Making the mainstream accessible

9 June 2017

Guest blogger Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa shares the lessons cultural organisations need to learn to ensure people of all abilities are included

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It was so exciting to hear about a Disability Equality Training (DET) event happening at the Tate, and when I heard it was being run by the brilliant Director of Tourette’s Hero, Jess Thom, I jumped at the opportunity to go along and have a listen.

Having had a bit of DET training from Shape Arts - a disability arts-led charity based in Kentish Town - I was interested in gaining a richer understanding and broader insight on the challenges disabled people face in creative environments.

Jess Thom’s training took place at Tate Modern and was designed towards Tate staff members. In her talk, she covered the topics of the Medical, Charity and Social models of disability, The Equality Act, The Concept of Making Reasonable Adjustments, The Key Principles of ‘Relaxed Spaces’ and Inclusive language.

Jess kicked the session off with an icebreaker for introductions. She had designed the icebreaker so that when you said your name, you also had to visually describe what you looked like, as though you were describing yourself to somebody who was visually impaired. This was quite amusing, as for some it was a bit of a challenge. Most members described themselves literally, whereas others went as far as picking out their scent.

I learnt that Tourette’s Hero came about through a conversation Jess was having with her friend. He described Tourettes as a crazy language generating machine and told her that not doing something creative with her tics would be wasteful. Tourette’s Hero’s mission is to 'change the world one tic at a time’, and Jess says that her tics are her power. For readers wondering what having Tourette’s is like, she often uses blinking as an example, and describes them as ‘nervous tics’. “You never know when one will pop up” she adds.

Her advice for people responding to tics is that they should respond naturally. Don’t be afraid to ask, listen to answers, be open and be ready to adapt. Jess mentioned that she mostly tics when she is in super comfortable situations. It was a surprise for me to hear this, as whenever I am in super tense situations, that’s when I would start getting nervous. I realised it’s about asking people for the flexibility of meeting needs, adjusting the sensory landscape, being open and mindful, and not making assumptions.

It was thoroughly enjoyable listening to her training not having any preconceptions of Tourettes as I felt like a stranger being pulled into a kaleidoscopic world brimming with fear and surprises.

Jess then introduced us to the two main models of disability that are used widely today - the Medical Model, 'by which illness or disability may reduce the individual’s quality of life and cause clear disadvantages to the individual,' and the Social Model, which states that 'disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairments or difference'. Through my time at Shape Arts, I realised the importance of having a model in place, especially the Social Model, as it allows companies and organisations to understand the protocols of everyday accessibility and inclusivity. A third model, which I personally was unaware of, is the Charity Model which 'depicts disabled people as victims of circumstance, deserving of pity,' however, this model is rarely used today because of its negative connotations.

In the Equality Act, which brings together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single Act, it states that we need to be making reasonable adjustments in society, which will, in turn, lead to making significant adjustments to all. Attendees were asked to consider, what is a reasonable adjustment? And how can we make a reasonable adjustment?

Splitting into groups, staff were asked to think, discuss and provide feedback on reasonable adjustments that could be made within the Tate. One group I was with shared examples they already had, which included:

  • Touch Tours
  • Lifts and ramps
  • Accessible car parks
  • Guide dog facilities
  • Induction loops
  • Designated wheelchairs in auditorium
  • Accessible space and touch artworks

Examples of additions they could make included:

  • A ‘can do’ guide
  • Creating audio descriptions online
  • Acting on the feedback they had from visitors that there’s not enough accessible seating

I learnt that to achieve an accessible environment for your customers, whoever they may be, you must consider every fine detail from the beginning and take all accessibility into account from the start. What I’ve found with most other public buildings and other spaces in London is that not all spaces are fully accessible.

For some, it’s still seen as a secondary adaptation. For example, a friend of mine who is a wheelchair user recently visited a major London cultural venue which states that it is meant to be fully accessible. However, when she arrived she found that the pathway to the entrance is full of cobbles and it’s nearly impossible to cross without any assistance, and their website doesn’t reflect this at all. This is an example of a venue where accessibility has not been the centre focus, and therefore this venue runs the risk of limiting their number of potential visitors.

Jess Thom made a great point about accessibility needing to be considered from the beginning. By taking all accessibility into account from the start, we have the chance to 'bring access into the mainstream.' This point resonated with me as with the products I design I push for a focus on collaboration; if a product is being designed for a person with a disability then the designer must work with that person to ensure that their needs are met. Jess added to this by talking about what isn’t accessible. She made the point that as soon as you make something accessible for one person, you might run into the problem of making it totally inaccessible for another.

Whilst working at A New Direction’s ANDInclusive schools event as part of the Tate Exchange, on the last day I experienced that for some, an entire atmosphere needs to be specially created for a certain need to be met. It’s about being aware of barriers people may face on a day-to-day basis and adapting to create a comfortable and suitable environment. A point to be remembered here is that disabled people are disabled by society and the atmosphere created, not by their physical barriers.

Invisible barriers to cultural spaces

There was a movement I hadn’t come across before called the ‘relaxed movement’. While the movement has its roots in the 1990s, its momentum has increased significantly in the past six years. Relaxed performances have grown out of work around autism-friendly cinema and theatre events. They are performances that offer a warm welcome to people who find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre behaviour. They supply an atmosphere where people can have a space of their own, where they can be in a relaxed environment.

An accessible and relaxed space should include:

  1. A clear and shared understanding
  2. Pre-visit information
  3. Staff training
  4. Multi-sensory approach
  5. Chill-out space
  6. A clear plan

There was a quote in Jess Thom’s presentation which I loved:

It’s nice when my son dives into a whole load of stuff in a corner and wiggles about in it, that I don’t need to worry. In fact, all that happened was that other kids came and laid down in the fluffy stuff and had a wiggle with him. It’s just nice not to worry. Usually it’s just me and the public are one big mass and I’m trying to cope with everything that’s happening for my child. What’s been really lovely today is that we’ve taken over the Tate; the public are the ones having to cope with us. There was a lady who came along and said, 'that boy appears to be lying on the floor' and I felt confident saying, 'yes he is, and he can do that, he’s allowed to do that.'

When I heard this quote, my emotions lifted. I think this is what creative organisations should be more open to - there's no point in somebody coming into an open environment and the first thing they feel is restriction and panic, as, for some, this can easily be scaled up 10 times more in a very short space of time. As mentioned earlier, if the landscape is adapted, more people are likely to benefit.

Overall the day was a success. Staff members left feeling thoroughly briefed and the main message that came out of the day was that they need to be prepared for visitors who have access requirements, and they need to be ready to give a variety of accessible options. Ideas that came out of the day included equality of experience, reducing faff, and no new barriers. It’s about realising we all have a shared responsibility to meeting visitors’ access requirements.

More importantly, some final words of advice from Jess, “it is about not being embarrassed, being ready to adapt, and it’s OK if things go wrong!”
That’s life!

Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa is a freelance designer and previous Creativity Works: Design participant. At the end of 2016 she ran a Design for Disability pop-up residency in Peckham, responding to the 'lack of disabled individuals that were involved at the forefront and crucial stages of the design' which she noticed when studying BA (hons) in Product and Furniture Design at Kingston University.