What does Access to Culture Imply?

Two wheelchair users, a man and a young boy, in a museum

accessible adj.
1. Easily approached or entered.
2. Easily obtained
3. Easy to talk to or get along with
4. Easily swayed or influenced

Accessibility is the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. Accessibility can be viewed as the “ability to access” and benefit from some system or entity. The concept often focuses on people with disabilities or special needs (such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and their right of access, enabling the use of assistive technology.

The consensus or generic idea of what accessibility implies is seen from the perspective of reducing barriers to accessibility. These are physical and socio-psychological barriers that hinder or inhibit persons living with disabilities to fully participate in society. We have now reached a stage where governments of the world are paying attention to these barriers – in the architectural, digital and social domains – and taking steps to ensure that accessibility becomes the primary, default step while conceptualizing spaces, geography and navigation.

The global Disability Rights Movements that mushroomed in the last three decades has shifted the focus from looking at disability as a medical paradigm to reframing it in the sociopolitical context of exclusion and rights. The rights-based approach guarantees that legal provisions and mandates are in place, be it in education, healthcare, financial services, employment or leisure, ensuring a least common denominator of requirements are available for not just persons with disabilities, but for people of all abilities.

In this context, when we talk about the basic elements required to pursue a good life, does society (public, legal institutions, governments, corporations) place leisure and fun last on the Hierarchy of Needs? Do we tend to focus rather exclusively on making available food, shelter, education, and employment at the cost of play, relaxation and outings? Is it assumed that persons with disabilities have much more pressing concerns to grapple with and so entertainment, visit to museums, art galleries, heritage sites, gardens and amusement parks are not priority areas for discussing inclusive policies? We see the same argument especially applicable in development work or international aid, where donors say that they are ready to fund a school or a hospital, but not a theatre, playground or cultural space for performance or art as these are not crucial to development or GDP.

Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities puts the spotlight on this very assumption by highlighting the rights of the community towards Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. The Article repeats that access to and participation in cultural avenues and spaces, including leisure, sports, playgrounds, as well as cultural materials, including television programs, films, theatre and other cultural activities must be made available in accessible formats.

In real terms, television programs need to be telecast with captions so that the deaf and hard of hearing can understand serials and shows of any format (reality, fiction, game shows, music channels). This means that a live play (theatre) has provisions for captions on a digital screen above the stage, or sign language interpreters or a transcript of the play available for those who require it. When it comes to watching movies in a cinema hall, every film needs to be captioned in the national language of the country it is being screened in. When a person who is blind or Autistic or a wheelchair-user visits a museum, she should have the option of an accessible tour by having a guide or curator show her around. Is this practicable though? Not by a long short. So, what are the alternatives?

The first step is to begin with providing access before we go around to perfecting it. With the advent of digital communication devices, the idea of providing accessible public and cultural spaces is becoming more acceptable and do-able. Consider for instance, a museum or art gallery. With a pre-recorded audio tour on a CD or mp3 player, a blind visitor can experience the exhibit optimally. Braille signage also works and so would tactile exhibits where the user can touch the surfaces of a sculpture. But what if the exhibit on display is a book, or a painting or a piece of decorative furniture? Would mere description or touch help them “access” the object? To what levels do we consider ‘accessibility’ of an object, a physical space or a program? In this sense, we understand that even with physical ‘access’ to a painting, the material still remains inaccessible. Do we address this issue and if yes, how do we go about making every object, surface or event accessible?

Universal Design is a tricky business. At parks or playgrounds, we require not just wheelchair access, but also spaces where children of all abilities can freely explore natural environs, run, play, gather around, have relaxing corners and seating options. Can architects, landscape designers and Public Works Department ensure playground and parks that cater to children who might be deaf-blind, or have motor disabilities as well as provide “regular” areas for children who want their swings, slides and see-saws? If accessibility has to be universal (and uniform?) and guaranteed for every person, how do we go about designing and co-creating spaces that are inclusive for everyone and are yet not sectioned off and discreet?

I think we are so used to seeing public spaces fit a certain cookie-cutter model of fences, grass, mud and rides (or buildings that are necessarily designed with steps and staircase) that we haven’t yet developed an aesthetic for newer forms of play and leisure for the 21st century. Newer forms of physical activities and newer conceptualizations of the idea of ‘play’ have to be designed and curated, crowd-sourced from the public. Did kids see a park and then decide to play catch-catch or did the game always exist and parks evolved as a response to that game?

A question that concerns me is the idea that culture can be accessed only in institutionalized settings, that we need to visit a museum or an art gallery in order to participate in a cultural activity or internalize what culture means in a given regional or national setting. Aren’t parks and fairs also part of culture and therefore liable to the same discourse of shaping public sensibilities? In this scenario, access has two meanings: physical access to a place, which we can address by improving physical infrastructure, and second, the politics of access: where institutions and government place museums and art galleries as pre-eminent to a local park or playground – the latter are neglected, where as the former receive endowments. Do we automatically privilege these spaces and bring in the question of lack of access as posteriori?

Public parks and fairs are considered open spaces where there is no regulation. You don’t have a curator guiding your sensibilities of what is high art and what is folk. There is no question of authorship or authority: who designed the landscape, who affixed the fountain, who created the marble statues, how are these relevant, why are these elements considered necessary for leisure? It’s time that we revisit these spaces from the point of view of access and try to figure out why it has become so important that we gain entry to them.In conclusion and to summarize: what does access really mean when we talk about accessible culture? Is is physical access to a cultural space (a museum for instance), or are we referring to the aesthetics of access – where we democratize culture and make it available beyond institutional settings (in a subway, restaurant or playground), or is it about the politics of access: where certain sections of the public realize that they might not be able to enter an art gallery, because it is highbrow, at once relegating it ‘exclusive’ and therefore, exclusionary?

I would love to hear from my readers. Would you say a visit to a park or a museum is fraught with all these tensions, or is it as simple as providing persons with all abilities the fullest range of accessible material as the UN CRPD says.

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