More often than not, when we’re riding that giddy post-culture thrill, it’s easy to lapse into the imperative and gently encourage our friends and followers to follow suit. Perhaps it’s a swift tweet – “Buy a ticket to this gig now!”, a well-intentioned message of “Let’s go to this festival”, or a cultural column -“You have to go to this exhibition”. Whether you’re enthused about a particular piece of music, poetry or YouTube feud – why wouldn’t you want to share that work with your wider circle? The reality is, that a huge portion of the cultural events and artsy occasions I’ve recommended and implored you to attend in this column have fundamentally failed to be accessible. As an able bodied attendee and columnist, I need to do better.
In the week following Theresa May’s resignation, social media has been rife with reminders of the politician’s legacy. Amongst the reminders of Windrush, Grenfell and Brexit blunders, May’s government slashing of disability benefits has left an indelible mark on the nation and on the lives of disabled people directly implicated by austerity measures. The Conservative government’s reform of the Work Capability Assessment and subsequent switch from the disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payment (PIP) in 2017 was enormously divisive, the strict criteria of which lead to 160,000 vulnerable people missing out on the financial support they were in need of. It’s tough being disabled in Brexit Britain, and many of the problems are exacerbated by Britain’s antiquated and able-oriented transport system. Chloe is a 23 year old London based artist who has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). She tells me, “In order to enjoy events I need to be able to get to them and I almost always can’t. Travelling is generally inaccessible and exhausting, particularly living in a city like London, and it prevents disabled people like me from getting to enjoy arts venues. Not only is there barely any step free access, but there’s a complete lack of understanding of what disability and invisible illness means.” We need to be sharing the voices of disabled people who’ve had to take the brunt of dire accessibility. Arts institutions need to be listening, else, they will and should run the risk of being boycotted.
Thom is a Student Adviser based in South East London who has first-hand experience of arts spaces across London that have failed to appropriately foresee and accommodate for his visual impairment. Exhibits are often behind physical barriers, and when venues are busy, Thom finds it difficult to get close enough to the enlarged text. Most of the time, his partner has no choice but to read to him aloud, to overcome the venue’s inaccessible organisation. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if someone was in a wheelchair trying to get around there,” he tells me, “I think the gallery stuff is just a symptom of the way disability is perceived in our society.” When an exhibition is particularly poorly thought-through, Thom generally ends up leaving early.
In his role as Student Adviser, Thom works within the disability service at Goldsmiths. “Although I don’t think they’re perfect, they work from something called the social model of disability,” he explains. “Essentially, it outlines that disability, rather than being a medical condition, is socially constructed. For example, when a person in a wheelchair is unable to get into a tube station because it has no step-free access, it is the station that is disabling that individual, not their condition.” He continues, “I think if curators took an approach more in line with this way of thinking, museums, exhibitions spaces etc, would become more inclusive spaces. In general, I find that they talk about accessibility like it’s an inconvenience rather than an essential part of their practice.” Tom lists a number of arts spaces with a poor track record of accessibility, many of which tally with other people I spoke to on the subject.
Katie is based in Bath, and like Chloe, also has EDS. She looks forward to making the trip up to the capital to attend plays, but has had a thoroughly mixed experience of theatres accommodating for her access needs. “The Barbican was TOUGH,” she tells me, “Steep slopes, small space. Although The Globe was probably worse, much less comfortable”. It’s disturbing, as an able-bodied individual with overwhelmingly positive experiences in these venues, how much I’ve taken my own accessibility for granted. This absence of consideration for disabled attendees in the architecture of cultural spaces is a product of wider society failing to acknowledge the existence of those with access needs. And it’s not good enough.
Whilst there is much work to be done in improving the cultural experiences of those with access needs, there is some hope. Katie is keen to praise the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane for her positive experience of access support. Indeed, venues such as the Battersea Arts Centre operate a ‘relaxed venue’ policy, which designates a chill-out space with “a relaxed attitude to noise and movement in the auditorium”, allowing guests to comfortably leave the performance without fearing disruption. “We recognise that it’s our responsibility to stop our spaces and programmes being disabling,” they write on their website, “This will not be a goal we achieve but a process we promise to continually review and work towards.” This is a step in the right direction. Chloe agrees, saying, “I think that arts venues need to educate their staff on disability rights and support (with an emphasis on invisible illnesses) because it will improve both the working conditions and quality of life of their disabled employees as well as the experience of disabled visitors and their families.”
For more information on accessible theatres in London, see here.
For more information on accessible clubs and music venues in London, see here.
For more information on accessible galleries in London, see here.
For more information on accessible cinemas in London, see here.
For more information on accessible museums in London, see here.
Carrie Ann Lightley’s guide to accessible London reviews and scores a number of popular destinations across the capital. See here.