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Issue 223

How Open-Access Resources Can Support Disabled Artists

Jamila Prowse reflects on how disability-inclusive resources can create a better art world

BY Jamila Prowse in Columnists , Opinion | 03 NOV 21

I recall being sat in the centre of a busy pavement near Euston, London, curled up in a ball, hyperventilating and unable to move, as the legs of smartly dressed businesspeople stormed past me without interruption. A month earlier, I’d started a new role at my day job in an arts organization, which had left me with a severe panic disorder. After moving back in with my mum so she could be my carer, I was unsure as to whether I’d ever be able to hold down a job and sustain independent living again. Discovering open-access resources made by disabled and chronically ill artists gave me a second chance in the arts sector.

My first encounter with disability-inclusive resources was via Access Docs for Artists, a website of templates and information for how to write access riders, which was created by Leah Clements, Alice Hattrick and Lizzy Rose after a residency at Wysing Arts Centre in October 2018. Access riders are akin to the instructions provided by musicians for what they want stocked in their green rooms except Grey Goose vodka and peeled grapes are replaced by working patterns and communication methods. Enabling you to share your needs with colleagues and collaborators once (and hopefully never again) in a pre-written document at the start of a working relationship, access riders prevent you having to continually expend energy advocating for yourself.

X-ray film still of a woman by Leah Clements
Leah Clements, Collapse, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist  

At the end of 2020, when I was supporting a London-based gallery that was about to open its doors for the first time, one of my primary focuses was developing strategies around disability access. Artist Carolyn Lazard’s Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice (2019) was invaluable in this process. Their accessibility guide breaks down the different accommodations that can be made in public spaces. Some adjustments, such as audio description and closed captioning, may be familiar; others, such as a sliding-scale for paid entry (to support people from different economic backgrounds) and childcare (to facilitate access for parents and caregivers), may be less so. Romily Alice Walden’s Primer on Working with Disabled Group Members for Feminist / Activist Groups and Organisations (2018) outlines considerations to uphold when working with disabled people. Examples detailed in the primer include how to approach talking about disability, the importance of visibly disclosing access adjustments on promotional materials and building in ‘caring time’, such as check-ins throughout a project, to ensure people’s needs are being met. The benefit of circulating a guide of this nature is that it democratizes the information and makes it readily available to anyone, so we might all place access at the forefront of what we do.

Images of medicinal bottles of Romily Alice Walden
Romily Alice Walden, Crip Ecologies, 2018. Courtesy: the artist 

Resources of this kind are often put together by disabled individuals as a way to build support structures within disabled communities. When I spoke to Clements about the advantages of this, she told me: ‘Positive changes do seem to almost always come from the people who need them rather than the people who can grant them. One upside to this is that movement can happen organically, and there can be a feeling of ownership of these changes from the people who need them.’ The flip side of this, however, is that the onus to bring about such developments routinely falls on the shoulders of disabled people. As Walden illuminates: ‘Our communities are astounding in their ability to take scraps and turn them into scaffolds. At the same time, I resent disabled artists having to educate able-bodied people in order to be able to work. The labour does not feel elective, it feels integral to surviving a hostile art world as a disabled person.’

Certainly, while vital resources created by disabled individuals have unlocked the potential for me to work, I still continually undertake additional labour in re-asserting my access adjustments. Being disabled heightens your awareness of the many barriers to existing in spaces, making it more likely for you to advocate for your peers, but the wider population is still playing catch up. Lazard astutely summarizes it: ‘We’re just waiting for everyone else to get on board. Disabled people do what is necessary to keep each other alive. It’s a joyful practice but it’s also exhausting surviving under global racial capitalism.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 under the headline ‘Promise and Practice'

Main image and thumbnail: Romily Alice Walden, Crip Ecologies, 2018. Courtesy: the artist 

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher. She holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. Prowse has written for frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.