Sunday, 16 September 2012

Art: ‘Sorry, we can’t allow dogs in the gallery.’ Art galleries and the visually impaired.

Art galleries are strange places to visit for a guy with a guide dog. I’m visually impaired, and I also love the visual arts. For many galleries, this is a difficult notion to grasp.

Some galleries are not exactly the easiest places to visit: poor lighting; countless obstacles; grumpy invigilators; and trip wires surrounding paintings are just a few of the issues that someone like me has to contend with.

There are understandably some instances where dark lighting and floors scattered with tripping hazards are necessary. But I’ve been in galleries where I am unable to proceed to the next room because of something as simple as a poorly lit throughway, even though the size and layout of the gallery would have allowed an alternative route.

I could have asked for an invigilator’s help, and I’m sure they would have obliged, but instead I turned on my heels and left – for those with disabilities, independence is very important.

There is also a lack of understanding and awareness about the presence of guide dogs. Guide dogs, by law, have exactly the same access as the general public. When a gallery asks if I can leave the guide dog in reception, or tells me which rooms I have to avoid, I wonder if they would ask a wheelchair-user to leave their chair in reception?

Steps have been made in recent years to improve the physical access of disabled users; but in terms of intellectual access, galleries still leave a lot to be desired. Token gestures of appeasement tend to come in the form of a sculpture that you can touch, and objects that you can hear or smell. It is an incredibly patronising assumption to make that a person who is visually impaired would want the same intellectual relationship to art as a toddler.

It is time to look beyond the legal requirements about disabled access and actually rethink the the gallery environment: a wheelchair ramp and some Braille on the lifts just won’t cut it anymore. There are over two million people in the UK living with visual impairment, and simple improvements to the gallery experience would make thousands of people living with visual impairment feel more inclined to engage with the visual arts.

At minimum, galleries should consult with visually impaired people. It should not be seen as an inconvenience by galleries, but rather an exercise in evolution. All we want is an experience that makes us feel confident about our physical safety, whilst retaining independence; an experience that allows us to intellectually engage with what is on display; and more important than anything else, an experience where we feel welcome.

This article is set to be published in October 2012 on's 'Rant' section

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