“If the theatre world don’t support the whole ATW issue, theatre will then go back to being what it is now, really: male, pale and stale. We have a massive battle on our hands.”

The Department for Work and Pensions declined to comment.

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