Arts & Culture

Access to Work scheme is ‘glass ceiling’ for deaf actors

Tuesday 26 April
Access to Work scheme is ‘glass ceiling’ for deaf actors

- April 26 at 10:30 AM

Graeae Theatre Company has claimed the government’s disability employment scheme has created a “glass ceiling” that limits the support deaf actors can receive.

The disability-led company’s operations director Kevin Walsh said the self-employed nature of an acting career meant many performers were struggling to prove themselves eligible for government support.

His comments follow those of minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson, who last week praised the Access to Work scheme and said supporting disabled people into work was a “priority for this government”.

Deaf and disabled people can apply to Access to Work in order to fund support workers – such as sign language interpreters – and other equipment required to find and sustain work.

Responding to Tomlinson, Walsh told The Stage that ATW was a “brilliant scheme when it works”. He said it enabled many of the company’s employees and freelancers to do their jobs “without needing to worry that we can afford to have their access needs met”.

But he also said there were “fundamental concerns” with the scheme preventing many actors from getting support – and said several Graeae employees had been told they do not earn enough to qualify.

Self-employed people wanting ATW support have to earn at least £5,824 each year to prove their business is viable. But an Equity survey in 2013 found that nearly half the union’s members earn less than £5,000 a year.

Walsh also claimed this was hitting deaf applicants hardest due to the high support costs of sign language interpreters.

He added, “Essentially, some people’s support costs more than others. In our opinion that doesn’t affect their value as an employee or a human being.

“Limiting their access to skilled support staff sets a glass ceiling for deaf and disabled employees and freelancers, which means they are kept from being the industry leaders of the future.”

Graeae artistic director Jenny Sealey has repeatedly criticised the scheme, and last year suggested she may have to reduce her role to just three days a week after ATW imposed a £40,800 cap on support available.

Paula Garfield, artistic director of Deafinitely Theatre, told The Stage ATW “helps to empower deaf people” and credited the scheme for her continuing career, but added there was “room for improvement”.

She suggested the service needed more regular staffing to form closer relationships with the deaf community, as well as clearer instructions as to how support can be accessed – including more sign language videos for deaf users.

“We are all keen to work with the government more to improve ATW, it’s an old system which does need to continually evolve to match how we live and work in our lives as deaf and disabled people.

“We need to improve the staff and teams at ATW so their knowledge and skills match and work together with the deaf and disabled people that they are there to support and help,” she said.

Photo caption: Arthur Hughes and Genevieve Barr in Graeae's The Solid Life of Sugar Water.
Photo credit: Patrick Baldwin

Article source: David Hutchison, The Stage