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With a policy of wanting everyone to feel included in all they have to offer, the team at The Lowry are working hard to remove barriers so that their events and facilities can be accessible to as many people as possible.

*Click on the pdf to read the article as it appears in our March/April issue

The Lowry is a world class arts centre based in Salford, Greater Manchester, at the core of the region's creative and cultural quarter, and named after the artist Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 – 1976) who spent much of his life in Salford and whose work is strongly associated with the city.

It is a registered charity committed to using visual and performing arts to enrich people's lives. The Lowry presents audiences with a diverse programme of theatre, opera, musicals, dance, music, comedy and visual art as well as events and activities to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike.

Emma Underwood, the theatre's Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager, spoke to us about how they have approached accessibility.

"At the heart of our work is a commitment to our local communities and young people," she said. "Tapping into the work on our stages and in our galleries, we offer thousands of free creative participation opportunities each year. We are passionate about nurturing talent, developing creative professionals of the future and raising aspirations.

"We want everyone to feel included in all that The Lowry has to offer. We're working hard to remove barriers so that our facilities and events are accessible for all. We have step-free access to our box office, toilets, performances spaces and galleries from the street.

"There are lifts that enable access to all floors and with accessible toilets on each floor, and we have recently installed a Changing Places Toilet. This is accessed by a RADAR key and features a height adjustable, adult sized changing bench, ceiling track hoist system, space for up to two assistants, toilet with grab rails, privacy screen and a hight adjustable washbasin. Visitors can either use their own RADAR key or can collect one from the Welcome Desk in our foyer. There are wheelchair spaces in all three theatres and our box office staff will always do their best to accommodate any needs when booking."

Their work on accessibility is guided by their Access Steering Group. Chaired by Emma, the steering group is attended by a representative from every department, who co-ordinate with one another to address access issues in and around the building.

"Sometimes these are small scale projects, such as acquiring portable chairs for our Galleries, up to larger scale projects such as the implementation and review of our 3D seating plan," she explained.

The Lowry has three theatre spaces all of which offer wheelchair seating and step free access.

The Lyric is the largest theatre space. Impressive in size, it has the UK's largest stage outside of London. Contemporary in design, the space can seat audiences up to 1,730 in fixed tiered seating.

A mid-scale space, the Quays Theatre is an extremely adaptable space, with seating for audiences up to 440. Hydraulic technology allows a range of seating configurations, from traditional end-stage to theatre in the round.

The Aldridge Studio is a tiered auditorium for audiences of up to 150. As well as providing a traditional blackout space, the Aldridge Studio has large floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Manchester Ship Canal.

Assistive technology has been brought in for visually impaired, hard of hearing or deaf members of the audience.

"Sennheiser MobileConnect is an assistive and personal listening solution that streams live audio content via WiFi to any iOS or Android phone in Quays Theatre and Lyric Theatre," said Emma. "Technical and IT Departments worked together over several months to install the system in the Lyric Theatre and the Quays Theatre.

"This included the overhaul of the building's existing WiFi infrastructure and significant investment in the products."

From the comfort of their own headphones or earbuds or Lowry-provided inductive neck loop, plugged into their own smart device with the MobileConnect App downloaded; visually impaired and hard of hearing audiences can choose to receive either the live audio describer's voice (from a booth located at the back of the theatre) or amplify the voices and sounds to achieve an excellent theatrical experience.

"We share a Digital 4 Standard Caption Unitwhich is a captioning kit consisting of two captioning units and ten tablets with other Greater Manchester theatre venues – a shared resource that would otherwise have cost a huge amount of investment if purchased individually," Emma said. "We can now bring captioned performances for deaf and hard of hearing and those who use English as a second language using open or closed captions. Both our Lyric and Quays Theatre are purpose built for the kit to be set up in under an hour."

The accessibility programme improved the theatre experience for performers and customers.

To enable disabled artists and performers to access stage level from backstage, a Mobilift CX-UK, a manually powered portable wheelchair lift, has been installed in the Aldridge Studio.

In 2023 The Lowry installed a specialist Changing Places toilet; larger than a standard accessible toilet, and open to the public, the facilities have made The Lowry and Salford Quays accessible to even more people.

"It's really great that The Lowry now has a Changing Places Toilet," said Zack Kerr, campaigner for Changing Places. "I've been a campaigner for Changing Places for about eight years. I love coming to the theatre and I've been here many times with my family but trips out anywhere are always difficult when there aren't any accessible toilet facilities which meet my needs. There aren't many theatres which have Changing Places toilets and this will make such a huge difference to so many people! Well done The Lowry and thank you!"

The new Changing Places facility was made possible thanks to a joint application with Salford City Council for grant funding provided by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in association with Muscular Dystrophy UK.

The project involved the adaptation of an existing toilet with works carried out by RISE, a specialist contractor in disabled adaptations. It is accessed by a RADAR key and features height adjustable, adult sized changing bench, ceiling track hoist system, space for up to two assistants, toilet with grab rails, privacy screen, and a height adjustable washbasin.

"We want to make visiting The Lowry as easy and comfortable as we can for all of our visitors and this new facility will enable more people the freedom to take part in and enjoy everything that we have to have to offer," said Tony Smith, Commercial Director at The Lowry."We are delighted that our joint bid with Salford City Council was successful and has resulted in the opening of this new Changing Places toilet."

The Lowry programmes over 100 accessible performances each year and also presents, commissions, and partners artists such as Access All Areas, Extraordinary Bodies, and Frozen Light who push boundaries to embed the aesthetics of access in their work.

Audience reports following Frozen Light's Fire Songs performances have shown how this work impacts audiences. When surveyed, 100% of audiences felt safe in the building, 100% felt they were treated with dignity and respect, and 92% felt more confident in attending indoor theatre performances following the show. Audience feedback highlighted the importance of blending building wide access improvements with the content and style of the show itself.

"Through the Artist Development programmes we support and inspire artists and disabled-led companies to make artistically ambitious work that considers and embeds access at point of creation," explained Emma. "By developing and presenting work made with an integrated ethos, we are proactively working to the Social Model of Disability. Enabling disabled and non-disabled artists to create high-quality, contemporary work and breaking down barriers for audiences to enjoy and access arts and culture in an inclusive way.

"We programme accessible performances in the theatres, and accessible tours in the Galleries through the lens of the Social Model of Disability. Where the Social Model makes a clear distinction between impairment (a condition, illness, or loss/lack of function) and disability (barriers and discrimination), it posits that individuals are in fact disabled by the barriers presented in wider society.

"All our accessible performances such as audio described (with accompanying touch tours pre-show), captioned, BSL interpreted, relaxed, and livestream, operate from the lens of the Social Model working to remove these barriers so everyone – disabled and non-disabled – can come together with their friends and families to enjoy world class theatre and exhibitions at The Lowry."

Livestream is the latest addition to the accessible performances they provide. Performances are livestreamed on the day and time, direct from the theatre to the homes of those whom travel costs and/or chronic/life limiting illnesses are a barrier to coming to the theatre to watch in person.

"In addition to this, during the Christmas period we livestream a family show to a number of local children's hospitals and hospices as part of an initiative to bring theatre to those who would otherwise be unable to access it," Emma added.

Bringing theatre to audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities, they work with pioneers in this specialism, Frozen Light, who create exciting and original multi-sensory theatre that are engaging, interactive and fun.

"We operate to an Involuntary Noise Policy which aims to provide the highest level of service and duty of care to all audiences and visitors by having a definitive approach, in according to The Equality Act 2010, to dealing with involuntary noise," explained Emma, "to avoid a situation where a disabled person is being placed at a "substantial disadvantage" compared with non-disabled people accessing our services and facilities."

Regular training sessions across the teams ensure that staff are fully equipped with the knowledge required to provide superb customer service to any visitor with an access requirement.

"The training is custom created with the Social Model of Disability at its core, so staff know not only how to deliver the service, but why, from an ethical standpoint, we do it in the way that we do," she added.

Emma's favourite part of the theatre is the main foyer.

"Personally, nothing can beat it!" she said. "There's never a dull moment, constantly buzzing with activity, and full of possibilities. It's the nucleus of The Lowry, the starting point of every race – from there someone might be heading to the Quays, the Lyric, Pier Eight, or the Galleries. At its centre are our Front of House team, staff and volunteers equipped to deal with any situation, and always with a smile on their face. We call it a Welcome Desk for a reason. Our first impression to anyone coming into our venue is set here, and I firmly believe we put our best foot forward every time. Not to mention it's the space that houses our Box Office, the lifeblood of our ticket sales. All told, nowhere encapsulates The Lowry's dedication to its audiences like our entrance."

Michael Allenis the Lowry's Accessibility Ambassador."As a long-time visitor to The Lowry for theatre shows, I've had the privilege of experiencing its vibrant performances," he told us. "Being visually impaired, I appreciate the availability of Audio Description services, which elevate the show by allowing me to fully engage with the visual aspects. The Lowry stands out as an exceptionally accessible space, catering to wheelchair users and other mobility needs. Its well-lit environment and intuitive layout make navigation effortless, and the staff's helpfulness adds to the overall experience.

"Recently, I assumed the role of Accessibility Ambassador at The Lowry. Together, we're committed to enhancing accessibility across the theatres, gallery, and other spaces. Our efforts include an improved access email newsletter, and we're exploring innovative ways to improve navigation within the building. Valuable feedback from access users during a recent event has sparked great ideas. What stands out most is The Lowry's genuine dedication to accessibility and inclusion – it's not just a policy, but a heartfelt commitment."

The work done by The Lowry to ensure a welcome to everyone who enjoys live events – whether as a performer or an audience member – is a great example of how putting accessibility and inclusion at the heart of your organisation results in benefits for everyone.

Find out more about this beautiful theatre here.

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