Feelings of societally imposed restriction are old news for audiences with disabilities, which is perhaps partly why they have been so ready to embrace culture differently through COVID.

COVID has been both a health and a social crisis. The relationship between how we live our lives, and how society can enable or prevent that, has never been more stark to most people. But of course, variations of this challenge are all-too-familiar to people who have disabilities and/or long-term health conditions. Of course, their experience of COVID has itself been more difficult — and more dangerous — than that of the rest of the population. The future will continue to be more challenging as well, with justified concern expressed by disability rights activists that ‘reopening’ and ‘the new normal’ will be even more exclusive than before.

Age is not always just a number:

But just as disabled people’s experience of COVID has been different, there has also been considerable difference amongst disabled people. In particular, we have focused on differences between disabled respondents of different ages. The reasons for this are two-fold:

  • it is partly because it is such a dividing line, both among those with disabilities and the general population,
  • and partly due to the limits on what we can explore with a sample of c. 1,880 respondents (indeed, even for these, we have limited samples for the ‘outer’ age groups, so results without substantial differences, greater than c. 10%, should be taken as indicative only).

This approach however, lets us see both differences between those with and without disabilities in particular age bands, but also between those with disability of different ages.

In particular, we focus on:

  1. Profile and experiences
  2. Engagement (both digitally and in person, during COVID so far and beyond)
  3. Concerns and potential mitigations about future attendance.

1. Profile and Experiences

Respondents with disabilities were more likely to be from the Audience Spectrum group Facebook Families, among those under 65. Over that age, Commuterland Culturebuffs were over-represented.

There is also a difference in the types and self-reported severity of disability:

  • Younger respondents more likely to say that their day-to-day activities were ‘limited a lot’ (58% limited a lot, 42% a little).
  • Older respondents more likely to say that they were ‘limited a little’ (23% limited a lot, 77% a little).

Younger respondents were also more likely to report that they [have]:

  • Breathlessness or chest pains
  • Poor vision, partial sight or blindness
  • Difficulty in speaking or in communicating
  • Cannot walk at all / use a wheelchair

With older respondents more likely to report that they [have]:

  • Poor hearing, partial hearing or deafness
  • Cannot walk far or manage stairs or can only do so with difficulty

NB given the sample size, this [only] tells us who is in the samples for each age range, not how types of disability are distributed, but is important context for other responses.


2. Engagement

Those with disabilities have, unsurprisingly, been less likely to engage with leisure activities outside the home during COVID. An average of 9-10 percentage points fewer saying that they have undertaken each of a range of leisure activities (e.g. visiting a park, visiting a pub or bar, walking or cycling etc).

Despite this, a higher proportion of people with disabilities than without have engaged in arts and heritage. The difference by age is striking, however:

  • 80% of disabled 16-24s have done any arts or heritage in-person compared to 78% of non-disabled people of the same age,
  • for the 25-64s it’s 64% compared to 61%,
  • but for the 65+, 38% of disabled people and 46% of non-disabled people had attended.

These differences within age bands aren’t large, given the margin of error, but between age bands there is a considerable drop for older respondents.

Different Types of 'Activities'

The narrow differences between those with and without a disability, compared to the much larger difference for other leisure, do indicate the extent to which cultural engagement is relatively higher for those with disabilities than other leisure activities.

It also varies by type of cultural activity (e.g. those with disabilities who are under 25 are less likely to have been to film in a cinema during COVID than those without, with 22% compared to 54%).

Disabled Audiences Leisure Activity Types.png

Similarly, those with disabilities are more, rather than less, likely to have booked for a future event, at least among under 65s. For example, for ‘live performances including music & theatre’:

  • overall 32% have booked in the next 2 months,
  • with 49% of 16-24s who were disabled compared to 37% of those who were non-disabled,
  • among 25-64s 45% of those who were disabled compared to 29% of those who were non-disabled.
  • The 65+ age group is more likely to have not booked, regardless of disability.

This is despite disabled people being less likely to say that they are ‘happy to attend’ (under 25s: 25% of disabled respondents vs 39% non-disabled; 25-64s: 31% vs 32%; 65+: 13% vs 22%). Perhaps this difference suggests a greater degree of and need for conscious planning required amongst disabled people who are happy to attend than for those without disabilities.

Disabled Audiences Willingness to Attend by Age.png

The Digital Revolution

For each of the art forms listed, however (e.g. film, performing arts, museums and heritage) those with disabilities were also more likely to :

  • Anticipate visiting closer to home in future (an average of 9 percentage points more than non-disabled audiences across the categories).
  • Have engaged with digital content: with the proportion who have engaged with ‘any’ of those listed (recordings or streamed performances, virtual tours, workshops or online collections) 74% compared to 48% for under 25s; 58% compared to 36% of 25-64s and 26% compared to 22% of over 65.
  • Say that they are interested in ‘hybrid’ live and digital content in future (23% vs 8% of 19-24s and 25% vs 9% of 25-64s ‘Strongly Agreed’ that they were interested).
  • Continue to engage digitally: among 25-64s, the digital activity they were most interested in was “Watching a recording or stream of a music, performing arts or literature event”: for which 24% have something specific they want to see compared to 8% of non-disabled people of the same age. The equivalent for under 25s was 22% compared to 15% for the same, also most popular, category.
  • Replace in person with digital engagement in future, across all age categories. For example, for virtual tours of museums and galleries, 62% of disabled 25-64s said that they would replace most’ (31%) or some (30%) of their in-person visits with digital in future, compared to 38% of the same age group without disabilities (most’ 17%, some’ 22%). For streaming music, performing arts or literature events, this was 65% compared to 39%. This could be viewed as an indication of increased access available through digital, but is perhaps more accurately viewed as a loss of live audience due to the additional barriers now faced.

3. Concerns and Mitigations

COVID presents particular concerns to people with disabilities, as is evident from responses to the Cultural Population Monitor:

  • There is a greater concern about others they know falling ill from COVID than for non-disabled people in all three age bands (under 25s: 64% vs 61%; 25-64s: 71% vs 64%; 65+ 74% vs 63%)
  • And also, for over 25s, greater concern about falling ill from COVID themselves (55% vs 54%; 66% vs 52%; 63% vs 53% respectively).

Interestingly though, despite these understandably higher levels of concern, under 65s with disabilities are more likely to say that measures to control COVID are too extreme (under 25s: 48% vs 32%; 25-64s: 46% vs 23%; 65+ 10% vs 10%).

Venues Must Rise to the Occasion

In person engagement is a different picture, however:

  • disabled people are more likely to ‘strongly agree’ that venues could be doing more (under 25s: 22% vs 12%; 25-64s: 31% vs 16%; 65+ 11% vs 15%),
  • and are more likely to say that they are concerned about the behaviour of others (under 25s: 20% vs 16%; 25-64s: 39% vs 28%; 65+ 40% vs 36%).

These are high proportions, especially with many more who ‘agree’ (as opposed to 'strongly agree'. They indicate the challenge that venues face in reassuring disabled audiences about the measures they have put in place, as well as the impact of other attenders’ behaviour.

In the light of this, it is unsurprising that disabled audiences had a greater desire for safety measures, especially around indoors events and mask wearing.

  • This was the case compared to non-disabled audiences within all age ranges, albeit (as with non-disabled audiences) the younger the age range, the less concerned they were about safety measures (although differences between disabled and non-disabled audiences were more marginal for over 65s).
  • For example, for 16-24s, the most important measures indoors were hand sanitizer (39% for disabled v. 32% non-disabled) and masks worn (38% v. 23% non-disabled). The equivalent figures for 25-64s were (50% vs 41% and 47% vs 34%); and for 65+ (54% vs 48%)
  • Both of these age groups, however, had more people rating ‘Crowd control measures’ as most important (25-64: 51% vs 44%; 65+: 56% vs 54%).

Disabled Audiences Safety Measures.png


In Summary

Those with disabilities have seen substantial reductions in leisure activity during COVID, despite levels of cultural engagement holding up. Disabled people have been more engaged with digital and look likely to be into the future, but this is in substantial part due to the barriers faced with in-person attendance. If this important audience group isn’t to be lost in future, venues will need to ensure that disabled audiences, and especially those who are older, are reassured about safety measures in place, as well as about the behaviour of other attenders. This is challenging, but the alternative is a stark rise in inequality of access to culture. It also highlights the importance of continuing digital channels, since removing these would compound the injustice. Close engagement with disabled audience members, along with disability activists, artists and experts, is also key to ensuring an inclusive recovery.