Harnessing Cultural Capital to achieve authentic inclusivity

Provocation Papers

Omeima is a Clore 16 Fellow, a creative consultant, Deaf and hard of hearing accessibility consultant, trainer, and a leader in creating Deaf and hearing integrated activities.

The question I pose here is: how we can adapt current structures and policies to genuinely encompass the cultural capital of Deaf, neurodiverse and disabled people? 

This essential work has been historically appointed to one generic access officer who is tasked with ensuring intersectionality and diverse representation. Cultural Capital delivers equality that is a value-added exchange. Marginalised people must not be seen as detracting from culture when efforts are made in mainstream settings to engage with them but rather the opposite. It is a two-way exchange that enriches all through a drive towards equality. The perspectives and input of marginalised people add enormous value to our sector and this influx of new ways of working and perceiving the world generate fresh initiatives but breathes creative life into our work that makes it not only attractive but sustainable. By facilitating cultural capital into economic capital, authentic inclusivity can be achieved.

In my interviews with access officers, artists, patrons and other integral community members at several high-profile arts organisations – including the British Museum, Tate Modern and the Royal Academy – it has been noted that there is a serious lack of Deaf or disabled representation within the workforce.

As a British Sudanese, female, Deaf artist and maker, I have observed events that have been unsuccessful in the ultimate aim of being accessible or attracting their intended audience, and I can identify missed opportunities that crudely equate to cost inefficiencies, never mind the significant human impacts.

These missed opportunities can be linked to simple issues that cultural knowledge and accumulated lived experiences can mitigate. Current structures assume one access officer is able to represent a diverse range of people. It is inevitable that a single staff member is not part of each diverse community they are trying to reach, and is therefore not aware of the places where listings need to be posted or how to reach audiences in the most appropriate and effective manner. These can be incredibly nuanced issues that are easy to miss, but which have significant and lasting impacts on attendance and trust in a brand, venue or organisation. It also devalues the people who it is intended to include.

Exhibiting venues have a legal obligation to ensure that their sites are accessible to disabled people and as such, Deaf patrons are offered access in the form of a BSL tour or through a sign language interpreter. Accessibility has improved enormously due to increased awareness, legislation and technology, but it is only one part of the discourse on inclusivity; a workshop for current or developing artists on a painting form and material style, for example, is rarely accessible. The distinction is in the assumption that the user of accessibility is a Deaf person who is a patron and not an artist.

For the rest of this paper, I will focus on the most underrepresented aspect of my own personal intersectionality, but by doing this, I do not intend to exclude the diverse intersections that are so often not factored into the process in meaningful ways. It also demonstrates the important point that one person cannot cover all of these complex features of identity alone. I will also include the perspectives of a wide range of interviewees, with the aim of providing a broader view of the complex set of concerns I am setting out to address.

Underrepresented people are broadly tired of being part of yet another advisory board, often repeatedly seeing misrepresentation or enduring underrepresentation in practice, while not being equitably recompensed for their valued contribution. Cultural capital is the manifestation of cultural assets that have economic worth. The intellectual assets of Deaf people are central to their enterprise, while the erosion of their capital can be destabilising. This is not unique to Deaf people and is just as prevalent in most underrepresented groups of people.

How can we have diversity with underrepresentation in existence?

From the lens of the patron

Access to events and activities should be open to all, not just the majority group. Being treated as an equal is not a privilege, it is a right. Barriers are often in place, and whether intentionally placed there or not, they prevent people from being a part of something that provides the enrichment and opportunity available to most. Language barriers, as well as physical barriers, are often overlooked when considering accessibility. Through my interviews, the recurring nature of this narrative is overwhelming. Deaf patrons resoundingly reported that physical hurdles of poor lighting and inaccessible text are exacerbated by the social obstructions of tokenism, an inadequate quantity of accessible events, and a lack of representation within an institution.

The impacts of this are often felt cumulatively and can have severe impacts on people, especially those who are already marginalised in society by ableist directives. 

Admission to an event is not inevitable for everyone; a lack of consideration around inclusivity creates exclusion which can cause long-term adverse effects. These are often, but not solely, reflected in a person’s wellbeing and ability to remain well and connected.

A lack of connectedness can lead to cultural isolation, and individual loneliness, which is more recently being understood in more tangible terms:

  • Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day[1].
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia[2], heart disease[3] and depression[4] in later life.

These are just some of the incremental effects which, on their own, do not paint a very bright picture. We must also consider barrier fatigue, which concerns the exhausting experience of endlessly explaining one's situation or needs to achieve basic access provision or service on par with others not facing such barriers.

Eleven million people in the UK are Deaf or hard of hearing. There are 151,000 BSL users in the UK. When approaching this through an intersectional lens, Deaf people are more likely to:

  • have poor mental health – up to 50%, compared to 25% for the general population[5]
  • be unemployed – 35% of working age Deaf people are unemployed, compared to 21% of the general population[5]

I note from my observational studies that physical inclusivity is almost always a given, and visual inclusivity is also prevalent, if not perfect. As a Deaf person, who creates, contributes and enjoys art, I rarely have the access others are afforded without additional (bolted-on?) thought from the organisers or organisation. Where audio tours are offered, rarely do we see the equivalent BSL visual tours either in-person or via devices, both of which open up a world to a Deaf person who otherwise would be excluded due to the language barrier. BSL should be treated as an alternative language option and provided on request.

A common misconception is that provided text or subtitles mitigates this language barrier, but not all Deaf people will have the language acquisition necessary to be able to access English text and should be offered access in their own language, BSL. This discrepancy is largely down to language deprivation that Deaf children can face from an early age. Nine in every 10 Deaf children are born to hearing parents, but only one in 10 of those parents will learn sign language[6]. Of the 70 million Deaf people worldwide, only 2% have access to sign language education[7]. These scenarios lead to these children having neither clear spoken language nor a sign language, resulting in early language deprivation[8].

Growing up without proper access to language at a crucial time in development can have lasting negative effects not only on language acquisition, but also on various other areas of social development[9]. With this cultural knowledge and lived experience, it becomes clear why providing subtitles or text is not an equitable form of access in most cases, yet a generic access officer easily assumes otherwise.

Although there are currently still Deaf-led tours at big institutions such as the Science Museum, the Royal Academy, Tate Modern’s Lates programme and the Wellcome Collection, they are limited in scope and targeted at well-known and pre-identified groups of older, more established audiences. There is little to no programming focused on youth participation, reducing the ongoing flow and outward reach to new audiences. Activity is often based around individuals, as opposed to focusing on policy, directives or specific movements, which has created a piecemeal and inconsistent history and does not generate sustainability or allow for succession. Yet another impasse is established.

Through the lens of an artist

Inclusivity is a means to foster new collaborations and consequently new ways of working. In other words, inclusivity increases understanding. Venues ought to be in a position to support diverse artists to forge new relationships and spearhead artistic developments, which are in themselves based on human interaction; inclusivity is about outcomes and change, and not just the availability of access.

Deaf artists remain marginalised and under-developed compared to their hearing counterparts. They continue to face the same barriers and lack of opportunities they always have, if not more so when compared to my start in the sector. This demonstrates the self-fulfilling prophecy of the bias that exists not only around deafness, but also other intersections in our society that need to be recognised as having equal value in order to enable that value to be fully realised.

My lived experience has informed my own perspective, and the narratives of those I interviewed bolsters the case that this is endemic in the field. In my conversations, it became clear that accounts of individuals being overlooked due to their status as Deaf or hard of hearing, and others’ clear assertions that there are not enough Deaf people in decision-making positions, are inextricably linked.

From the institution’s perspective, how do they know how to reach, engage and welcome diverse artists into mainstream organisations? This knowledge can only be embedded through members of the communities with lived experience being integral to the process of widening inclusion. Inclusion breeds inclusivity; exclusion breeds exclusivity.

Hearing artists have many more ways to find access to information, many of which, conversely, are barriers to Deaf artists such as podcasts, incidental conversations, networks and word-of-mouth, to name a few. Deaf artists have to juggle bricks of information without the essential glue that holds it all together. As a direct result of this, BSL-using and Deaf artists remain very much on the fringes of the sector and do not receive equity of opportunity nor a reputation that embraces the true nature of inclusivity. 

This lack of representation further impedes the ability for minority peoples to participate, engage and contribute to the sector. It perpetuates a lack of awareness from both mainstream visual arts and Deaf artists themselves, creating an impasse; bridging these gaps can only enrich institutions.

Oftentimes, Deaf artists are not informed of opportunities, even if they exist, due to a lack of accessible publicity which does not reach potential beneficiaries. It is my view that the inclusion of Deaf, neurodiverse and disabled professionals in leading roles or acting as consultants is a route to be developed, a resource for expanding participation, through shared and lived experience.

Widening the lens of the institution

It is time that organisations look to new means of attending to the underrepresentation in their workforce, and create equal opportunity through equitable pay for skills that add value to ‘our’ work and have far reaching impacts for the sector beyond one post – one specific role that is made up of a diverse global diaspora of human relationships that cannot be truly represented through one individual and do ‘us’ justice. As individuals, access officers may do a great job, but they are charged with carrying the weight and balance of an inverted pyramid.

This moment, while the cultural sector is experiencing a collective pause, is an opportunity to address the disconnect between concept and process. Processes have been established via power structures and outdated stratified systems that sleepwalk us into strategy and policy which lead to procedural decisions and outcomes that keep the status quo.

Inclusivity needs to be understood holistically through the intersectional lens of cultural capital, with an awareness that lived experience has deep value and wide-reaching impacts that can transform our sector into actions rather than words.

The most striking thread in the tapestry of stories shared during my interview process was that of representation. If true representation was in place, a cascade of changes would permeate any institution. Information would be disseminated through culturally appropriate channels, exhibits/tours would be conducted with true accessibility and inclusivity, and the entire fabric of an institution could embrace the cultural capital of its patrons, artists and workforce. Representation can come in many forms but must be prioritised and not tokenised.

Continuing to unravel and/or challenge current structures is necessary to be able to identify where positive activities are thriving and what best practice and good policy look like. It will enable us to identify where Deaf artists are able to successfully navigate and find accessible pathways and why they work, so that these can be understood and replicated across the cultural landscape. Good practice exists internationally, with New Zealand embracing the cultural capital of its Deaf community through authentic representation of their language in its approach to access[10]. The Whitney Museum in New York provides culturally relevant content and utilises Deaf community members in its programming[11]. With examples of best practice so readily available, it is painful to see institutional barriers still prevalent in the UK.

Where is the Deaf, neurodiverse and disabled cultural capital within your organisation?

Rather than the current limited focus on access, let us embrace inclusivity at the point where a commitment to true learning and gaining new understanding occur. Actions fuel meaningful change: addressing equal opportunity through equitable pay is one small example. Removing a one-size-fits-all approach to access is another — let’s rethink what it means to have a single access officer when it is the responsibility of an entire organisation. I suggest starting by diversifying the skills base you consult with to ensure true representation. This is a value-added exchange that benefits all, and a better way to facilitate authentic, lasting and meaningful inclusivity.


[1] Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316

[2] Cacioppo, J.T. and Cacioppo, S., 2014. Older adults reporting social isolation or loneliness show poorer cognitive function 4 years later. Evidence-based nursing, 17(2), pp.59-60

[3] Valtorta, N.K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S. and Hanratty, B., 2016. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart, 102(13), pp.1009-1016

[4] Courtin, E., & Knapp, M. (2017). Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: a scoping review. Health & social care in the community, 25(3), 799-812

[5] Gov.uk. 2021. Saleem: profoundly deaf user. [online] Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/understanding-disabilities-an... [Accessed 25 February 2021].

[6] British Deaf Association. 2021. Fast facts about the Deaf community - British Deaf Association. [online] Available at: <https://bda.org.uk/fast-facts-about-the-deaf-community/> [Accessed 8 September 2020].

[7] Wfdeaf.org. 2021. Human Rights of the Deaf | WFD. [online] Available at: <https://wfdeaf.org/our-work/human-rights-of-the-deaf/> [Accessed 25 July 2021].

[8] Cheng Q, Roth A, Halgren E and Mayberry RI (2019) Effects of Early Language Deprivation on Brain Connectivity: Language Pathways in Deaf Native and Late First-Language Learners of American Sign Language. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 13:320. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00320

[9] Rowley, K., 2018. The importance of communication to development.

[10] Chumko, A., 2021. First-ever New Zealand Sign Language museum guide rolled out. [online] Stuff. Available at: <https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/124335819/firstever-new-zeala... [Accessed 3 March 2021].

[11] Whitney.org. 2021. Archibald John Motley, Jr., Gettin' Religion | Video in American Sign Language. [online] Available at: <https://whitney.org/media/36800> [Accessed 15 March 2021].