Following TB’s most recent recruitment of Artist Support Associates, independent performance artist and artistic director of Many Minds, Viki Browne, came to talk to us about how to make our recruitment process as open and accessible as possible.
Written by Viki Browne & Sarah Kingswell
A few weeks ago I met with Sarah at Theatre Bristol to think about neurodiversity and application procedures. Theatre Bristol advertises for Artistic Support Associates annually and on their most recent advertisement for this role wrote that they welcomed applications from applicants whose backgrounds and experience are underrepresented within the creative industries, including people who identify with being neurodiverse. I applied for this role and identify as neurodiverse and shared with Theatre Bristol (TB) that I had found the process challenging. It was great to be invited by Sarah to meet and speak more about how to make the application process more accessible.
Firstly, what does it mean to be neurodiverse? Neurodiversity is a concept where differences are that recognised and respected as any other human variation. These differences might be known as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, Mental Health conditions and others.
I am no voice of neurodiversity, I can only speak from personal experience. My experience is that I have a mental health condition that has lasted longer than 5 years which presents barriers in the way I engage and interact with the world around me. In my work life I am an independent performance artist and an artistic director of the charity Many Minds. We facilitate creative spaces and make performance with people who are managing their mental health, and who might identify as neurodiverse. I also work as a consultant and have worked with arts organisations to provide training and consultancy around mental health, participation and access.
The social model of disability recognises and accepts that it is society’s responsibility to cater for individuals needs. If you haven’t encountered this model then a simple allegory can explain it:
There is a person who is unable to go up a flight of stairs.
The medical model of disability would teach the person a way to get up the stairs.
The social model of disability would build a stair lift, or relocate the office.
Sarah and I spoke about how Theatre Bristol desire to use the above model to recognise and embed strategies of inclusion in working models to protect and support all applicants, staff, freelancers and visitors.
In terms of neurodiversity and access, particularly in application procedures for the Artistic Support Associate job there were a few areas I identified that could be improved, and suggested strategies for these. I have written about these in more detail below:
- TB could offer to speak to applicants about their access needs over the phone, via email, in person, over Skype etc. In this meeting TB could suggest ways that thy can support this process (as detailed below).
- Having a way to apply that is not an application form. The rigid structure of the application form, boxes and word counts can be challenging.
I suggested other ways for people to able to apply e.g. via video, but we spoke about the difficulty of processing multiple applications in different formats e.g. video/interview and how this might not be in keeping with Equal Opportunities.
I suggested that if TB need all applicants to apply via the form, that they might have to provide support with filling it in. This is something that Arts Council England endorse and they supply access grants to help people gain assistance to apply for their Project Grants.
I suggested that the applicant could speak to a member of Theatre Bristol staff in whatever format most suited them and that the impartial TB administrator would ask them questions from the application form and write their answers into it.
- I suggested that it could be communicated that the word counts on the form were suggested or approximate.
- I suggested that more flexibility was required in relation to the deadline of the application.
Theatre Bristol are already doing loads of things really well. They have clear guidelines that allow applicants to understand what the questions on the application form are asking. They are working on a visual story of their office space to make it more accessible and they have a policy of flexible working hours. All of these things would positively impact the well-being of the applicant/employee. Being invited to go to Theatre Bristol and having an open, honest conversation about how to improve their current processes and improve accessibility for people who identify as neurodiverse was really exciting. It made me, as an individual, feel valued and hopefully paves the way for an easier process for neurodiverse applicants in the future.
Even when we think we are being really open and accessible are we really?
When we wrote the application pack for our Artist Support Associate role we spent time carefully making it as clear and helpful as possible to attract as many applicants as possible. But how accessible was the process really? As Viki says, we stated in the pack that we were looking to encourage applications from people whose backgrounds and experience are underrepresented within the creative industries, including neurodiverse candidates.
Afterwards, Viki got in touch with me to say she felt that there were a number of things about the process which didn’t feel particularly accessible to her, so I invited her to come and talk to me about how we can improve for next time, and in a way that is manageable within a very small part time team.
The main thing that struck me from our conversation was that the offer of a different way of doing things may be enough. The idea that an organisation wants to and WILL offer support flexibility may mean the offer is not needed – knowing that the organisation is open and that the support is available if needed is enough.
And what if the offer is taken up? Well, even a small organisation like TB can provide a member of staff, not involved in the shortlisting and interview process, to support an applicant to complete the form – and remember it’s likely only to be asked for once, if at all.
I hadn’t thought about how a simple word count might be overwhelming for an applicant to such an extent that they don’t apply for the job, or almost worse they spend time completing the application only not to submit it because they are a couple of words over the 1000 stipulated on the form.
Planning is key to a good recruitment process, and putting in an extra bit of time to respond, and articulating that we want to have a conversation about how a candidate could apply for the role shouldn’t be too difficult and might pay dividends.
At TB we will definitely put into place Viki’s recommendations and we welcome any more feedback on how to improve the process for everyone.
We’re also hoping to work with Viki over the next year on a Well-Being at Work policy and individual staff action plans. Our people are our biggest assets and we need to look after them.
– Sarah Kingswell