Diversity Spotlight: Kate Fox on accessibility in the arts, culture and beyond

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The next in our Diversity Spotlight series sees us chat with Kate Fox, Access Manager at Manchester International Festival (MIF). We learn more about how Kate’s own lived experience as a disabled person has shaped their work, get an insight into their role at MIF, and tap into why they believe it’s so important for initiatives like MIF to exist right now. 

We also find out more about the Factory – a brand-new venue for performing arts, visual arts and popular culture led by Manchester City Council in partnership with MIF – and what it means for the UK Creative Industries.

Can you tell us more about how you got into your role at MIF?

Kate: Not for the first time in my life, it was a bit of a radical change of direction! I had been at BBC Children’s in Salford since 2010 – in various roles but mainly as a social media content producer focused on parents and carers. In 2017, I got the opportunity to join a BBC development programme for disabled staff with the brilliant Result CIC – and we received one-to-one coaching which encouraged me to focus on what really mattered to me in my career, and to think about my next move.

The whole programme made me view my lived experience as a disabled person differently and see it as something that might be valuable professionally – and it also got me fired up about making change around access and disability representation. It wasn’t long after that I saw the original MIF access role pop up. My coach from the BBC course (now a friend) encouraged me to apply, so she has a lot to answer for!

What does a typical week in the life of a MIF Access Manager look like?

Kate: Ha! I wish there was a typical week! Over the past four years, my work has looked really different depending on whether we’re gearing up for the next MIF or recovering from the last one. In the run-up to a Festival I’ll usually be working closely with our producing and technical teams to plan for access performances such as audio-described or BSL-interpreted shows, and with our front-of-house and volunteering teams to make sure that visitors to the Festival have an accessible and faff-free experience.

When we’re not in peak Festival mode, I might be doing something more strategic like working with our HR team to make our recruitment process more accessible, or working with our amazing Factory Disabled People’s Engagement Group – bringing our collective lived experience and expertise to the planning for our new venue to make sure that access is the top priority.

Can you tell us more about the Factory and what it means for the UK Creative Industries?

Kate: Yes, it’s very exciting (if a little bit terrifying!). The Factory is a world-class cultural space being developed in the centre of Manchester that will commission and present some of the world’s most exciting artists, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year from across the city, the UK and internationally.

The building’s large, open and ultra-flexible spaces will enable large-scale artistic work that isn’t really made anywhere else, which will be premiered in Manchester before travelling the world. The Factory is also an invitation to younger and up-and-coming artists, particularly those most underrepresented, to aspire to scale and try things out.

The development is being led by Manchester City Council in partnership with us at MIF, and we will operate and create the year-round programme for the building (as well as continue to deliver the Festival every other year, of course). From my perspective, it’s also a great opportunity for MIF to build on everything we’ve been working on in terms of access over recent years, and embed this into the new building from the start.

How have you witnessed accessibility and representation in culture and the arts evolve over the course of your career?

Kate: Not so much my career as my whole life, really. When I grew up it was very rare to see disabled people in arts and culture – it was huge news to me and my sister when there was a character with Cerebral Palsy like us in the cast of Grange Hill in the 1990s (hat tip to Francesca Martinez who played Rachel). I’ll sound ancient saying this, perhaps, but at that time we usually had to sit in the guard’s van if we went on a train because my sister is a wheelchair user and that was the only place they’d put you.

Authentic representation and opportunity for disabled people in the arts is still the exception rather than the norm, I think, although things are getting better – Jack Thorne’s incredible MacTaggart Lecture last year kind of summed it up really.

In terms of access to performance, I think it’s becoming much more part of people’s planning, but it’s still often one signed or described show across a run, for example. It’s very much disabled-led productions and companies that are pushing forward with more integrated and creative approaches, and I think that’s something that the whole sector should be exploring and budgeting for more consistently – MIF included, which is something we’re working on at the moment as we plan for the Factory.

What do you believe needs to be done next to improve accessibility and representation for creatives?

Kate: I think as we begin to build back from the pandemic, it’s vital that we examine some of the less obvious barriers that Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent creatives face – like the unrelenting pace that’s often seen as a bit of a badge of honour in the sector, or the expectation that people all process information in the same way and at the same speed. We need to stay focused on the Seven Inclusive Principles for recovery and be actively anti-ableist as a sector. We need to understand that the playing field was never level to begin with (not just for disabled folks) and build a more equitable creative future together.

Why do you think its so important for organisations like MIF to exist right now?

Kate: It feels like creativity and the arts have been under attack from all sides for so long, even before the pandemic, that I think it’s especially important that well-resourced organisations like MIF use that platform to support and uplift creatives locally, nationally and internationally as much as possible.

From my perspective, that’s directly related to providing opportunity and amplification for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent creatives and creating accessible work for our audiences too. It’s still relatively unusual for arts organisations to be able to have a dedicated role like mine that focuses exclusively on access and disability, so I also feel a personal responsibility to make the most of this incredible opportunity and I am excited to see where it leads us over the coming years as we move into our new home at the Factory.