Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90, keynote speech to Engage Scotland

I’d like to start by saying what a pleasure it is to be in Scotland, and how good it is to see Scotland leading the way in making the visual arts more inclusive of and accessible to disabled people. I’d also like to stress that I am absolutely not coming here today to talk about how the English do things better! Rather, I think it’s helpful to discuss how badly the English do things currently, and how easy it’s going to be for you to do much, much better yourselves.

I was a bursary holder at the State of the Arts conference in Manchester a few weeks ago, and I think the experience summed up the current state of access to and inclusion within the arts in England very nicely. Disability was, quite literally, not on the agenda, while there was no British Sign Language interpretation, Palantype sur-titles or audio-description of the proceedings, either for the hundreds of people at the conference, or for the international audience logging on to the live streaming. ‘Access’, as a term, was then re-interpreted to mean access to the arts by everyone – so long, that is, as they’re not disabled.

To underline the current State of the Arts in England still further, the Arts Council had commissioned an artists’ film called ‘What Matters’, where, once again, equality and diversity were not mentioned. And although a free copy of ‘What Matters’ was given to every delegate for their future use, there were no sub-titles included within it. This not only severely limited its usefulness, but also sent out a dangerous message to everyone within the arts about the absolute unimportance of accessibility.

So why does it matter, and why should it matter? The key to answering these questions lies in the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, which the UK Government signed up to a couple of years ago. Although you may never have heard of it, it is now the Convention, and not the Equality Acts, that underpins national and local government disability policy throughout the United Kingdom.

It’s useful to pause here for a moment to realize that the reason why the Convention was needed in the first place is because disabled people have never been fully included within the UN Convention on Human Rights, but instead have been denied full civil and human rights across the world. Even today, disability discrimination is the only form of discrimination that’s enshrined in UK law – while every other form of discrimination is completely illegal, the Equality Acts list all of the ways in which disabled people can legally be discriminated against on the grounds of cost or convenience.

It is this lack of legal clarity that has led Arts Council England and other bodies to move away from a rights-based case for including disabled people. Since disability discrimination can be legal, the argument goes, only lawyers can decide what is and isn’t acceptable within a legal rights-based framework. It therefore follows that Arts Council England, as an arts rather than a legal body, is unable to issue guidance on how to implement the law, or to withdraw funding on the basis of non-compliance. And so we have the new ‘Creative Case’ for diversity instead, which as State of the Arts showed, is no good without an accompanying rights dimension.

However, a focus on the Equality Act and legal rights is to ignore Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, which states that disabled people have the human right to participate equally and fully within art, culture and sport. When we ask, ‘Is this legal?’, we are therefore asking entirely the wrong question. The real question is: ‘Can disabled people participate on an equal basis with non-disabled people?’ Followed rapidly by: ‘If not, then what can we do to achieve positive change?’

We should not be focusing on how to implement the law on disability rights, but rather on how to ensure that human rights, so central to so much of the arts, are applied throughout our practice. Disability is an integral part of the human condition, but there is nothing normal or natural about the barriers that human beings place in the way of each other, and we can and should challenge and change this.

Here, all of the guidance around the various pieces of equality legislation is extremely helpful. It is much more efficient to create a proactive action plan, as advised by the Act, than to react to perceived problems on an ad hoc basis. It is much wiser to remember that you can be sued for breaking the law, and to understand your legal obligations under the Act, than to ignore this on the grounds that the law is woolly, and that disabled people are seldom in a position to enforce it. And it is much better to ignore the fact that the licensing body will excuse you from putting a lift in on the grounds of ‘heritage’, and to fight as hard as you can to get planning permission and install a lift as the Code of Practice recommends, than to have the inevitable crisis that the lack of a lift will create at some point in the future.

But it is not the issue. The issue is that custom and practice within the art world has had the unintended effect of excluding large numbers of human beings from participating within the arts, both as audience members and as artists and arts workers — less than 4% of Arts Council England-funded arts workers are disabled. And those excluded are not simply the human beings who currently identify as, or who are identified as being, disabled, or who have a disabled child, friend or family member whose access needs must be met before they themselves can be included. All of us, at some point in our lives, will be excluded from the art world unless we achieve change now.

Very few people indeed reach their 40s, let alone their 50s, without some degree of sight loss or hearing loss, or a level of impaired mobility. As they continue to age, the impact of these impairments will increase, and many people will also develop long-term health conditions. This includes artists, and curators, and gallery staff, and critics, as much as it does the so-called General Public. Few, if any, of this group will consider themselves to be disabled, and the majority may indeed have no legal protection under the Equality Act, because they do not meet the very restricted legal definition of a disabled person. You can also practically guarantee that, whether or not they are covered by the law, the vast majority will not complain if you fail to make provisions for them. Either they will not want to ‘out’ themselves as having any form of perceived imperfection, or — and this is typical of Brits throughout our countries — they will not want to be seen as being ungrateful or a complainer.

However, without good lighting on speakers, and a PA system, and a hearing aid loop, and Palantype surtitles, the majority of this group will not be able to hear much of what you are saying during any event that you run. Without a variety of different seating types being available, including at meal times, many will not be able to attend at all (although they will never admit the reason for this). And if the step-free access needed by people with limited mobility also involves walking much longer distances than others rather than shorter, then they will either not come at all, or will leave early, or at the very least will spend the day in a very bad mood because of the resulting pain and fatigue — as well as suffering the after-effects for days and failing to return next time.

(You may want to stop for a moment to consider here whether any of this explains why what you considered to be one of your best shows or events received such a pasting from the critics, or had crits which completely missed the point.)

There are also a whole raft of so-called disability access arrangements that impact on international visitors, and indeed on gallery visitors as a whole. We talk about step-free access rather than wheelchair access, because step-free access is critical for the vast majority of older people as well as for parents with buggies. A ‘special’ route which necessitates navigating around the back of the building and up in the goods lift may not be ideal for wheelchair users — although we do get to see some very interesting parts of galleries which are otherwise closed to General Public — but it does suffice. However, a lengthy back route is no good at all for the vast majority of people who need step-free access, and who cannot even be easily identified as such by gallery staff.

Step-free access for all therefore has to be the ambition, even if the reality cannot always live up to it, and even though with old buildings it always involves some degree of fundraising and arguing with the planning authorities. I personally cannot understand why the Government is keen to implement a ‘presumption in favour of planning permission’ for developers who want to build in the Green Belt, but not for people who want to widen access to their buildings. However, don’t get me started …
Instead, to return to the Arts Council’s film What Matters, sub-titling all films and videos may be regarded only as assisting people with hearing impairments — and indeed, my interpretation is that the law requires this adjustment to be made as a matter of course. However, subtitles also make films and videos much easier for people with English as an additional language to understand, since they are far more familiar with the written language than with the spoken. And in a crowded and noisy gallery, sub-titling is often the only way that an artist’s film or video can be understood by anyone. Sub-titling is only partially about disabled people’s access, and in a very real sense is about access by us all.

It is bizarre, then, that both artists and curators accept that a film in a ‘foreign’ language can and should be sub-titled, in the same way that opera-goers accept that operas in a foreign language should be sur-titled for them to be able to understand these. Broadcasters even insist that strong regional or national accents are sub-titled to ensure that their meaning is clear.
However, as soon as the reason given is to widen access, then sub-titling and sur-titling are either regarded as being an optional, too expensive extra, or as threatening the overall aesthetic of the piece, or are simply never thought about at all.
We have to change this way of thinking, and change it now. The reality is that it’s never been easier or cheaper to sub-title film and video, and to project sur-titles. Given that artists are in effect service providers, and so are legally obliged to make adjustments to widen access to their work, curators and commissioners have a right to expect that artists will include sub-titles within their films and videos and will surtitle their performances as appropriate, or will have made alternative arrangements of equally high quality.

I just want to pause here to point out another danger inherent in making alternative arrangements for disabled people to access the arts, rather than embedding access for all from the start. It is no good providing an alternative if its existence is not widely publicized. I have been into galleries throughout the UK where staff tell me that a large-print version of the signage exists, but I have yet to be in a gallery where I can easily spot a notice telling me this as soon as I enter the building. Often, the staff invigilating within the galleries have no idea of the large print version’s existence either. The same, of course, goes for audio-description of artists’ films and videos, to which I will return in a minute or two.Signage, in fact, is one of my personal bugbears — particularly signage as it relates to the work on exhibition, but also the lack of obvious signage throughout many galleries. I think that most of us take for granted that signage benefits us by telling us the title of the work, the name of the artist who created it, the materials that they made it from, the date that they made it, and so on and so forth. Why, then, do curators continue to make it so hard to read?

I suffer doubly from the obsession with using small grey text to tell me crucial facts, since I am both over 40 — 50, in fact, this May — and a wheelchair user, which makes it harder to get close up to the signage. But it is not just the over-40s and wheelchair users who are affected. The more popular a show is, the harder it is for any gallery visitor to get close enough to the signage to read it in its present size. Very often, the signage functions in opposition to the work on display – while the work itself is often best viewed from a distance, the accompanying signage can only be viewed by getting up close and personal. This is certainly not an argument in favour of small print sizes.

Poor signage also impacts on mental health — with many artists, of course, being particularly fragile in this respect. The need to bury oneself in a crowd in order to learn about the name and author of a work, or the very fact of being in a building without any idea where the exit is, let alone the different galleries, can turn an otherwise fascinating exhibition into a claustrophobic nightmare for anyone.

In terms of signage as it relates to art works, either it doesn’t matter whether we have this information or not — in which case, let’s get rid of it altogether and let people read catalogues if they want the information that it contains. Or — and this is my view, of course — good signage enhances the experience for all gallery visitors, and so should be available to all.
That means having it large and clear enough to be seen. And if signage matters, you also need to think about how to how to provide an alternative to signage for every group who cannot access it, including people with learning difficulties and print impairments, and not forgetting British Sign Language users, for whom written English is often only partially understood at best.

Moving on to a related issue, audio-description is seldom mentioned in the context of the visual arts, but it is absolutely vital for visually impaired people — or, as they often describe themselves, VIPs. I know plenty of VIPs who love the visual arts despite always having been blind, and many more who hate the fact that they have been increasingly excluded by galleries as their sight worsened, and who leap at the chance to attend any exhibition where appropriate adjustments have been made.

If you already offer audio tours, it’s actually extremely easy to incorporate enough visual description for these to open up access to VIPs. All you then need to do is to ensure that VIPs know of their existence, and to offer the tours free of charge to them as being a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act. (If you don’t already offer audio tours, it may well be that the cost of producing these as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for VIPs is more than offset by the funds that you raise from hiring them out to other visitors.)

However, it’s also extremely easy in this era of cheap technology for artists themselves to create audio-descriptions of their work, and to produce alternative versions of their films and videos that incorporate audio-description. I’d like to flag up the existence of the New Work Network’s No Budget Guide for Artists to Disability Access, which I produced when I was a New Work Network Associate a few years ago. Because when we talk about widening access, we have to think about all of our roles within this.

Access is not simply the responsibility of the education officer, or of the front-of-house manager, or indeed of the access officer, and it’s certainly not simply the responsibility of gallery staff. Artists ourselves have to take personal responsibility for the situation that currently exists, and change our working methods to incorporate access and inclusion from the very beginning. And before we decide that this is somehow beneath us, or detracts from our work, we need to consider how many great artists we would have excluded from viewing our work if we don’t: Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, Beethoven … not to mention just about every wonderful artist and critic in the latter stages of their lives.

So I think it’s appropriate to finish with a story about artists and disability access, and about what happened the last time that I was here in Edinburgh, in 2009, with my Abnormal exhibition. On my first day off, my (wheelchair-using) partner and I decided to visit The Enlightenments exhibition at Scottish National Galleries. Lee Mingwei’s The Letter Writing Project claimed to invite visitors “to think about communicating with absent friends, family and loved ones by writing the letters they always meant to, but have never had the opportunity or time to do... A chain of feelings is created, reminding visitors of the larger world of emotions in which we all participate.”

Unfortunately, however, in order to participate, visitors had to be able to climb up a shiny wooden step to get into the letter-writing booth. And maybe it was the final straw, but I switched off my scooter and refused to move until I had an explanation of why no ramp was available, and had been put in touch with the Enlightenments curator, the Australian Juliana Engberg, and Lee Mingwei himself. The rest, as they say, is history, and you can read it for yourself at www.letterwritingproject.com, which has become my own creative response to the refusal of anyone other than Scottish National Galleries themselves to engage with the issues raised. I continue to write regularly to Lee Mingwei, but he still has yet to reply.

In the meantime, though, I am extremely proud to say that it’s stimulated a number of initiatives and policy changes in Scotland, including by the Edinburgh International Festival, the Arts Festival and the Fringe Festival. After being told on a number of occasions that the letterwritingproject.com should become a radio play, I am now in the process of turning it into a one-woman show. I intend to bring it to Edinburgh in summer 2013, so I’d love you all to come and see it, and do let me know if you are a venue who’d like to host it.

In the meantime, though, I’d just like to finish with showing you one image, which was produced by Scottish National Galleries to explain to the press why the exhibit could not have been ramped even if the artist and curator had not refused to allow this on so-called aesthetic grounds. The image is only one comic element of many that have occurred as a result of my letter writing, but it’s the only one that later became an exhibit in its own right within the Abnormal exhibition, with the title Abnormally Arty.

The image is of a beautifully detailed architectural drawing, showing the gallery where The Letter Writing Project was situated. The Letter Writing booth was situated exactly in the centre of the room, and the drawing purports to show that a ramp could not be fitted because it would need to begin too close to the wall to be practical. What was never spotted in any of the accompanying gallery correspondence, though, was that by moving the exhibit just a couple of feet, ramp access could be easily achieved.

All of us here today are creative people, whether we are artists, curators, education officers, access officers, programmers, or have one of the many other jobs within the arts. Why, then, do we have so much difficulty in thinking creatively about access, to the extent that we can’t see what’s staring us straight in the face?

We need to realize that it’s creativity, not the law or being an access expert, which will provide us with most of the answers that we need, and that we all already possess creativity in abundance. We also need to realize that it’s human rights, a value so beloved by us all in the arts, that we are talking about when we talk about access and inclusion, and human beings that we are excluding when we fail to realize this. Then, the rest is easy.