Dancing and disabilities

There are wide variety of disabilities and the ways in which they may affect a person’s ability to dance are just as diverse.  So this is just a very small start, and a few suggestions which I hope will turn out to be useful.  If something has been left out, please understand that this is not by design.  I would be grateful for help in suggesting useful content to develop this page further.

Improving access for wheelchair users and those with mobility impairments

These are notes which were made during a workshop on accessible ceilidh dancing run jointly by Warwick Folk and Warwick Enable.  They mostly relate to making event accessible to wheelchair users, although some points may also be relevant to improving access for other disabled people.

Things that organisers can do

Scouting out the venue

  • Post a picture of the venue interior on the event page. This gives people who are attending an idea of size and some sense of familiarity.
  • If there’s a lift, ensure that you have an out of hours contact number for if there are problems.
  • Make sure you know what the fire evacuation plans are for people who cannot use the stairs.
  • Check: how many people with restricted mobility are allowed in the venue? Some venues have restrictions due to fire safety.
  • Organiser should know where the disabled toilet in the venue is.
  • Check the floor for slopes, dips, uneven patches.
  • You might like to use this venue accessibility checklist to help assess your venue

Circulating access information in advance

  • Whether there is level access through or steps to access any part of the building, and if so, how many?
  • Access in to the building: is there a ramp available?  How steep is it?
  • Is there space to park a car near by or will it require walking and if so how far?
  • Toilets, are they large enough to fit a wheelchair and carer?
  • Consider how you will share this information:  via your mailing list, website, facebook page or in some other way?

Planning in advance

  • If possible, you might ask participants in advance if they have any accessibility requirements.
  • Who will be the First Aider?
  • The badges (Fragile, Please do ask me to dance, Ask before you improvise) may be useful.

On the night

  • Print out an organiser mobile number and stick to the outside door. (Unless it is automatic.)
  • Try to ensure there is a quiet area for taking a break that is not right next to the stage.
  • It might be useful for participants to be able to leave first aid and emergency contact information on front desk. If you do this, make sure it is stored confidentially (by folding the piece of paper over? Opaque folder?) and destroyed at the end of the evening, to protect privacy.
  • You might like to use this event accessibility checklist to assess the accessibility of your event.  Suggestions are particularly welcome on this as it is a work in progress.

A note on venues and cost

  • We discussed how a lot of folk dance groups are stuck in village / church halls which have poor disabled access because they were last refurbished in the 50s. Folk dance groups often can’t afford to use a better venue with more modern facilities.
  • It was suggested that Shape Arts Fund might be somewhere to look for funding towards getting a venue with better disabled access.

Things that non-disabled dancers can do

Don’t touch anyone’s wheelchair!

  • Touching someone’s wheelchair without permission is an invasion of boundaries and personal space.
  • Pushing someone’s wheelchair without their permission is essentially the same as grabbing someone around the knees and carrying them around the room.

Taking Hands and touch in general

  • As a general rule, don’t touch someone except as the dance requires it.
  • Respect others and their personal boundaries
  • Unexpected touch can shock and confuse people. Ask before you improvise.
  • If they don’t offer a hand, don’t grab it anyway! (A wheelchair user may need it to propel themselves.)


  • Be prepare to be flexible when dancing with disabled dancers. Some moves will have to be adapted. Let the disabled dancer lead here.
  • When you have disabled dancers in your set watch what they do with others so you can get an idea of how they like to swing etc
  • BUT be aware that disabled dancers might not want to adapt a move the same way every time. So ultimately go with what they’re leading in the moment!

Things that callers can do

Before each dance starts, tell the dancers…

  • Whether the next dance will be a mixer or not.
  • If they will be dancing mostly with their partner or others.
  • What the energy level of the dance will be? Is everyone active most of the time? Or does one couple lead whilst the others wait their turn?
  • How much swinging there is in the dance.

Things to avoid

  • Do not peer pressure people into dancing.
  • Don’t draw attention to disabled dancers.
  • Don’t make assumptions about people, or make decisions for them.

How to offer alternatives

  • Offer alternatives in a way that doesn’t single anyone out.
  • These alternatives should be fun alternate ways of doing a figure.
  • Make sure dancers know where they should be at the end of the figure: ie where the recovery points in the dance are.

Dancers with learning disabilities

The following notes on are from a discussion with Peter Crowther who regularly works with dancers who have learning disabilities and/or hearing impairments.

When you’re a dancer

If you have dancers with learning disabilities near you, be prepared to be flexible. Ask them, their partners, or their carers (in that order – no “does he take sugar?” please) how you might help. Some folks might appreciate repetition, but few if any will appreciate you talking over the caller or giving them different instructions. Generally, don’t give someone too much to think about at one time. Don’t complicate the dance unless you’re absolutely certain they will be able to recover; you might like to put in an extra twirl, they probably have enough to remember already.

When you’re the caller

If you’re working with folks with learning difficulties, consider keeping your voice clear and calm. Excited shouting will certainly “affect” the atmosphere of a ceilidh, but consider that it may also drive people away because they can’t tolerate it.  (This also goes for dancers with anxiety, or autistic spectrum disorder.)

Dancing with dancers with hearing impairments

When you’re a dancer

If you’re working with a hearing-impaired dancer, it’s again worth asking what might help them. Often, the problem is getting clear instructions from the caller to the dancer. In the past, I’ve been asked to show the next move a little in advance for the first couple of times through the dance, and to sign them a “one more” if the caller says it. Some examples, I might: hold my arms out to my sides and mime a step left for a circle left; hold my right hand diagonally up and mime a step forward for a right hand star; stand at the top of the set and mime a come-up-here then point two tracks round on the floor for bottom couple up the middle and cast back to the bottom; crossed hands in front of me and lean back a bit for swing.

When you’re the caller

If you’re working with hearing-impaired dancers, use gestures. Grab a radio mic, preferably a headset so that you have both arms free, and get out on the floor.  If you know there’s one dancer in particular who needs to be able to see you, try to get onto the floor and call from a spot that they can see. No need to be obvious about it.

If you’re working with the hearing-impaired or folks with learning difficulties, simplicity of instruction is essential. Can you use fewer or simpler words to get the point across? Are you using words that are easy to distinguish from each other? (“Men” and “Women” are surprisingly similar in an echoey room).

Invisible disabilities

Invisible disabilities refer to disabilities which are not immediately obvious.  Some invisible disabilities which can affect dancing include:

  • Autistic Spectrum Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic Fatigue

Here are a few ways to make events more accessible to dancers with invisible disabilities.

When you’re the caller

  • Announce when you are about to call a mixer, before the dancers have formed up sets and committed to the dance
  • Give some idea of how energetic a dance may be.  Are you mostly standing still waiting to be active?  Or are all couples active at once?
  • Work with the sound engineer and band to ensure you can be heard clearly.
  • Consider asking for everyone who wants to dance the next one on the floor, and then choosing the dance based on the number of people, instead of choosing a dance and then having peer pressure dancers into joining in the make up numbers.

When you’re the organiser

  • Consider proving a quiet room at your event, or at least a quiet corner, at your event
  • Think carefully about lighting.  Flashing lights may be exciting for some but incredibly disorientating for others.
  • Think carefully about sound quality and levels.

When you’re a dancer

  • Ask before you improvise!
  • In general, don’t touch people except as the dance requires it, unless you have their consent.
  • Be understanding when people are too tired to dance.  “But you’re young — you’re meant to be full of energy!” is not a great thing to hear when you are a young dancer with chronic fatigue.

Making ceilidhs accessible for bands

Some considerations around making ceilidhs accessible for bands, from Peter Crowther.


This list arose from a discussion on a Facebook group about accessible ceilidhs. It’s by no means a complete list, I suspect; instead, it’s hopefully a useful basis for further discussion.

Considerations for organisers

  • Check with the band first: are there likely to be any physical accessibility concerns about the parking, venue, stage, toilets, dressing rooms (hey, we can dream!), or other spaces that you expect the band to be in? It’s very likely that whoever you’re liaising with in the band will have a pretty good idea of accessibility requirements; if you’re booking through an agent, however, I would recommend asking the question explicitly of the agent, or asking for direct contact with the band.
  • Some band leaders and members may have impaired vision or hearing. If you need to communicate with the band – especially while they’re playing – please ensure you are somewhere that the band member concerned can see, hear and understand you. We don’t want to have to stop playing in order to understand what you’re telling us.
  • If you’re providing lighting or sound, please check the considerations for sound engineers and for lighting engineers below – particularly regarding speaker placement, as that’s difficult to fix once the band arrives.

Considerations for callers

  • Some band leaders and members may have impaired hearing. As well as checking who you should be talking to, see if they suggest talking to a particular side. Also consider an obvious visual signal for “one more time” as well as any other signal you may give.

Considerations for dancers

  • If you can see a physical disability, please respect it as you would in anyone else. Yes, I know it’s obvious, but sometimes the band’s treated as a bunch of superhumans. Much as we’d love to have superpowers, we’re merely human!

Considerations for sound engineers

  • Where possible, please consider setting up subs off stage – preferably the entire front-of-house rig. Some stages ring at particular bass frequencies, which can cause very high levels on stage. This leads into…
    Please check with the band about sound levels on stage. Tinnitus is something of an occupational hazard, even in folk bands, and we really don’t want further hearing damage at gigs. Also, some band members may have sensory processing issues, such that they struggle or even shut down when the sound level is too high.
  • Some band members may have impaired hearing, and need (for example) a monitor directed at their good ear or reduced spill from nearby monitors. Sorry – we may need to move your monitors! Where possible, please leave enough length on cables that we can relocate them.
  • Consider asking band members whether there are particular frequencies they need emphasised or rolled off in their monitor mix.

Considerations for lighting engineers

  • Please check with the band before using moving, flashing, or rapid colour-changing effects. Some band members have sensory processing issues that cause them to struggle or even shut down when there’s lots of change in the lighting. Also, as a general accessibility issue, it’s difficult for anyone reading music if there’s rapidly changing lighting on stage!

Considerations for MCs

  • Some band leaders and members may have impaired vision or hearing. If you need to communicate with the band – especially while they’re playing – please ensure you are somewhere that the band member concerned can see, hear and understand you. We don’t want to have to stop playing in order to understand what you’re telling us.

External Links

Have a look at the things the wonderful Folk Weekend Oxford are doing to make their festival accessible to all.  Have a look at their programme too, for ideas about how to label events.

Attitude is Everything