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.
After looking at the buildings that host the city’s cultural institutions and their programming, we’re finishing up this series by looking forward, practically. Everyone should feel welcome and accommodated in Dundee’s cultural spaces, so how can these organisations achieve that? What actionable next steps can be taken, and what barriers might stand in their way?
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.
As we’ve discussed before, for anyone who is disabled, visiting creative spaces takes more time and planning. Whilst many expect the extra admin required to plan a visit, there are things museums and galleries can do to lighten the load. Beatrix Livesey-Stephens, writer and freelance Accessibility Officer for NEoN Digital Arts tells us that it’s vital that creative institutions clearly communicate the access provisions they can and cannot provide for visitors: “It’s always the responsibility of the organisation to say “yes, you’re welcome here, and here’s how we’re ensuring that” and to make that information easy to find.”
This may already be standard practice for some – through resources on their own websites, or peer-reviewed sites like Euan’s Guide’s reviews and AccessAble’s thorough overview of spaces and their facilities. But if certain provisions aren’t always available, it’s important that organisations make it clear whether they can be put in place, to take away some of the labour involved in arranging a visit. There may not be the expectation that museums and galleries have a full-time audio describer or sign language interpreter in place just in case someone needs them, but visitors knowing one can be made available without having to email back and forth endlessly to confirm it makes visiting a little simpler.
Beyond this, it’s important for institutions to not only clearly explain what they can and cannot offer visitors, but to advertise it too, just as they do with the rest of the events programmes.
As Sorcha Pringle, disabled musician and access consultant at Springboard Creative Arts explains: “Honesty, in this case, is key. It is better that as a disabled person, you know what will be in place as well as won’t be in place, so you can bring your own support to an event if necessary. Visiting Dundee Rep with my guide dog is made very easy by the staff being well-trained and very welcoming. Being able to make a decision as to whether I take my dog into the auditorium or not, knowing if I don’t she will be well looked after, is a key factor in repeat visits to this venue.”
When access is clearly communicated, it makes people feel welcome, and it becomes more normalised to discuss and ask about.
Often for cultural organisations, it’s not through lack of want that access provisions are limited, but an issue around cost. Some additional access provisions can be expensive to implement– things like British Sign Language and Live Audio Descriptive Tours require the interpreter to have a certain amount of preparation time for them to become familiar with the material, and if a tour or interpretation lasts for over an hour, usually multiple interpreters are needed to stop fatigue impacting the quality of the interpretation. Similar problems around cost are faced in audio descriptive performances in theatres and braille translations, which aren’t offered as standard.
However, not all access provisions cost a lot to implement, and as Beatrix Livesey-Stephens explains, prioritisation is key. She suggests, “An impact matrix for this is really helpful – i.e. working out what access provisions are high impact/low cost, high impact/high cost, etc., to help streamline what an organisation can do next in order to increase accessibility.”
Cost can also affect the frequency at which these more expensive access provisions can be provided. V&A Dundee run Sensory Friendly Days, where the museum opens to those who require a quieter environment to get the most out of their visit, and the usually paid exhibitions are free to enter and explore – but because of the scale and financial implication of running this, they only happen every few months, usually once per exhibition. They’ve previously also held monthly audio-described and BSL tours of the museum but they’re now available on request. Similarly, the Dundee Rep typically aim to have at least one audio-described performance per run of their shows.
Whilst it’s positive to see these provisions being made available when possible, the specialist approaches can remove disabled people from the general public visiting, sometimes creating a feeling of ‘otherness’. If we take V&A Dundee’s Sensory Friendly Days as an example, whilst this is a wonderful and useful adaptation for some – particularly those who struggle with audio stimulation, crowds and higher lighting levels – it’s important to remember that it’s not the solution for everyone.
Maureen Phillips, Creative Inclusion Director at PAMIS and multi-disciplinary storyteller explains, “There are two camps: there are some families that like them but then there are some that won’t go to them, because they just want to access it when it suits them and when it fits in. If somebody is ill on the Sensory Friendly Day and you’ve missed it, that’s it. There are two ways of looking at that, and it’s tricky for the museums to balance.”
Just as in all places where humans interact with each other, with all the best laid plans and intentions, mistakes happen. Whether it’s a case of a piece of equipment being broken when it needs to be used, someone not being trained on how to use something or simple misunderstandings, there will always be an element of human error to accessibility.
But the responsibility lies with the institution to ensure these mistakes are kept to a minimum, and there are plenty of things that can be done to reduce the chance of this happening. Staff training, in both formal courses and informal on-the-job training, is vital for making people aware of how to help support all visitors. Keeping this up to date with everyone can be tricky, especially with the turnover of customer-facing staff, but interaction with staff is a vital part of the visitor’s experience.
At a more institutional level, the prioritisation of funding to fix broken equipment and regularly reviewing whether access guidelines are being followed or that they’re up-to-date versions of best practices makes a huge difference to whether people feel welcome or not.
Access is an ongoing journey. The concept of a place being fully accessible, where everyone and anyone can come in and have everything they need at their fingertips, can still feel like a distant target. The idea of a space being “fully accessible” may not even be realistic, because of conflicting access needs. Institutions are always going to have something they can be doing differently, doing better. But the fact it’s difficult isn’t an excuse to not try.
Making Dundee’s creative and cultural spaces accessible to everyone is a continuous process. Good, thoughtful work has been done and measures implemented already, but the nature of accessibility is ever-changing, with new technological developments and ways of thinking meaning accessibility needs to be seen as a constant, iterative process. In this changing world, getting things right is a huge task and one that can never be seen as ‘complete’ but even acknowledging that it’s not an action that can be ticked from a to-do list shows an understanding of the task at hand. By employing different kinds of people with different access needs in institutions themselves, supporting the creative work of people who are disabled, and hiring disabled people to lead this work, Dundee’s museums and galleries can continue to not only create a more welcoming, accessible space for all visitors but ensure accessibility is embedded into their thinking.
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!
If you’re interested in finding out more about making creative outputs and spaces accessible to as many people as possible, here’s a list of recommended resources that are great places to start:
Thank you to Beatrix Livesey-Stephens and Sorcha Pringle for both lending their voices to the piece and offering consultation around its direction. Thanks also to Maureen Phillips for contributing their thoughts to this article, and to Peter Nurick from V&A Dundee and Paul Campbell from Leisure and Culture Dundee for the series.
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