Sunday, 31 July 2016

An Open Letter to the Henry Moore Insitute

On Saturday I visited the Henry Moore Institute gallery in Leeds. I was drawn to its current feature exhibit The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics. Being both disabled and a former student of palaeopathology, as well as an art lover, an exhibition that promised that it "explores how sculpture and medical science have augmented the analogue human figure..." was of course an appealing prospect.

It was inevitable that the subject matter would be challenging, and may at times have struck a personal chord but that is, to be honest what I was looking for. The pieces themselves - a mixture of sculpture, lithographs, installation and extant examples of prosthetics were very interesting. They fulfilled the brief of examining how prosthesis and the disabilities that require them alter are perception of the human form.
However, the way it was presented was very voyeuristic. Some of the pieces were clearly to do with the relationship between people and their prosthetics but there was no discussion of this, no deeper exploration of the pieces on display. Instead it came across as some sort of modern minimalist freakshow. Curious contraptions and inventive creations presented on a stark white background inside the modernist cube of the building. The feeling was distinctly "othering" to anybody with a disability, and especially of those with prosthesis. Disability put on display to ogle at and the attention and praise reserved for the "clever" designs and interpretations of accessibility and prosthetics.

Additionally, the responses of other people in the gallery were at times repellent. I heard words like "heartwarming", "provocative" and of course "inspirational". This was a clear response to how the material was presented, divorced from the reality of life with those prosthesis and the real and lived experiences of disabilities. The exhibition gave no guidance for deeper consideration or empathy and instead directed visitors toward cool detachment and marvelling at "those poor cripples". 

To top it off, the accessibility of the gallery was poor. Though the gallery has a well signposted wheelchair friendly entrance, it is off to one side and doesn't take you to the main foyer - a quirk of many designs that physically separates disabled people from the able bodied population. Since I can use steps I chose the more direct main entrance and found that the automatic swing doors were faulty, stopping only half way so I had to shove them open with my hip.
Inner doors were not automatic and were also heavy, requiring very careful shoving, propping and manoeuvring to get through. One was so heavy, I actually knocked and asked somebody in the room to let me in!

There was one bench in the main gallery, off to one side perfectly positioned to view the room at a distance without being able to get close to the art. Another bench in a small sub-gallery. Nowhere for a disabled person, in this gallery of the disabled, to rest easily while they view the pieces. I discovered ,as I was leaving, that there were small folding stools available tucked at the side of the reception desk but you only see this on the way out, and it means being able to carry them around with you and through the heavy doors. Not actually that useful.

The approach to displaying the art is minimal (as is the trend in many galleries) and the big blocks of text explaining the exhibition on white walls were difficult to read and separate from the main exhibit. Yet another barrier not only to any visitors with cognitive impairment but between visitors and an understanding of the material on display.

I was really disappointed. They could have done so much with that exhibition but instead it bordered on offensive and was a disservice to disabled visitors and the exhibits themselves. For it to be barely accessible to disabled people truly was the pièce de résistance. What is most infuriating was that it needn't have been that way. It would have taken only a little though and some consultation for the curators to have provided a sensitive and accessible display that reflected both the importance of the work and the aesthetic of the gallery.
Ensuring that doors opened or were open of course would have been a fitting start. Considering what greets visitors who do use the step free access should go without saying. Including sensitive and compassionate language in information panels to guide the tone of the gallery and visitors. More discussion of each piece, why it was chosen and what it represents. Staff who are alert to disabilist language from visitors and are able to offer critique in context instead of standing talking about their rota. Considering that many of the extant artefacts were on loan from the Thakrey Medical Museum who have an excellent record with regards to inclusiveness, it would not have been difficult to develop language and presentation that was sensitive and appropriate for the subject.

Prosthesis and augmentation do play a big part in our cultural history but more than that they play a big part in the everyday lives of many people who use and rely on them. Disability is not something that happens to other people. Disabled people are not another species or an interesting foot note in our anthropology. We exist, we live, we breathe and we visit art galleries.

The Body Extended should be beautiful, provocative, enlightening and inclusive. Instead you have created something that dehumanises and erases a part of human existence.

I am deeply disappointed and I am hurt.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Accessible Activism

It was bound to happen: a post where I combine politics and accessibility.

Some people are political and social activists all the time however, many are only now putting on the mantle of activist in response to the current political climate in the UK and USA. Activism can come in many forms from blogging a tweeting, to going to rallies, to attending meetings.
But is your activism accessible, and are your expectations about activism inclusive of disabled people?
Often the very people who benefit most from activism are excluded from taking part because of the very things they are concerned about. This post will focus primarily on accessibility for people who are disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent however, you may wish to consider accessibility in terms of socio-economic status, age and language. Can young people take part, and are you reaching out to the elderly? Is your campaign material available in the languages commonly spoken in your city? Do you have an intellectual bias which may exclude poor communities with lower levels of education? Keep in mind who you activism is for and make sure you include the people who need it most.

Now on to the topic of disability access in your activism. I'll break it down by types of activism, though many groups use combinations of two or more. The following is not a list of things that you should always do in all circumstances, but they are things you may want to keep in mind and be prepared to do if people require it. Much of this information is good practice anyway, and can benefit non-disabled people just as much.
In general:

  • Make sure you language is sensitive and not disabilist 
  • Think about how information is distributed and be prepared to have alternative formats
  • Consult with specific disability rights groups to make sure you are representing them accurately
  • Listen to and value what disabled people have to say on how your issue effects them and their community
  • Be aware that encouraging people to "get out and do" can be isolating as many disabled people can not do this. 
    • Do not berate or shame people for not doing a particular form of activism.
    • Suggest alternatives that may be more suitable for them.
  • If you run an activist group or event, create an equality and diversity statement that includes disability and mental illness. 
  • Remember that people's abilities will differ from your own. That does not make their activism less valuable.
Printed Media and the Written Word
This activism mainly uses blog posts, text based websites flyers, leaflets and posters in order to disseminate information and garner attention. The focus is on sharing information, news and advice on your chosen subject.
  • Summarise key information clearly, preferably using bullet points or similar.
    • Some people struggle to read long paragraphs, a summaries help get the important information across. 
  • Use clear fonts and colours to print any text. Avoid changing colour and font too frequently.
  • Consider producing or making available flyers in different formats i.e. large print or even Braille.
  • Keep your language simple or include a glossary of any unusual or specialised terms.
  • Print on off-white paper. Pale blue, cream and pale yellow are advised for accessibility for people with dyslexia and migraines and similar.
  • On websites, avoid using frames and make sure any info graphics, cartoons or videos also have a full text transcript.
  • Have offline versions of flyers and documents available for people who need to print out or to format for a text reader.
  • Avoid using red and green in combination due to colour-blindness. 
  • If your campaign focusses on letter writing/emailing then consider alternative means for people to get involved.
Jerry has Downs Syndrome and is not confident writing a formal letter to his MP. He talks to the campaign organiser who pairs him with another letter writer who is able to transcribe what Jerry says in to a letter. Jerry reads the final version and is happy their voice has been made clear before sending the letter.

Rallies, Protests and Marches
Getting people out on the street is a great way of garnering attention and showing showing support for an issue. Rallies and Protests can be organised by small grass roots groups as well as larger formal organisations (think about your City Pride events for example). They can be difficult for many disabled people to get involved in though.
  • If you event is in a static location, provide an area and clear access for wheelchairs and scooters.
    • Level access also helps people with other mobility difficulties.
  •  Arrange for seating - folding camp chairs can be a good idea
  • If you are arranging a march or moving protest, publish your route in advance so that people can join up at a suitable point.
  • Move at a slow steady pace so that people can keep up, consider arranging for people in wheelchairs or with mobility issues to go as a group near the front to avoid getting crowded and to set the pace.
  • Consider the location of your event. Being near to parking and public transport links makes getting there easier.
    • If your location is not near public transport consider organising a car pool system or pickup from a central location.  
  • Avoid march routes that go along hills - up and down can be problematic.
  • If possible arrange for shelter. A person using a walking frame may not be able to hold an umbrella.
  • Use the best amplification you can get so everybody can hear.
  • If you are providing placards, provide a variety of sizes and shapes so that there is something for everybody.
  • Consider wording and language on placards carefully, avoid disabled more mental illness slurs. 
  • Consider the duration of events. Some people can not stand, walk or be out for long periods.
    • If you are running concurrent events i.e. a meeting after a rally, consider a break for rest and refreshment between them.
Rosemary has POTS and can not stand for long periods. She is relieved that the rally she is attending as a cluster of reserved seating so that she cat sit for the duration.

The Spoken Word
Whether at a rally or protest, as part of a conference or at a local meeting spoken word is a big part of how activists can spread their message, garner interest and raise enthusiasm.
  • When arranging for speakers make sure to include people with different disabilities, chronic illnesses and mental health needs.
    • Their input doesn't have to be confined to those topics. Representation is important.
  • Provide water and seating for any speakers, ask them if they would prefer to speak first or last.
    • Fatigue, anxiety, pain etc, may mean some people need to speak earlier.
  •  Hire a BSL interpreter and make sure they are positioned clearly for the audience.
    • For conferences you may have to assign an interpreter based on attendees needs.
    • Give any prepared material to your interpreter in advance.
  • Ask speakers what their needs may be in advance.
    • this may include seating, level access, shelter if outside or an interpreter. 
  • Use the best sound system you can for your situation. Good clear amplification is important.
  • Use visual aids like PowerPoint or Live Closed Captioning or provide written transcripts, notes or flyers covering the key points of what is said.
  • If you are producing a video make sure to include accurate closed captioning. 
  • Speak clearly and at a steady (not slow) pace. 
    • Avoid using any colloquialisms or unusual abbreviations.
  • Be tolerant of mobile phones: they can have accessibility apps or may be recording so that the person can access the speech at a later point or with specialist software. 
    • Some people with conditions like ADHD actually concentrate better when they are doing two things at once. What may look like a distraction may be an aid.
  • Make sure that any sound effects or music do not obscure the speaker. 
    • Avoid use of loud or sudden sound effects like bangs.
Marja has PTSD triggered by angry shouting. She is relieved that the speakers at the demo all speak clearly without resorting to shouting angry slogans.

Picking a Venue
This is partially covered in the previous sections but does require some of its own notes. Your venue can be a big factor in if people can take part in your activism. This can apply whether it is a rally for a thousand people or a meeting for a dozen
  • When deciding on a location or venue for your event keep accessibility in mind.
  • Look for level access to all main areas.
    • Where possible this should not be a service entrance. 
  •  If possible choose venues with hearing loop systems. 
    • Find out the specifics in advance and let your attendees know.
  • Make sure there is space to manoeuvrer mobility aids through doors, around tables or down aisles.  
  • Try and choose a venue that is near to public transport or car parking.
  • For conferences and large events, having a "quiet room" can be beneficial for those who need a break.
  • Find out if food and refreshment is available or if people can bring their own.
    • Consider different dietary requirements.
  • If possible find out if you can control lighting and temperature as some people have sensitivities.
    • Strong fluorescent lighting or flickering lighting can be particularly problematic.
Vic wants to attend meeting of a local lobby group but hasn't been able to because the group use the upstairs room of a pub which they can not access. They talk to the lobby group who agree to change venue to a downstairs location so that Vic can attend.

As stated this at the start this isn't a definitive list of things that activist groups should be doing however it should assist you in thinking of what things can be done. More than that it should help to foster an attitude of inclusiveness toward disabled activists that will help make sure your aren't inadvertently excluding people.

Of course, there are also plenty of things that disabled activists can do themselves to make access easier (making sure to manage our pacing for example) but the weight of making sure disabled people can access your activism shouldn't and can't solely be their responsibility.