Disability History Month: How far have we come? How far have we to go?

by Esther Fox

This year, Disability History Month encourages us to reflect on the theme of access. This is a hugely broad topic and one that can mean different things to different people.

I am the Head of the Accentuate Programme, a cultural programme leading ground-breaking projects for D/deaf and disabled people. Our approach is built on the foundation stone of the Social Model of Disability, created by the pioneering group UPIAS, over 40 years ago. Although this model is not entirely perfect, it does enable us to re-consider disability not as a medical deficit, but as a construct created by society which “disables” the person. This allows us to think differently about such things as access; as not being discretionary, but as a human right.  

So how far have we come? Accentuate is currently embarking on a journey to open up access to the Museum Sector for D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people. Curating for Change will tackle the serious underrepresentation of D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people in our museums. We are working with over 20 museums across the country with thanks to funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

Only around 4% of people currently working in Museums define as D/deaf, disabled or neurodiverse. It is also unusual to see D/deaf and disability history reflected in our Museum’s collections and exhibitions, and even more rarely are these narratives interpreted by D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people themselves. Curating for Change will open access to the museum sector through a work placement programme for D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse curators. These placements will also shine a spotlight on previously hidden histories through a series of exhibitions and events. 

In recent months perhaps we have all thought more deeply about access. It has been commonplace for access to be denied due to restrictions needed to stop the spread of Covid – 19.  People have been accessing work environments by remote means and Zoom meetings and Interviews are now the “new normal”. In our consultation for Curating for Change we have been talking to D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people about the barriers they have faced in getting work within museums. The lack of flexibility with working conditions alongside environmental barriers have been cited on several occasions as reasons for why they have not managed to access roles in the past. The move towards remote working is something that many disabled people and those with long term health conditions have been hoping for, and the pandemic has proven this is entirely possible. 

But what about access to exhibitions, collections and events during the time of lockdown? Again, we have seen an acceleration in the “digital offer”, with many events moving online and 3D imaging of exhibitions being offered by numerous museums and galleries. Now disabled people and those with long term health conditions who have previously been excluded and isolated from mainstream culture, have experienced opportunities to explore and connect with collections and exhibits.

Prior to the pandemic, as part of the D4D project, I had been working with Professor Praminda Caleb-Solly from Bristol Robotics Laboratory to look at how telepresence conference robots could potentially open up access for disabled people to spaces they would not otherwise have access to. As the first lockdown was announced, we installed one of these Robots at Hastings Contemporary – a UK first – to see how this technology might provide access for visitors during the time the gallery was closed. Five people at a time could be guided through the exhibits and had “live” conversations with the guide and the other people on the tour, sharing a meaningful experience. At it’s best, technology has the power to connect and this is what we have witnessed over the last months.  However this is not a reason to replace live “real world” experiences, so how do we get the balance to ensure this technology remains liberating for disabled people rather than a mechanism for further exclusion? 

As we enter a period where D/deaf and disabled people are rightly demanding greater access to our cultural institutions and a pandemic has forced the world into trying new things, we need to harness what has worked well but continue to make strides towards both a physically and philosophically more accessible cultural ecology.