A Leeds-based collective has named a lack of accessible toilets, snobbish staff and ‘mega-expensive’ coffee among continuing barriers to equality.

A gallery tour including people sitting down and a wheelchair user
A gallery tour on Disabled Access Day 2017

Margaret O'Neill on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The approach of some of Arts Council England’s (ACE) National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) to accessibility has been upbraided in a statement from a collective representing disabled artists, which criticises venues for failing to address “basic nuts and bolts issues”.

Physical barriers to access, attitudes of staff and an over-reliance on text-based interpretation were the key issues highlighted in a consultation by Pyramid of Arts, a Leeds-based group of 150 artists with and without learning difficulties.

“While it is important to talk about strategies, and creative cases, and sectors and roles, we must always remember that we all still have a lot of work to do to get the basics right,” said the organisation’s Director, James Hill.

No toilets, no art

Pyramid of Arts includes 100 artists with learning difficulties and 25 with profound and multiple learning difficulties, the majority of whom have limited or no literacy, and “very few” of whom are regular users of the internet. The collective was supported by ACE to consult artists with learning disabilities after it expressed frustration that the funder had based its consultation for its new ten-year strategy around an online forum.

The results of Pyramid of Arts’ consultation are expressed through slogans relating to the artists’ experiences as both makers and consumers of the arts. One slogan, “can everyone see it?”, focuses on physical access, and is expanded upon with the questions:

“Are wheelchair users plonked behind a pillar in the theatre? Is there a sign that says, “exhibition continues up these steps?”. “Aaaaaaaagh!” is described as “the feeling people with restricted mobility get when they see a lot of stairs”.

Other slogans included “no toilets no art”, meaning “get the basics right, or people with disabilities won’t bother turning up”.

Another, “Cheap and cheerful”, stresses the importance of reasonably priced arts experiences, warning against “mega-expensive” coffee and staff who are “snobby and standoffish”.

Providing information in ways that are accessible to people who don’t read was another theme, as was the importance of asking disabled people themselves whether projects and venues were welcoming to them.

The response from Pyramid of Arts also stressed the importance of timing in making arts experiences accessible, saying that two months’ notice was necessary to arrange staffing and transport, and that projects should last at least 12 weeks to be able to “meaningfully involve” people with learning disabilities in participatory work.

Policy shift

The contribution from Pyramid of Arts was referenced in a recent internal review of how ACE considers equality in its work, which concluded that the funder needs to adjust its policy “by taking steps to remove barriers or better advance equality”.

ACE is now in the process of implementing an action plan which includes a commitment to scrutinise all project outputs for their impact on equality and diversity.

Areas where work is ongoing include an identified need for further exploration of “protected characteristics where we lack data and evidence”. ACE acknowledges that it does not currently have enough evidence relating to religion, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, class and social mobility, and marriage status.

Nuts and bolts

James Hill, Director of Pyramid of Arts said: “There are a lot of basic nuts and bolts issues that which are still not right—apparently ‘simple’ things which can and do still serve as barriers to people with LD creating and experiencing art.

“There are still NPO venues that do not have level access to education spaces, which means that people who use wheelchairs benefit less from that venue’s National Portfolio funding than those who don't use wheelchairs.”

Hill warned: “When we talk about a strategy for the next 10 years we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the basics have been sorted, and now we can move on to the next stage.”