I spend a lot of time advocating for various forms of arts access for disabled people. For once I thought I would share some of my own personal views of things I dislike most about museums, galleries and theatres, and a few things I like too. Don’t get me wrong, I love GLAM, (galleries, libraries, archives and museums,) theatre and music performances; I have done so all my life. But as a vision-impaired person, as distinct from blind, I often feel frustrated by the simple changes that could be made that would be helpful for many arts patrons, especially in an ageing community. As a lifelong arts patron I think I, and others like me, deserve better. Currently we often pay the same price as everyone else for a lesser experience.
Here are some of my pet peeves, and likes, starting from the beginning of the process, which can stop me in my tracks.
Advertising is often unreadable. Accessibility options are buried on web sites and difficult to find. Its fine to have aesthetic design but communication with an audience is paramount. Web sites and other advertising are often designed with art rather than access in mind. The two aren’t incompatible. The New Zealand Festival is making progress this year with an easily found accessibility section on the web site, (although an access link would be even better on the home page.) The Fringe, not so much. A shame as Fringe events may be within the budgets of more disabled people.
Booking is often difficult and expensive and plain inaccessible in many cases. I love Circa Theatre for their friendly and direct regular booking process. Chamber Music NZ and New Zealand Opera also have user-friendly ticketing for audio described performances. The booking process should be easy, with accessible alternatives if necessary.
Lighting can be very poor in places where I most need it, such as reading my programme or catalogue, often difficult to read anyway, or on labels on exhibits. Carefully targeted lighting is possible. Transitions from light to dark, in particular are often inadequately managed and a bit scary.
Clutter and wayfinding. Museums often leave me exhausted with sensory overload and a struggle to find one thing to focus on, with so much sound and vision all together all at once. I realised how much I miss when I get a little taste of audio description. Poor lighting can contribute to this confusion.
Print materials are generally designed to look good rather than for readability. A downloadable more readable and accessible version would help. Labelling in galleries and museums could be easier to read, with larger, clearer print, or again downloadable so I can read them on my chosen device in comfort.
Libraries. As a passionate reader, I am a regular user of our precious public libraries. Here there has been a real change. I use an online catalogue to find my chosen reading matter, but best of all, public librarians will, without question, help me find things on the shelves. In the past I found librarians rather intimidating and unhelpful. I don’t use the Blind Foundation library as I can read some print, often on my iPad. If the government ratifies the Marrakesh Treaty there should be more large print books available too.
Disability experience reflected in art, culture and heritage. Last but not least we, disabled people, and our stories on our terms are largely absent. So-called “outsider” art is fashionable and collectable, but often not seen alongside “real” artists’ work in mainstream galleries in New Zealand yet. Theatre is slowly beginning to explore our stories, and disabled performing artists are appearing. But we still have a long way to go. Our heritage and history on our terms are not included in museums, and literary writing by disabled people is invisible. I have found few books on disability subjects I can relate to in our libraries by New Zealanders. Popular media stories are not the answer as they reflect unrealistic stereotypes. I want to see and hear and read “real” stories like mine.
What can we do? I am a practical person who tries to find solutions to the problems I encounter. In the research I have done over the years I know there is a lot of help available, and some wonderful stories to be told, and I’m not talking about sob stories, super crips or inspiration porn either, but human nuanced stories well presented. Our history, sometimes uncomfortable, unsafe and shameful, is largely untold in heritage institutions.
There are also opportunities missed. For example the wonderful Shapeshifter sculpture exhibition at the last NZ Festival would have been an audio describer’s dream as most exhibits in the outdoor exhibition were touchable. Perhaps this year? Cultural festivals such as the Chinese New Year, Cuba Dupa and Diwali, have possibility too. We have terrific trained audio describers in Wellington who are really keen to work.
Making change is not always easy. The disabled audience is diverse, and has to be cultivated and developed. But talk to us, engage with us on social media and in person. Often the people factor is the most important. There are Arts Access Advocates who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, often arts practitioners ourselves. The skilled and helpful people at Arts Access Aotearoa, have a wealth of resources available, some of which I helped create. These resources include a much wider range of arts access ideas, tools and advice than I have covered in this personal account. Most are free.
But don’t take the expertise of individual disabled people for granted. We are experts just like curators and other staff. That needs recognition in the same way.
We are an ageing population. Arts institutions need to retain us as audience. The arts are a critical part of my life. I desperately want to keep it that way. We, disabled people are 24% of the population, and growing. Ignoring and excluding us as patrons and participants is not an option.