Sheffield Theatres in row over role of unpaid audio commentators

Sheffield Theatres has been caught up in a row over the rights of blind and visually impaired audience members after it emerged it did not pay audio describers.

By Sam Cooper
Friday, 12 April, 2019, 07:34

Jane Ensell quit her post as an audio describer after eight years saying that to rely on volunteers sent a ‘terrible message’ to the audience.

She said it was the only unpaid role in the organisation and that she first raised the issue with management four years ago.

The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Sheffield Theatres which runs the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio theatres said the position was under review.

Miss Ensell, of Walkley, said: “I was a volunteer for eight years and when I started there I understood, rather naively, that audio describers were volunteers and I soon discovered that was not the case.

“Audio describers are literally the only unpaid members of staff at Sheffield Theatres. Everyone else, the marketing team, the actors, the cleaners and the sign language interpreters and the captioners are paid.

Jane Ensall

“It’s not fair to expect blind and visually impaired people to rely on volunteers for their needs.”

The role of an audio describer includes describing the ‘visual elements of a production’, including scenery, costumes, visual jokes or dances to the audience.

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Miss Ensell said she started volunteering after attending audio described performances in London.

She said: “I am very sad to be leaving because I am very passionate about what I do but it was evident that nothing was going to be done about it.”

The former volunteer said she’d had an ‘overwhelming’ response from actors, theatre goers and producers since first posting her anger on Twitter.

Miss Ensell added: “There are seven describers left now but some of my colleagues have been doing it for 25 years and it was a much more normal situation for it to be a charity or voluntary role but obviously times have changed.

“I think it sends a terrible message to the blind and visually imparied members that they are paying for a professional production and they are expected to rely on charity to secure your rights to access that.”

In a statement, Sheffield Theatres said: “Earlier this year we began a review of the way in which our audio description services are delivered within the whole context of the range of access facilities that we offer including captioned, relaxed, dementia friendly, British Sign Language interpreted and audio described performances.

“Our team of trained and committed volunteers have delivered audio description for a number of years. We greatly value and recognise this contribution and as part of our ongoing review are in direct discussion with our volunteers to ensure the right and fair outcome.”