Sensory Extra, Accessible Arts & Media, York

Accessible Arts & Media (AAM) is part of the cultural and community landscape of York, having a long and illustrious pedigree. It can trace its routes back to York Film Workshop in 1982, and after several name changes and relocations, moved to its current base at Burton Stone Community Centre in 2010.

It has an impressive track record of delivering high quality, accessible and inclusive community arts and media opportunities to young people and people with disabilities. The organisation has a multiplicity of projects under way including a community radio group, a new information website for people with disabilities (Ableweb York) and the much celebrated singing and signing choir, Hands & Voices.

We went along to meet the team and see one of their Sensory Extra Sessions.

Group throwing around the Ensemble Dice to trigger images & sound

Unlike some of the more traditional workshop activities run by AAM, the organisations Sensory Extra sessions have a much more relaxed and flexible structure. “It’s all about creating an environment in which people with learning difficulties and disabilities, along with their support workers, can have fun together exploring a range of multi-sensory and musical activities,” explains director Rose Kent.

The communal hall at the community centre is used for the sessions, with smaller areas created by the use of pop-up gazebos. Although these aren't soundproofed, the team feel that the benefit of everyone being in a single space far out weighs the problems with sound bleed.

“One of the most important aspects of the sessions is the communication and interaction,” says Aled Jones. “It’s not tightly structured and we allow time for participants to really understand each other. We’re working with 10 - 20 people at a time and they all have particular needs, likes and dislikes. We always encourage them to try new things.”

The sessions are truly multi-sensory, with a vast array of instruments, vibroacoustic bean bags and tactile materials, complimented by a range of accessible technologies. Lights, video projectors, microphones and various sensors and switches all combine to create a uniquely magical and inviting environment.

A key reason for the projects use of the Apollo Ensemble is the ease with which it can be quickly configured to meet the needs of individuals. Of particular importance is the ability to record and trigger sounds, especially those created by the participants themselves. Even when people are unable to vocalise, a good deal of importance is placed on personalising the material.

Aled illustrates this with a recent example: “There’s one guy who comes along and he has speech problems so is naturally quite shy about recording his own voice - but he loves to hear his own name. I’ll often record somebody just saying his name and link it to one of the triggers so he has control over it. He loves that and will play with it for hours! That’s a great example of being able to quickly use the system to do something simple that means a lot to an individual.”

“It’s useful being able to so easily customise the Ensemble system to the needs of each individual participant, because there is no ‘one size fits all’ in this work,” adds Rose.

So how do they find the Ensemble Designer and Launchpad software? “As soon as I saw the software I understood how it worked,” enthuses Aled. “Plugging together the different blocks seems pretty straightforward. It’s very self-explanatory - the colour coding really helps. When you’ve created your map, it’s just a case of pressing play and away you go!”

Image and video triggering is another key benefit of the system. “That’s one of the areas where Ensemble comes in really handy. It’s great to have the ability to bring film into Ensemble and get participants to trigger their own videos. People love to see themselves on the screen - they just love it and it’s really beneficial! Being able to control it with a trigger so it’s not just a passive activity is also very important. It reinforces that idea of cause and effect.”

Aled continues: “Having the ability to quickly address different senses means you can reach people at different levels. You can easily set up a trigger with a sound on it and a picture and the lights so you know they’re going to get it. And it doesn’t need a whole lot of movement to get something back.”

With so much technology around, the team are grateful for anything that helps reduce the number of cables. Naturally they are very enthusiastic about Ensemble’s wireless facilities. “We use the Ensemble Dice and Ensemble Connect with various switches”, says Aled. “A lot of the time in Sensory Extra sessions it can be hard getting people to engage or to come up and try something new. So it’s great that we can take something wireless out and run straight up to them and say ‘Press this!’. You’ve taken half the work out and overcome the first barriers to participation. That’s very beneficial.”

Open case showing Ensemble equipment & speakers

The shared space at the Community Centre means that portable, easy to set-up kit is essential. An added benefit of this flexibility is that the organisation has been able to take the project on the road to other venues around Yorkshire.

“I find it incredibly portable,” confirms Aled. “It all packs down into a case and even with all our lights it’s easy to stick it in the back of the car.”

It’s clear that the Apollo Ensemble has become an important part of the AAM toolkit and that they - and the many participants with whom they work - value the technological benefits the system affords them.

For Rose Kent however it’s all about good old fashioned customer service and support. “When you buy equipment, there’s so much stuff out there, so many choices. How do you narrow it down? You need somebody that you can trust. It’s good having a company like Ensemble who you know will be there at the end of a phone line. They’ll always make the time for you and that’s what makes the difference!”

Rose Kent

Rose is the General Manager of Accessible Arts & Media, which covers everything from fundraising to running workshops.

Aled Jones

Aled is the Project & Technical Assistant, helping groups set up technology and helping to run sessions.

Key pieces of equipment


An interface for existing assistive switches.

Ensemble Dice

A box that knows which way up it is.

Other equipment

DMX Lighting
Video Projector
Pop-up marquees


Accessible Arts and Media Website

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