Shape Arts, UK

How Do We Make the Arts Accessible?

This September, Rereeti trains the spotlight on accessibility in the cultural sector. We begin with a post by Bhavani Esapathi, who writes about the growing interest in the United Kingdom’s arts institutions to engage with and promote the works of artists with disabilities.

The arts has a long history of challenging status quo, stereotypes and cultural norms, which is what makes conversations and creative work in the cultural sector so interesting. Yet, when we speak of accessibility in modern galleries and museums, we regress into conversations of tangible spaces and how they can be made accessible for commonly known disabilities.

As we evolve into a world where inclusion isn’t just about the marginalized but about encouraging the participation of various stakeholders with each other, it requires us to purpose accessibility in similar terms. In its broadest sense, inclusion goes beyond conventional notions of addressing disability and takes into account access for users of all abilities.

If accessibility is only considered from the viewpoint of disability then it begins and ends at physical or mental activities that limit one’s engagement with the arts.

Shape Arts, UKShape Arts or Shape is a charity based in Kentish Town, north London that develops opportunities for disabled artists. It is funded by Arts Council England.

Inclusion shall remain integral to determining how accessibility is implemented but what we do need to reconsider is who is included and how we facilitate this interaction rather than ticking boxes and counting numbers that satisfy certain quota. The second aspect is about the notion of disability itself, which is usually restricted to recognizing or being inclusive about obvious physical and cognitive disabilities. Would you be surprised to know that 1 in 5 people in the world now have incurable, autoimmune conditions that make it almost impossible to lead a “normal” life? Thirdly, barriers to accessing the arts go beyond inaccessible spaces and disabilities in the form of economical, linguistics and at the very least, social levels.

Artists with lupus, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease, to name a few, are exceedingly surfacing onto the global arts scene. They feel drawn towards creating work that expresses an aspect of themselves that mainstream society does not yet acknowledge. Also, they are incapable of leading a “normal” life due to the limitations these invisible disabilities confer upon them. What we’re really looking at today is the development of artists with invisible disabilities who face barriers in accessing arts via a range of un-art-like systems, be it economies, information or social, as highlighted above.

We Are Unlimited, UK
Image: Unlimited aims to embed work by disabled artists within the UK cultural sector, reach new audiences and shift perceptions of disabled people.

If we are looking to create an accessible, all-inclusive environment within the arts, we need to acknowledge this fairly new phenomenon that didn’t exist when disability laws were constitutionalized. How do you relate to an artwork made by an artist who looks completely normal yet is attempting at sharing a very personal, vulnerable aspect of her life that revolves around disability? That is the challenge for modern art institutions: accessibility needs to be revisited not just in the light of enabling easier physical access. Institutions need to take on the challenge of reorienting public perception towards the arts.

The disabled arts scene in the UK is intensely compassionate about spreading awareness of disability with the works of disabled artists, from DAO – Disability Arts Online, We Are Unlimited, Shape Arts, Society of Disabled Artists, DASH Arts, and so on. Most of these initiatives are aimed at recognizing and responding to the social alienation and other such public issues that are often unmet by popular arts organizations. One of the Chronically Driven artists Daniel Leighton from Los Angeles is a wonderful example of this. As someone with an invisible disability, he often falls outside the crux of most arts institutions, who might or might not work with artists with disabilities. He’s therefore taken it upon himself to bridge this gap by raising awareness about his disability.

SODA - Society of Disabled ArtistsImage: Arts exhibition organized by SODA – Society of Disabled Artists in 2014 at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, UK.

Accessibility is not a topic that concerns merely the ones who are directly or indirectly affected by disability (think caretakers, family, employers, and the government); inclusion means society as a whole has to intervene and transform how the arts is represented and appropriated. How do we begin making the arts accessible? Let’s begin by curating a narrative of the unspoken that allows for the public and artists with disabilities to interact with one another and create dialogues around enabling access. Is this something that the arts should be concerned about? Yes! The arts have always been a place to experiment and challenge the norms. The question that we need to answer today is if we want the galleries and museums of the future to continue with this tradition while including the public of the tomorrow.

About the Author

Bhavani Esapathi - profileBhavani Esapathi is a writer and speaker on digital innovation in the cultural sector. She has worked with the British Museum, the V&A and the British Council. She is on the boards of the Campaign for Good Curatorship at the Natural History Museum, DLNet (Digital Learning Network) Committee and DASH Arts for Disabled Artists. She is also the founder of the British Council-supported project Chronically Driven that works towards bringing invisible disability to the forefront of mainstream media. Subscribe to her newsletter or say hello on Twitter.

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