• Param Barodia

Are the arts accessible to all?

One of my favourite things to do on a nice weekend is to find a bit of art or culture to take in. Whether with family, friends, or a special someone, there’s nothing quite like visiting the theatre, a gallery, or something even more high-brow. There’s just one problem, how are you meant to enjoy it properly if you don’t feel comfortable there or the show and space aren’t designed for people like you?

Thankfully, the art world has already begun making strides, and we’re moving beyond the days of no women or disabled toilets because the theatre was only for able-bodied men. The 2016 work by the Theatres Trust and the 2019 “More Loos” campaign backed by Joanna Lumley and Glenda Jackson played a role in this change. The major work left to be done is, unfortunately, to be done in the provision of more services for disabled members of the audience, as facilities that are far from the theatre aren’t particularly useful when an interval lasts only 20 minutes. It has to be recognised that some of the venues making the slower changes are quite old and historic, so any building or change will take longer to pass through all the attached red tape.

The work being done by charities including Stagetext and VocalEyes to make shows accessible to those with visual and auditory impairments must be admired. They work with venues and the English Arts Council to provide captions, audio descriptions, and BSL interpretations for shows, helping make every play accessible. The National Autistic Society has also been active in securing autism-friendly and generally relaxed performances. This began with a focus on children with a variety of special needs but has since been expanded to all age groups and all groups who prefer a relaxed performance. Virtual and online performances have also begun to allow people to enjoy shows from the comfort and safety of their own home, or a place closer to it. The Royal Opera, in particular, has had great success with this, allowing everyone to enjoy the show without needing to travel to London and sit in a crowded hall.

The world of art is also a much more welcoming space than it has been before for some groups. The stigma of ethnic minorities, those with physical disabilities, and sexual minorities has been slowly pushed back to allow diversity in artists and gallery visitors. The situation is unfortunately not as positive for those with ASD or SPD, as detailed in the 2017 research of Beth Davis-Hofbauer. A disabled and neurodivergent artist herself, her experience in the art world with her child, who suffers from sensory problems, prompted her work in making art accessible. The profile is being raised slowly by people like Beth and organisations like the Art of Autism, but there is still much work to be done. The rise in pre-booking entry slots for galleries due to the Covid-19 pandemic now allows galleries to schedule relaxed or autism-friendly hours, similar to cinemas running relaxed performances. However, so far only sessions focused on children are running in major museums like Dawnosaurs at the Natural History Museum and Early Birds at the Science Museum, with art galleries yet to make good use of the concept.

The arts are a representation of society, and it would not be right to have the arts without any section of people. That’s exactly why making them accessible to all is so key. We can only experience the works of every amazing artist if every amazing person can embrace art and experience it to their full enjoyment. Much work has been done, but as always there’s much more to do.