Accessibility covers a number of different domains. It can be figurative; for example, how accessible is this work artistically to its intended audience; or it can refer more lierally to who can the audience physically encounter the work.
Issues of accessibility are often discussed in art criticism, but there is still a tendency to pay lip service to access; or to see it is a bolt-on service to be provided at the stage of exhibition curation.
I see accessibility as a core aspect of any work of art; whether recently created or historic. Artists working in past ages may well have not had the benefit of the knowledge of disability and access that we have now, and may have lacked the insight or motivation to make their work so; but in contemporary art, there is little excuse for not considering this important facet of creation (unless the intention is to deliberately exclude persons with particular characteristics, to make a valid point.
It should go without saying, that venues need to be physically accessible to persons with physical disabilities. That means that not only must the exhibition space be accessible to chairfast visitors, but that the access to the building by vehicle and public transport needs to be achievable; and that WC, refreshment and cloakroom spaces are provided to meet the needs of all visitors, at no extra cost.
Where access has been secured, the next hurdle is to afford lines of sight which permit the chairfast or physically less mobile visitor to actually view the exhibits. Designated chairs, or wheelchair areas with decent views are desirable; or protected times for viewing.
Invigilators and exhibition staff need specific training, to permit them to facilitate access, without embarrassment. (I have personally had to produce written evidence of disability to access lifts in some European galleries).
There are a number of easy to implement adjustments here. Large print guides, audio-guides and magnified sections of works or facsimilies are all useful. Again, exhibition staff need to be trained to be sensitive to the needs of visually disabled visitors, and not assume that one approach to such disability meets all needs.
Many exhibitions showing three dimensional objects create tactile boards, to replicate the contours of sculpture or architecture, and the texture of fabrics and materials can often be recreated as well.
Floors can be marked with tactile studs or ribbing, to permit the visitor to navigate around the exhibition; and location sensing software caan play audio descriptions, synchronised to the pathway around the exhibition, enhancing independence.
Ambient sound (both diegetic and no-diegetic) can enhance the experience for visually diabled visitors. For example, a painting of a jazz age scene can be augmented with a period sound track.
It might be supposed that projection mapping cannot be adapted for visually disabled viewers; but the use of specially dark spaces and higher levels of illumination may assist partially sighted individuals. The use of radiant heat and colder areas underfoot can simulate, for example, warm sunlight.
All gallery advertising, information and catalogues ought to be available in audio form, large print versions, and ideally Braille editions, for the visitor.
Hard of Hearing and Deaf Visitors
There are significant differences between the provision of assistance for the pre-lingually deaf and those who have an acquired disability.
Firstly, routine and emergency announcements (e.g. fire alarms and evacuation protocols) need to be considered for all disabled visitors, but particularly so for deaf visitors.
The provison of T Loop equipment and again (at the risk of being repetitive) excellent training for guides and invigilators on how to communicate with hard of hearing and deaf visitors is essential.
Hard of hearing visitors may benefit from a written or Kindle type guidebook.
Pre-Lingually deaf visitors require special attention, as the language and synntax of BSL is a cognitive structure in its own right. Pre-lingually deaf folk think and speak in a language system which is not English (or German or Spanish for that matter) simply translated into signs. Information regarding the art on show will need to be properly translated into BSL by a trained translator, with the requesite art experience.
Video kiosks are extremely useful for presenting this type of information, at a place and in a style suitable to the exhibition.
Disabilities involving taste, touch and smell
It may be necessary on occasion to describe sensations other than sight and sound to those who cannot experience them at first hand. Such disabilities are likely to be acquired.
If a person who has had a stroke visits an exhibition of textiles or similar material art, where samples of the materials are available for the public to handle, then suitable swatches need to be retained, that are availble for a visitor to touch, say, on their face. (Some of these may need to be disposable for hygienic reasons).
Intellectual difference and sensory needs
Every up to date museum now has a program for children and young people, to adapt access to the exhibitions to age appropriate learning.
Whole exhibitions are organised around the interests and needs of children, in particular themes. Education centres are staffed and equipped to permit activities of a creative and education nature to occur on site – and the shop is well stocked with toys and trinkets.
Persons with learning disabilities or acquired brain injury are no less deserving of the opportunity to visit and enjoy an exhibition. But adults with learning disablity are not children; and their interests are not necessarily immature. Persons with learning diability, for example, are usually quite able to appreciate the erotism of art, where that is a central feature; and may express their views in candid and unvarnished terms. Staff need to be able to deal with such responses with aplomb and maturity.
Specialist guides and information to permit persons with learning disabilities to enjoy exhibitions need to be created in association with professionals skilled in such communicationand education.
Persons on the autistic spectrum may have highly idiosyncratic responses to art; and care should be taken to prepare the visitor for their trip to the gallery.
Many persons with either LD or ASD or both find lighting (especially neon lights, and flashing lights in displays), temperature, ambient sound levels and even the texture of the floor ad walls may be challenging.
Staff training, and the ability to adust environmental paramenters may be helpful. Some people on the ASD spectrum would prefer quieter times to visit; but this should not develop into some sort of disability apartheid in the museum or gallery.
Individuals with Tourette Syndrome should be accommodated using the strategies promoted by Tourette Action.
There is no limit to the possible sensitivities which can be experienced by visitors; and the best policy is to be open about what is on display, and offer ample trigger warnings.
Relaxed visiting times can be advertised, when the general public are advised that the gallery is prioritisng the needs of visitors with special needs may reduce friction and annoyance on both sides.
In my opinion, art should be free and open to all, without charge, in any case. However, where charges are levied, these should be mitigated or removed completely for disabled persons and their carers, to improve access.