Increasing awareness of the importance of accessibility is leading to more inclusive spaces and services- including those that facilitate creativity and culture. Yet accessibility remains a broad topic that many people have a limited or differing understanding of. In this three-part series, we’ve spoken to people with access needs, those who work to support access, and cultural institutions in the city to explore accessibility in museums and galleries. By looking at available accommodations, how those work in practice, challenges to provision, and – most importantly – how disabled people experience spaces and programming, we hope to offer an introduction to how better access benefits everyone.
In this first part, we’re focusing on physical spaces; the buildings and interior exhibition spaces that host Dundee’s cultural collections.
Before we start, a note: this series is written through the lens of the Social Model of Disability. Find out what we mean by that.
When talking about accessibility, perhaps the thing we most universally think of is being able to get into and navigate a building. Minds may quickly go to measures like whether a venue has nearby disabled parking, or a building having automatic doors at the entrance and think it’s an accessible space. But much more consideration is required for disabled people when visiting a space.
Beyond making sure entrances are accessible with measures like ramps and automatic doors, considerations have also been taken with the interiors. Subtle changes can make a world of difference to visitors who need them. With its white walls and dark grey floors, DCA has created a high contrast space, making it easier to navigate for those with visual impairments. V&A Dundee have a designated ‘quiet room’ available to anyone struggling with sensory overload and, alongside accessible toilets, they have a Changing Places toilet too, helping to make their building suitable for those with profound and multiple disabilities.
Dundee’s newer museums and galleries have benefited from modern building best practices, with features like lifts and disabled toilets being built in as default. Wheelchair accessibility is also now considered during the planning stage, making sure not only that automatic doors and ramps are available, but also that corridors provide enough room for someone in a wheelchair to easily navigate and turn. In the case of older venues, like The McManus, recent renovations have upgraded their accessibility; though Paul Campbell, Engagement Officer with Leisure and Culture Dundee does share there are challenges in adapting their other properties, the Mills Observatory and Broughty Castle: “…Because they’re historic buildings it’s hard to make changes. Broughty Castle is a castle, it’s got no lift, and though we’ve just installed a ramp at the Observatory, the thing about an observatory is all that actually happens is in the dome at the top, so it’s tricky.”
Whilst the city’s cultural buildings have a wide variety of building adaptations and additional measures in place to make their spaces more accessible, the variation between what’s provided in each location invariably adds another hurdle. Before even entering a building, there is a whole additional level of planning required for anyone with access requirements to work out whether cultural spaces are suitable for them.
Many museums and galleries share information online in order to make it easier for visitors to become familiar with what is and isn’t available before their visit. This includes noting where disabled parking is located, or internal routes so that people can familiarise themselves with the building layout in advance for a more independent experience.
Sorcha Pringle, disabled musician and access advisor at Springboard Creative Arts says, in her experience “DCA demonstrates well-thought-out access information which is available digitally. It makes it possible for people to make decisions as to whether they are able to or will benefit from attending events with the access provisions put in place.”
Euan’s Guide does brilliant independent work in peer-reviewing not only the city’s cultural institutions but taking in Dundee as a whole and how accessible it is, providing a platform for disabled people to share experiences they’ve had. AccessAble also provides a searchable database of local locations and their accessibility provisions, and maps out routes to share any potential obstacles; an incredibly useful resource for those planning a trip.
Information like this, shared freely online, gives people the ability to make an informed decision on if a venue has made adequate considerations to enable their visit, and how to get the best out of their time there. However, those without access to the internet have an additional barrier to finding out if the space is suitable. Often too, even with the information that’s provided online, checking whether particular access provisions are in place for your visit might require back and forth between the visitor and the institution; something many museums and galleries advertise being happy to do, but a process that is nonetheless more time-consuming for potential visitors. It leaves disabled visitors and/or their carers with a level of planning that non-disabled visitors aren’t required to do. The additional hurdle can be incredibly discouraging, putting people off visiting regularly, if at all.
For some, the problem with space-related access provisions is not that they aren’t available, but that they aren’t integrated in a way that creates a visitor experience that’s equal to the experience of non-disabled people. Things like lifts can be tucked away in corners, making them hard to find. There’s also a difference between an access provision being in place in practice, and actually being available to use on the day. There might be a disabled toilet, but if there’s only one and it also doubles as a baby changing area, it’s less accessible. The design of the building and the prioritisation of their upkeep can tell a different story from the accessibility policies of the institutions.
A similar problem can also be found inside exhibition spaces. Things that, to most visitors, may seem like fairly minor details – like the seating design – can determine how welcome people feel and how long they’re welcome to spend in spaces.
Peter Nurick, Communities Producer for Access and Inclusion at V&A Dundee explains their thinking when designing a gallery space: ”Often if you’ve got an interactive or a piece of audio-visual content, curators tend to have a lovely bench right in the middle. So it looks nice and symmetrical…but this unintentionally pushes people in wheelchairs to one side, which not only decreases the viewing angle, it makes it less inclusive and also sends the message that they have to sit to one side to view it rather than enjoying it front and centre. So we try to make sure we have viewing areas that are equal access, so people in wheelchairs are getting the same museum experience.”
Making visitors feel welcome goes beyond just meeting and centering their physical requirements. To truly engage with and enjoy the work that’s on display, visitors need to feel comfortable. The idea of comfort in a gallery space (raised particularly well in this thoughtful article on The White Pube by Gabrielle de la Puente) is perhaps one that’s at odds with what you imagine a gallery space to be. The stereotype of stark white walls, an invigilator sitting off to the side; a big, open, but incredibly quiet room, designed as somewhere to silently contemplate the work in front of you. An exaggeration perhaps, but the stereotype informs an expectation on what a respectful visitor looks like in these spaces.
The silence can be intimidating and the expectation of it and the potential for disrupting someone else’s quiet contemplation can often put off individuals with learning disabilities and those who look after them from visiting. But art galleries and museums can provide amazing stimulation. When discussing a session she facilitated for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities recently at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, Maureen Phillip, Creative Inclusion Director at PAMIS and multi-disciplinary storyteller, explained how one girl started engaging with a video piece that included Makaton and vocalisation: “…she started vocalising as soon as she was coming along the corridor, calling back to the lady on the screen and it was just amazing! That kind of thing just shows how much they want to be involved but how little opportunity there is. And people were very good, they were trying to listen to it but nobody bothered and she was happy!”
Having spaces that are free to enter and free to spend time in are crucial to making our cities accessible to everyone. With V&A Dundee created as ‘a living room for the city’ and McManus as ‘the people’s museum’, everyone feeling welcome and catered for in cultural spaces like museums and galleries seems to go hand in hand. Why not make people as comfortable as possible whilst doing it?
The Social Model of Disability sees people as not inherently disabled by their impairment(s), but instead disabled by the environments they interact with. For example, people are not disabled because they may be deaf; they’re disabled by the fact that there is no British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter available. They’re not inherently disabled because they use a wheelchair; they’re disabled by a space not having a step-free entrance, lifts or enough space for them to navigate a building in their wheelchair.
Under this classification – and with regards to space – the onus is taken away from the individual and placed on the people managing the buildings and spaces we interact with. It also brings in many other factors that can impair someone’s ability to access a space. Maybe it’s financial; an individual might not have the money to pay for an exhibition ticket, and so they are unable to visit. Maybe it’s sensory; there are too many people or the lighting and sound design hasn’t been considered for them to enjoy the spaces comfortably. This series primarily focuses on people with physical and learning impairments that stop them accessing Dundee’s cultural spaces but we acknowledge that individuals can be disabled by more than just these impairments.
We’re aware that this series will only scratch the surface of people’s ability to access cultural spaces and cover just some of the ways that museums and galleries aspire to meet access needs. If there is a point or an experience you feel we’ve not included and you’d like to share, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!
Thank you to Sorcha Pringle, Paul Campbell, Peter Nurick and Maureen Phillips for lending their voices to this article, and also to Beatrix Livesey-Stephens and Sorcha Pringle for their support in providing feedback on the series as a whole. Next up, we’re taking a look at how exhibitions are displayed and how people can interact with programming and museums, focusing on ways to make programming and events more accessible.
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