Sheffield Theatres has come under fire for treating blind and visually impaired audiences as “charity cases”, after it emerged that audio describers at the venue are not paid.
The issue came to light after Jane Ensell, an audio describer who has carried out the role at Sheffield Theatres for the past eight years, revealed on Twitter she was leaving the venue because it does not pay its audio describers.
— Jane (@RedFoxglove) April 3, 2019
She told The Stage that other description services at the theatre, such as those for D/deaf audiences, are paid, but said: “If you are paying for a service for your deaf audiences but not your blind audiences, you are telling them – in no uncertain terms – they are literally worth less money to you. That is a damaging message to send.”
Ensell added: “Some of the clients we have are very uncomfortable with the idea they are a charity case.”
Ensell said she began work at the venue eight years ago as a volunteer, but “naively thought that was normal in British theatres”, before “rapidly discovering that it isn’t”.
She said other venues of comparative sizes pay their audio describers.
In an email sent to management, she wrote: ”It is one thing to work for free, for a tiny, shoestring, starter company. It is quite another for a multimillion-pound Arts Council NPO [national portfolio organisation].”
She also highlighted how the theatre is part of diversity project Ramps on the Moon, and told The Stage this is when she “started becoming really uncomfortable with the role not being paid”.
In her email she called it “profoundly hypocritical” and added: “It does our visually impaired audiences a disservice, that they are the only ones expected to be reliant on unpaid staff, when, like everyone else, they have paid to experience a professional performance. We do not treat our D/deaf audiences this way. It is not parity of esteem.”
Ensell said the role required around 32 hours of preparation per production, including writing introductions for shows, including descriptions of sets and costumes.
At every performance, a describer is on hand should a member of the audience require the service. Audio description involves describers reading out what is happening to audience members wearing headsets.
Responding, Sheffield Theatres said in a statement that a review was underway regarding the resource for audio description within the “whole context of the range of access facilities that we offer including captioned, relaxed, dementia friendly, British Sign Language interpreted and audio-described performances”.
“Our team of committed volunteers have delivered audio description for a number of years. We greatly value and recognise this contribution and as part of our ongoing review are in direct discussion with our volunteers to ensure the right and fair outcome,” it added.