“SELF” The Private View That Never Was

This post was first published on the SHAPE ARTS website, but I thought I would feature it here too as I believe It is important.

I was going to post here about the private view at Quay Arts for an exhibition I am involved in called SELF that took place last night.   However I am instead going to comment upon the invisibility of the disabled artist.  I do not mean in a “there are no disabled artists” or “no chances for disabled artists” way;  organisations like Shape Arts and Outside In have seen that there are.  What I am talking about is far more insidious.  It is the way that those with an impairment are not thought about in the running of things; that beyond a “yes we have a ramp/ level access/ a lift” (choose whichever to fit) we do not even feature in the thoughts of those who organise exhibitions.

Nothing is truly accessible.

I can accept that.    I am not a  disabled person who expects that everything in life is fair for everyone all the time; I accept that there are problems; that not everything can be accessible to everyone; that choices have to be made.  However when I have been assured that there is accessibility for the mobility impaired/wheelchair user; I expect that to ring true.  Or if for some reason something happens to negate that, that I, if I am a part of something, am informed that that is no longer a case.


I will give you an example.  I am taking part in an exhibition at the main gallery/arts space on the Isle of Wight at the moment and last night was the night of the private view.  Before I submitted I made it very clear that I am in a wheelchair and that the gallery was accessible.  I was assured there was level access throughout and where necessary there was a lift.  Upon selection I emailed them to reiterate my needs and to confirm I would be attending the pv, etc. I do not live on the island so it has involved various jigging around and quite a bit in transport costs.  I live only a few miles away but on the other side of the water so to get to the gallery it costs me between £40 and £60 each time (owing to ferry travel).  Last weekend we delivered the work and like was made clear, there was a lift which I used.  The disabled loo outside the gallery area was tiny and difficult to negotiate but I am used to this.

Last night we journeyed over to the Island again for the private view.  On getting there and going through the restaurant (the back entrance was the only one open owing to it being an out of hours event) I felt eyes upon me, almost as if “why is a woman in a wheelchair here?”.  I am suffering from an anxiety disorder presently and so I put it down to this and carried on.  Then I saw it.  A sign on the toilets that read  ”lift out of order”.   My husband/carer and I adjourned to the loo (there was downstairs one) to discuss what to do.  I was sure that it was just a sign they forgot to remove, after all they knew there was a wheelchair bound artist involve and that I would be coming; surely they would have let me know if my attending would be impossible.


My husband went to ask at the bar and they seemed shocked; finally the director of the gallery came over and explained it had been broken for a while and they were awaiting a piece to fix it.  I was upset (I felt humiliated by now there were definitely eyes upon us, curious as to what was going on) and annoyed, the woman apologised but I explained they knew about my situation and I would of expected a short email from the curatorial team warning me I would be unable to attend; as it was I heard nothing.  I had wasted an evening, I was feeling unwell, I was stuck on the Island for four hours until I could go home and I had wasted £40 I could ill afford to waste.  After that we left.


Things will not really improve for disabled people, beyond lip service measures until we properly figure in people’s consciousness.  It was  a depressing but true statement when my other half turned to me last night and said “….. they weren’t being horrible, they just didn’t even think about it”.  That’s the thing, they didn’t.  They knew there was a disabled artist involved, travelling from the mainland, and they didn’t even think they should let me know that I could not get in.  That is how invisible we are.


I remember when I ran a campaign in 2012 about seating for disabled people at the paralympics and the treatment and misinformation that was handed out by those working for London 2012 and I had numerous accusations from sections of the UK who suggested that us disabled people are always expecting to be treated “specially”.  I was at pains on national and International media to explain that we did not want special treatment, but equal treatment to have the same opportunities as others and the same courtesy.  For example; if the venue was flooded and people could not attend due to this, I am sure they would let them know the event had been cancelled.  They don’t see that a lift being broken is the same thing for a wheelchair user, it makes they venue as inaccessible to us as a flood to others.

I wait in hope that things will change, but unless there is a fundamental shift in people’s attitudes towards the disabled, I doubt it will.

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