Rights, ramps and realities: making art ‘open to all’

8 min
On the left, a man with his hands behind his back looks at a wall where three red and black abstract pictures are hung. To his right is a man in a wheelchair who is trying to look at one of the paintings through his phone.

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Just because something is a right, doesn’t make it a reality. If that sentence makes you wince to read it, then that’s okay. It should. It means that you know it to be true, even if you wish it wasn’t. There are so many reasons why enjoying the arts to the fullest extent of one’s desire may simply be impossible. You work long hours, or shifts, preventing you from seeing the shows and exhibitions you wish you could. It’s out of your budget to travel to visit a gallery or museum with your family. Or because experience tells you that there is a world of barriers between you and the art you want to enjoy – because you are disabled. And, honestly, for so many people it’s a combination of all three.

According to a World Health Organisation estimate, 16% of the global population experiences significant disability – that’s 1.3 billion people. So, you’d think that by now the dial had been pushed to the point where the “cultural life of the community” was within easy reach of disabled people, but it’s a work in progress and there are many reasons for this. Some are matters of practicality. Others financial. Some are just plain old lack of education. All are deeply frustrating for anyone who just wants to enjoy the art they love but cannot do so easily through no fault of their own.

And, of course, access to art comes in two parts: the space where the art is ‘held’ and the art itself. For social artist Dan Thompson, understanding this is fundamental to the work of creating true accessibility. “Artists should be challenged,” he says. “I think we need a culture where, particularly in publicly funded organisations, artists are told, yes, you can exhibit work here, but these are the standards we expect.” By this he means that the artworks themselves should have accessibility standards at their core – there should be a reasonable way and a means for disabled visitors to be able to engage with that work. Examples of this might be installation pieces that are accessed by steps or tunnels. Or work that is brightly lit or emits sudden loud noises. For Dan, it is simply not enough to warn visitors that these works are ahead.

A hand touches a sign written in braille.

Braille helps blind and partially sighted people to be independent in so many ways. In museums and galleries, this might be through its use in exhibit labels, but also for accompanying literature or membership forms.

A member of the Turner Contemporary Access Group, Dan is part of a team who advise the curators and management at the famous Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, UK. “We're a group of people with lots of different access needs, who are very honest and upfront,” he explains. “Turner gives us permission to be challenging in the early stages. We see the exhibitions in model form or in CAD [Computer Aided Design] months before they go up – at a point where we can make a difference.” He acknowledges that not every artwork can be made fully accessible (“One of our group is deaf and he will sometimes say ‘it’s a sound piece, of course I can't hear it! I accept that’.”), but in having the Access Group on hand in the early stages supports the needs of all visitors as well as educating artists and curators in what is required to make exhibitions accessible. “Quite often, it's very simple things,” he says. “If you're showing a film on a screen, for example, there need to be lights along the floor, so you can see your way into the space and you must make sure that sound doesn't bleed from one gallery to the next. Something we always want are seats with backs on them, instead of the benches you tend to see in galleries.”

Of course, the Turner Contemporary is also a modern building that was constructed to meet the legal requirements for accessibility, with step-free access and lifts built in as standard. They, like the vast majority of institutions, also offer a suite of accessibility options for wheelchair users and those requiring auditory, visual and sensory supports. But what else can galleries do beyond ramps, lifts, induction loops and quiet viewings to acknowledge the barriers to art for disabled people? Today, accommodations are often based in the medical model of disability, which says people are disabled by their impairments or differences, and ‘fixes’ are built into existing spaces. But the future must surely lie in looking to the social model – where barriers are removed rather than ‘work arounds’ added – think of the times you’ve spotted a sign warning of flashing lights, for example. Did those lightsreallyneed to be there?

I'm often housebound, but recently a group of autistic and learning-disabled artists who were holding an exhibition in Oxford also held it online through Zoom. I found that really accessible."

This requires a completely new way of thinking, one that Ross Hopcraft has naturally built into his practice simply through the nature of his work. Today he is a Creative Director for PR giant Hill+Knowlton, but he specialises in creating experiences and spent twenty years doing so for the public sector. As a result, Ross simply cannot entertain the idea of not maximising any opportunity to build a narrative for users to follow. And this, unsurprisingly, translates into a more accessible experience, rather than less. “I've worked on many projects where I'd be hand in hand with an architect, telling a story in a three-dimensional space, but always with accessibility front of mind,” he says. “But it's not just about, for example, installing a ramp as well as a set of stairs. You need to consider why we can’t have a ramp instead of stairs. Then make that journey the most interesting journey possible for everyone. You introduce smells, sounds, textures – hot and cold – different elements into the show that make everyone’s experience much more well-rounded. Your route to equity in a space should be invisible and useful for everyone.”

However, he adds that exhibition requirements can be quite different in the private sector when they often have a single objective to meet within a very limited timeframe. “Dare I say it, their priority is to get their message out there. I’d certainly love to know if disability organisations see a difference in standards between commercial brand experiences and those in cultural institutions.” Temporary structures, unfortunately, while legally required to be accessible, can often not be subject to the same level of scrutiny or standards as a permanent building, making these fun ‘must-see before it’s too late’ pop-up experiences potentially marginalising for a large number of disabled people.

The chest of a person in a zip up jacket, wearing a green lanyard decorated with sunflowers.

Not all disabilities are visible and many institutions are now exploring ways to make their spaces inclusive for visitors with sensory sensitivities.

Of course, being able to select your space or build it from scratch is a privilege in itself. But what happens when your institution is already deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of a country? The world-famous Mauritshuis in the Netherlands welcomes around half a million art lovers each year and is continually developing robust accessibility-led programmes and projects. The team is keenly aware of the limitations of their 17th century building and deal daily with the challenges of maintaining accessibility in a historical structure. “We do our very best,” explains Walther van den Heuvel, Head of Education and Programming. “But there are a number of barriers when you have such an old building. We are always finding new solutions.”

As such, the gallery has alternative wheelchairs on offer for visitors whose own chairs are too wide to enter certain parts of the building. Their guides are also highly qualified to support the needs of a wide range of visitors. “Some are trained to guide neurodivergent art lovers who might experience sensory processing issues and overwhelm,” Walther explains. “And we have a tour programme designed specifically for people with Alzheimer's, working with care homes to bring their residents to the Mauritshuis.” Some guides will also have the opportunity to learn sign language as standard and, of course, the Mauritshuis is well-known for creating incredible tactile replicas of old masters using Canon’s Elevated Print technology. Since this initiative began, thousands have had the opportunity to lay their hands on world-famous paintings, such as Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius and, most recently, Vermeer’s stunning Girl with a Pearl Earring.

I am physically able to access galleries, and I love them, as they are often quiet, inspiring spaces with gentle lighting. But I recently attended a contemporary exhibition where an artwork was entirely bright white light and it caused me physical pain. There was no warning, and my sensory distress could have been avoided.”

But being welcomed into a building as a disabled visitor is only half the story. Even if the space is truly accessible, in a physical sense, it surely cannot be equitable if there are no disabled people already within it? Representation matters and routinely bringing the work of disabled artists into the room is a matter of critical importance if we are to have true equity in cultural life.

However, a recent report from Disability Arts International found that only 28% of the arts venues and festivals they surveyed regularly present or support work by disabled artists and a significant proportion simply don’t show any at all. This is in spite of the fact that their audiences clearly include disabled people. Indeed, representation is so low globally that it was a newsworthy event when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired over 100 works from disabled artists last year.

From a slightly different perspective, does it not show the true priorities of an institution when disabled people are represented everywhere? In front of house ticket offices and receptions, to programming, curatorial and other roles that keep the business of arts establishments ticking over. These are the places which are at the forefront of removing the barriers that restrict the independence, choice and control of disabled people. And, as employees, these are the people who continue to drive change from within.

It's 2024. We live in an information world. The resources and guidance for institutions and organisations are readily available. But more: disabled people can be reached and must be consulted, recruited, represented and heard. The Turner Contemporary Access Group informs the curatorial direction for exhibitions, and the Mauritshuis brings in specialist training for its guides. This is how the adoption of the social model of disability begins in any setting. It continues with changes in attitudes, policies and practices, the uncompromising use of universal design and the principles that Ross has been applying to his practice as a designer for decade. Questioning every aspect to consider whether a space works for everyone from the point of conception. “When something works, you shouldn’t notice it,” he says.

The point is that everyone’s attention should be on the art. The experience of another person’s expression. It connects us with our culture, sparks new ideas, challenges us, educates us and broadens our perspectives. Through art we learn to think critically and foster empathy. And, above all else, it has the power to make us feel in ways that little else can. In short: it is our art which makes us human. And this is why the art we experience should include everyone and why this is a right worth fighting for.