‘Museums and galleries are really interesting spaces, but they’re not always the most accessible,’ says Amie Kirby, a 23-year-old museum assistant at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery.
According to the most recent ‘Time to Act’ study from Disability Arts International, which brought together data across 42 European countries, only 24 percent of museums and cultural festivals have front-of-house staff who are trained in disability awareness. Many activists view the pandemic has having been detrimental to any progress that was being made in the sector.
Aged ten, Kirby was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes – a condition that affects her everyday life. ‘In September, I was visiting the Tate and my diabetes was playing up,’ Kirby says. ‘I was feeling quite dizzy and out of it, but I kept saying to myself that I’d wait until I reached the end of the gallery. I had to go and sit down and treat my blood sugars with this little orange juice carton.
‘I remember thinking: this feels really crap, I feel so alone right now. I wonder if anyone else has the issues I have, just trying to visit gallery spaces on a day-to-day basis?’
Shortly after, she founded Crip Culture Collective: a grassroots support and networking group for chronically ill, disabled and neurodiverse people to discuss disability justice and organise visits to cultural sites across the UK. ‘My initial motive was to set up a group for people to visit galleries and museums together, slowly, with lots of breaks and sitting down,’ she says. It has grown into a wider platform and online solidarity group to talk about disability justice in the cultural sector, with members from Manchester and beyond, the youngest being 18 and the oldest being around 40.
Just having more spaces for people to sit and have a break without leaving would really help
According to the ‘Time to Act’ study, having wheelchair-accessible toilets is the primary priority for cultural venues to improve audience access: 72 percent of respondents reported having accessible toilets, followed by 48 percent which offered free or discounted tickets for personal assistants. But Kirby pointed out that there are smaller, practical steps which could be implemented to make cultural spaces more enjoyable for people with disabilities.
‘Just having more spaces for people to sit and have a break without leaving would really help,’ she says. ‘There should be more refreshments on hand. Galleries sometimes have to be a certain temperature [due to the works on display], but some spaces can be really hot and others can be cold. This can have an impact on a lot of disabilities and chronic illnesses.’
In the longer term, cultural spaces should be consulting directly with disabled communities to improve accessibility – something that many galleries and museums already do. ‘More sort of collaborations and co-production could also be really valuable,’ Kirby says, referencing a recent exhibition by The People’s History Museum in Manchester which was created by a group of disabled people.
The collective has now had its first meet-up: a visit to a show at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. After visiting, a ‘review’ of the venue is shared on the group’s Instagram, discussing everything from space accessibility and availability of BSL interpretation to the general vibe. Further down the line, Kirby is hoping to secure funding to help cover costs for visits, and to set up a crowdsourced library of fiction and non-fiction works relating to disability justice and art.
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