By Sarah Kaiser
Every month, millions of people have wonderful experiences in our museums and galleries across the UK – from attempting a penalty shot at the National Football Museum to exploring modern art in the open air at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; being terrified by dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum to taking a moment for reflection with a Rothko at Tate Modern – and usually for free.
We all have a right to enjoy access to the incredibly rich cultural heritage of our national collections of art and objects. That includes the 11 million disabled people living in the UK today. Yet all too often disabled people face barriers to accessing cultural activities, and are significantly less likely to participate in the arts and culture than non-disabled people.
I’m proud to work for Tate, because it takes its mission to increase public knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of art seriously. Tate is committed to opening up access to the arts to all, so that people from all backgrounds can benefit from our activities.
Tate’s approach to access for our disabled visitors stems from the social model of disability. The social model, developed by disabled people, holds that disability is caused by the way that society is organised, and is not an inevitable consequence of a person’s impairment or difference. People become disabled when they are excluded from participation within the mainstream of society as a result of physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers. Eliminating discrimination against disabled people requires a change of attitude and removing barriers within society.
So, it is our responsibility to ensure that our disabled visitors can experience our galleries and programmes in an independent and dignified way. We aim to identify and remove any barriers that could restrict access, and to take an inclusive approach to designing new activities, buildings and services. This starts with removing any attitudinal barriers, so that we can create a welcoming environment for all our visitors. When our team has a good understanding of disability equality and how disabled visitors expect to be treated, everything else flows from there.
It would be impossible for me to even attempt to list every step we take to improve access for all of our visitors. These extend far beyond the most evident changes to the physical environment such as ramps, induction loops or our Changing Places toilet. The potential barriers to access are as many and varied as the types of impairment and conditions that come under the umbrella of disability. Some unique access challenges arise in the gallery setting, such as:
• The height and placement of art works to allow room for manoeuvre for visitors who use mobility aids
• Displaying a number of touchable works for blind and visually impaired visitors
• Providing interpretation in a number of formats, including large print, and checking there is sufficient colour contrast between wall texts and the walls
• Warning visitors of any works which could be distressing or dangerous, such as works featuring flashing lights
• Conveying information in Plain English, which is easily comprehensible to visitors with learning disabilities, rather than ‘artspeak’ jargon – there is still plenty of room for improvement on this!
Art works can also create their own challenges. For instance, some installations are not accessible to people with mobility impairments. In these cases, we seek alternative ways to convey the experience of the work to visitors.
We also provide a dedicated – and extremely popular – programme of events and services that enable disabled people to actively participate in the UK’s cultural life. The most popular and successful of these activities are led by disabled people, such as Tate Liverpool’s Magic Mirror Ball which is organised by people with learning disabilities. Our disabled audiences also value the opportunity to combine learning with networking and meeting new people. Last year, thousands of people visited Tate for:
• Monthly British Sign Language tours delivered by deaf artists/art historians with voice-over interpreters and lip-speaking assisted talks
• Touch tours and visual description tours for blind and visually impaired visitors, where art works and sculptures are described and experienced through touch
• Events exploring disability-related content within Tate’s collection and displays led by disabled artists and practitioners
• Workshops for adults who use local mental health services, older adults with dementia, and people with learning disabilities
• Out of hours visits for people who wouldn’t be able to navigate our bustling galleries during opening hours
As a matter of principle, all these events are offered free of charge. Disabled people are twice as likely to be below the poverty line as non-disabled people, and face many additional impairment-related costs, such as for accessible transport options. We also offer a concessionary rate on exhibition charges for disabled people, and provide free tickets for personal assistants and carers accompanying disabled visitors.
The involvement of disabled people is invaluable to guiding all of our access initiatives. Our Access Advisory Group, made up of disabled arts world professionals and visitors, act as critical friends to Tate. They hold up a mirror to our practices and reflect back to us honestly and supportively, helping us to understand the particular needs and interests of our disabled visitors, identifying barriers and providing solutions for continuous improvement. We recognise that this endeavour will never be ‘completed’ – there will always be room for further improvement, and we will always need to remain vigilant for potential barriers.
When we do get it right, we know that there are benefits for all our visitors, whether or not they are disabled. One of our disabled visitors commented last year: ‘I was really impressed by the understanding of your staff, they couldn’t have been more helpful or friendly. The really important thing is that, without their support in arranging the visit, we would never have done it. Now we feel really confident about doing this again.’
Please visit www.tate.org.uk for more information about access and facilities for disabled visitors at all Tate sites.