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Graeae’s Jenny Sealey: Arts Council must probe ‘shocking’ disability employment in arts

Jenny Sealey. Photo: Micha Theiner Jenny Sealey, artistic director and CEO of Graeae Theatre Company. Photo: Micha Theiner
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Graeae artistic director Jenny Sealey has claimed Arts Council England must do more to investigate why the number of disabled arts workers is so “shockingly low”, following the publication of a new report on diversity.

Her calls for more detail about the research around equality monitoring have been backed by other arts leaders including Equity, which said it was frustrated with ACE’s failure to show the diversity among stage performers in its publication.

The ACE report, based on equality monitoring data it gathered for the second year running, found that black, Asian and minority ethnic representation among national portfolio organisations had increased to 17%; however, people with a disability made up only 4%.

The report’s findings into disability claimed the percentage of disabled workers at NPOs – 4% – was significantly lower than that of the average working population, at 19%.

Sealey, artistic director of disability-led theatre company Graeae, said that while she was pleased to see disability being highlighted, the report did not go into enough depth about why the figures are so low.

She also recognised challenges referred to in the report around the number of people not submitting information, and what the reasons for that could be.

“Four percent of the NPO workforce identifying as disabled is shockingly low compared with the 19% of the population. While we’d agree that definitions and willingness to self-identify are factors, the report doesn’t go nearly far enough in looking at the reasons this figure is so far behind. Although it is shockingly low, we are sadly not surprised,” Sealey told The Stage.

She also claimed the report does not go far enough in portraying the context around the challenges faced by disabled people in the workplace, in particular the cuts to schemes such as Access to Work.

Michele Taylor, director for change at disability arts consortium Ramps on the Moon, agreed with Sealey that the results were not surprising, and expressed concern about the knock-on effects of the low number of disabled staff in theatres.

“As a disabled person, if I am going to the theatre and I am never ever seeing disabled people in the foyer greeting me, let alone on the stage, why should I even begin to consider that that might be a career option for me? It just becomes really very entrenched. It’s the whole ecosystem that needs to be looked at,” she said.

Taylor went on to say that when asking employees for personal information such as whether they have a disability, more care must be taken to ensure that the reasoning behind these questions is explained.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis given to the fact that there will be d/Deaf and disabled people in those organisations who are choosing not to identify for all sorts of reasons.

“If you’re going to ask those questions, and it’s important that you do, be careful about how you ask them, be careful how you word it, but also make sure that you tell people why you’re asking for that information. There are huge amounts of suspicion around why these questions are being asked,” she said.

“Ultimately, if someone chooses not to identify, you can’t force them to, but equally people are not making informed choices,” she added.

The report published data in categories, including ‘manager’, ‘artistic’, ‘specialist’ and ‘other’, as well as information on diversity among artistic directors, chief executives and chairs.

Responding to the report’s publication, entertainment union Equity said it was “frustrated by ACE’s failure to clearly show the diversity of stage performers” and claimed it covered too broad a range of positions without categorising them.

“The industry-wide focus on diversity in recent years has been hamstrung by a lack of clear evidence, and the detail in this report is disappointing. ACE has introduced new categories such as ‘artistic’ and ‘specialist’ when collecting data, but these cover such a broad range of workers that the usefulness of the information received in this way needs to be questioned,” Equity said.

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