Most Swiss cultural events still out of bounds for people with disabilities – SWI in English

Seeing a show through sound alone is akin to listening to an audio book, but surrounded by a live audience creates a special atmosphere in the theater. Céline Stegmüller / SWI

Although Switzerland signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ten years ago, access to culture for people with disabilities is still not a given. Several associations are working to fill gaps in the system. 

This content was published on February 10, 2024 – 11:00

The main auditorium of the Théâtre du Passage in Neuchâtel is abuzz. People shuffle noisily along the rows to reach their seats. In the front row, a dozen or so individuals are already comfortably seated, with headphones on their ears. They do not turn round to look as new spectators arrive, tickets in their hands, and scan the hall to find where to sit. 

Most of the people wearing headphones cannot see the stage either, although it is just one metre in front of them. They are blind or visually impaired. They will nonetheless be able to enjoy the production, thanks to a live audio-description organised by the association Ecoute Voir. 

Going to concerts, the theatre, the cinema and the opera is a basic human right. For many people in Switzerland, such outings are part of daily life; but for others they remain a dream. On top of any architectural barriers and ticket prices, which prevent part of the population from attending cultural events, there is still a lack of specific accessibility measures for people with sensory disabilities. 

No national strategy 

Unlike in France, where cultural establishments have been obliged by law since 2005External link to improve accessibility for all members of the public, in Switzerland the issue is not yet covered by a national strategy. The federal government’s 2025–2028 Cultural Message, which sets the direction for cultural policy over the next four years, does not place enough emphasis on including people with disabilities, according to Pro Infirmis. The umbrella organisation for disabled groups published a position paper when the policy was circulated for feedback in June 2023. 

When asked about this, the head of cultural participation at the Federal Office of Culture, Myriam Schleiss, explained: “The Cultural Message is a very broad policy guideline that must be approved by the parliament, and which sets the financial framework for cultural policy. The concrete measures that ensue from the guideline shall be defined once the parliament has given its approval.” 

Introducing a legal obligation, like women’s quotas for equality, is not unanimously supported by those contacted by SWI in the circles concerned. France is indeed a model, but not a perfect one. According to Yann Griset, president of SurdiFrance – the French national federation of associations for the deaf and hard of hearing – there is still a lot of work to be done. “If I had to give a mark, it would be five out of ten,” he says. “It’s not brilliant. It means we’re making progress, but we can do better.” 

Watching with your ears

In Neuchâtel, the small group of people with headphones sitting in the front row cannot see the stage of the Théâtre du Passage, but they know what it is like. Before the other members of the audience were allowed to enter the hall, they had a chance to walk around the stage accompanied by an audio-describer and discover the set with their own hands. This touch tour will help them to visualise the scenes described to them in their headphones.  

“Our goal is to extend this activity to all kinds of facilities, large and small, and be present in all the cantons of French-speaking Switzerland – to make people realise that cultural events can be made more accessible and inclusive. To show them that yes, things can be done, it is not as complicated as all that, but it takes some energy and resources,” says Corinne Doret Bärtschi, founder and co-director of Ecoute Voir. No such association exists in German-speaking Switzerland, she adds. There, interested institutions must call on the services of agents. 

Cultural inclusion lags behind 

In September 2023, Pro Infirmis published the results of the first survey carried out among the 22% of the Swiss populationExternal link that it represents. According to the findings, two out of five people feel limitedExternal link when it comes to taking part in cultural events. 

Cultural participation is also includedExternal link in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Switzerland signed in 2014External link. According to Nicole Grieve, in charge of inclusive culture activities at Pro Infirmis in French-speaking Switzerland, the report by the UN committee monitoring implementation of the convention, published in 2022External link, is unequivocal. “We are at a standstill when it comes to public funding for diversity and inclusion in the cultural field. The cantons say it is the cities’ responsibility, the cities say the federal government should do more, and everyone says it is up to the foundations”, she says. 

Pro Infirmis’ inclusive culture department, which is active nationwide, was launched in 2016 to inform and support institutions in setting up more accessible and inclusive programmes and infrastructures. Today, more than 80 institutions and events have received a label attesting to their efforts in this respect. The future of the department was discussed at the end of the funding period: from now on, it will continue its activities with a reduced team and a refocused offering. 

Funding is a problem highlighted by all the organisations and associations that SWI spoke to about their work to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities. “For eight years, Pro Infirmis has given its partners free specialist advice. Ultimately, all consulting work should be paid for”, says Stéphanie Zufferey, a member of the Pro Infirmis board. “Secondly, it is above all the role of the authorities and public bodies to make society more inclusive. Our association has given the impetus. It is now up to the public authorities, that is the government, to increase their financial participation.” 

Developing the offer 

Meanwhile, until their rights are guaranteed, people with disabilities can count on various local, regional and supra-regional associations to help them attend cultural events. Audio-described film screeningsExternal link, tactile and descriptive museum visitsExternal link and surtitles in theatresExternal link are just some of the activities organised across the country.  

In Lausanne, the Sinfonietta orchestra now providesExternal link vibrating vestsExternal link, so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can also enjoy their concerts.   

As well as more inclusive measures, Zufferey stresses the need to change how disability is regarded in a broader social context. She points to the way society looks at people with disabilities, which calls into question their legitimacy to take part in cultural events. “You can put in place all the cultural mediation you want. But if the individuals themselves don’t feel entitled to take part, they just won’t come.” 

Adapted from French by Julia Bassam/gw  

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Ellis Wilder

Hey there! My name is Ellis Wilder, and I'm a student at the University of Calgary. When I'm not hitting the books, you can usually find me writing articles for sports and travel blogs. I've always had a passion for exploring new places and experiencing different cultures, so I love sharing my travel stories with others. Whether I'm hiking in the Rocky Mountains or exploring a new city, I always try to capture the essence of the places I visit in my writing. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy reading my articles as much as I enjoy writing them!

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