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Theatre company Hot Coals in accessibility row with Edinburgh Fringe organisers

Hot Coals' Knock Knock
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A theatre company that specialises in creating work for d/Deaf audiences has become embroiled in a row with the Edinburgh Fringe, over the way its show has been listed by the event’s organisers.

Hot Coals describes itself as a company that strives to make work that is accessible to both d/Deaf and hearing audiences. Its latest show Knock Knock creates its own “visual and universal language” for people who come to see it. It is currently running at Assembly Roxy in Edinburgh.

However, the company claims its work is not being signposted for its intended audience, because it does not provide BSL interpretation or closed captioning. Instead, it is listed under a ‘hearing not needed’ category.

Clare-Louise English, a performer with the company, said the fringe was stopping its work “from reaching the very audience it was intended for”.

“We’ve been disappointed to discover that our show, Knock Knock, seems to fall outside the Fringe’s access criteria. These criteria must be flexible – they must not be playing catch-up with what’s happening in the industry, and they must be based on a real understanding of what d/Deaf accessibility is, otherwise they’re in danger of being a barrier – and in our case, stopping our work from reaching the very audience it was intended for,” she said.

She argued that there is “no clarity” in terms of what ‘hearing not needed’ means.

“Does ‘hearing not needed’ mean that the work has been made for and to include d/Deaf people? Or is it suitable by mere coincidence, without a process of embedding access into the work? Because it is embedded into our work, to the extent that our piece does not have any spoken language and is entirely designed for a d/Deaf audience. Describing it as ‘hearing not needed’ is patronising,” she said.

English added that the term sounded like “a consolation prize”. She said that, as a deaf theatremaker, she was saddened there had not been a “more inclusive atmosphere of open conversations with companies making accessible work, that challenges the conventional”.

“We’d like to see the fringe adopting a more modern understanding of deaf-accessible theatre, with an overarching category of accessibility with sub-categories about how the performance is accessible. As a deaf theatregoer, I find it worrying to learn that these conversations are not happening,” she said.

In its work, Hot Coals makes sure every sound cue is matched with a lighting or visual cue on stage, which it said created “a shared experience between d/Deaf and hearing audiences”.

The Fringe Society said the ‘hearing not needed’ category is designed to make “searching for suitable shows easier for D/deaf or hard of hearing audiences”.

A spokeswoman said: “We list shows that tell us they are BSL interpreted/signed or captioned and as the show Knock Knock doesn’t include these it would be misleading to audiences to list it as such. In response to consultation with D/deaf people Hearing not Needed was added this year to help audiences to find all shows that are suitable for D/deaf people.”

She said consultation with d/Deaf audience members and performers had resulted in the new category Hearing Not Needed being introduced.

“We are working hard to engage the D/deaf community, including working with Deaf Action, and regularly consult with theatre company Solar Bear as we look for ways to make the fringe more inclusive for everyone. Hot Coals’ suggestions of how we could make the listings better are very welcome and we are in further consultation with them,” she added.

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