The Relaxed Performances Initiative: Making Music Accessible to People with Disabilities
By Andrew Burke
On January 12, a group of Peterborough Singers attended an accessibility awareness workshop at Calvary Church. That workshop, entitled Time in My Shoes (TiMS), was offered by the Council for Persons with Disabilities (CPD). It was quite a revelation.
First and most important, the workshop was led by community members living with disabilities, people with great insight and a lot to teach. Second, the workshop let participants experience, for a few hours, what living with a disability might be like. For a morning, participants learned about accessibility and inclusion while they wore devices that altered their vision or hearing or while they attempted to negotiate the world from wheelchairs. TiMS allowed participants a first-hand encounter with the ways that people with a range of abilities navigate our community on a daily basis.
The event provided more than insight into why recognizing and removing barriers is essential to increasing access and inclusion for all. Choristers were also introduced to the inspiration behind the Peterborough Singers’ new “relaxed performances” initiative, supported by the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough (CFGP).
So what is a “relaxed performance”? To put it simply, it is an inclusive performance, one designed to give those who might otherwise feel excluded the chance to experience live theatre or music or any other type of performance. The idea was sparked by an incident in London, England, in 2011. A twelve-year-old boy with an autistic spectrum disorder was asked to leave a West End theatre. The concept of offering relaxed, more inclusive performances was born from the controversy that followed.
Peg McCracken, the Singers’ business manager, became interested in relaxed performances during a workshop last June. And, luckily, the idea of the Singers’ offering more inclusive performances fit well with the goals of the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough. (CFGP’s local Vital Conversations symposium had already identified the strengthening of community connections as our region’s top priority.)
So through its relaxed performances initiative, the Peterborough Singers hopes to strengthen community ties by reaching out to those living with disabilities so that they can more easily experience arts and culture. Our main aim is to make our performances more comfortable and welcoming to audiences with physical limitations, sensory and communication differences, learning disabilities, anxiety, and autism spectrum identities.
With continued direction from the CPD and other representative local groups, the Singers piloted this project at its Soul II: Roots & Rights concert on Saturday, February 23, 2019, at Calvary Church.
At that concert, the Singers welcomed people from the identified disability communities. The Soul II experience was enhanced by companion seating for those who required it, wheelchair accessibility, descriptions for the visually impaired, a designated break room for people in need of a safe, quiet space, and a variety of seating options.
Another aspect of the relaxed performances initiative is an accessibility upgrade to the PS website and other communications. For example, the venue used for Soul II, Calvary Church, now has online descriptions that explain how to get there, what parking and seating are available, accessibility options, and what to expect at performances.
The Peterborough Singers is thankful for the chance to be breaking new ground with this initiative—and to reach audiences that have been unable to enjoy its music in the past. While the Singers hope that this project will serve as a model for other arts organizations locally, it is mainly intended to establish relaxed performances as a permanent feature of the PS concerts and website. Already, the relaxed performances initiative has enabled the choir to establish solid connections and communications with local persons with disabilities and the groups that represent them. All members of the Singers thank those whose partnership and direction have been indispensable to setting the project in motion, and we look forward to expanding those relationships further!