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Walking the Talk


1 April 2014

Guest Blogger: Emma Bennison

It would seem safe to assume that arts projects and events that;

  • feature work by artists with disability,
  • are lead or created by artists with disability, or
  • reflect upon the experience of disability;
  • would be made accessible to audiences with disability, right?


There are many examples that show this is not the case. I encountered a recent one which I found particularly disturbing and personally offensive.

When I suggested that the event in question, which featured work by artists with disability, should give consideration to providing access for audiences with disability, I was informed that ramps were available.

When I asked about;

  • audio description,
  • captioning, and
  • Auslan interpretation;

I was assured that blind people always attend events with a carer, so this wouldn’t be an issue.

When I mentioned that I am blind and regularly attend events alone, I was told that I would be “able to access the building so that would have to do“.

As is so often the case, limited funds were given as the reason for the lack of access. When I put forward a number of no cost suggestions, they were considered to be too difficult. That signals to me that attitude, not financial hardship, was more likely the barrier this time.

Happily, the event organisers have reassured me that ‘they will give this issue consideration for next year’ and between now and then they will ‘develop a disability action plan’.

I ask, Where does this kind of approach leave people with disability?

  • For audiences, it leaves them locked out of an opportunity to experience work by their peers.
  • For the artists involved, possibly unaware of the lack of access, pleased to have an opportunity to present their work.
  • For me, as a leader with disability, it leaves me feeling disappointed, powerless and with a stark reminder that we have a long way to go in relation to reframing perceptions of what access to the arts means for the wider community and for artists with disability themselves.

Artists with disability need to make choices about what level of access they are prepared to live with in relation to their work. We would recommend that they draw a line in the sand for themselves in relation to what access provisions they require venues and organisers to offer as a minimum standard. Being clear about this and not backing down is one way of taking the lead on improving access and raising awareness of the rights of people with disability. For example;

  • some artists with disability will not exhibit their work in physically inaccessible venues,
  • others will only perform in venues where hearing augmentation and audio description facilities are available,
  • at Arts Access Australia, we make every effort to support and publicise only events or programs that are accessible, and
  • when creating new work, we suggest, access is factored in as early as possible so that it can be built into the work from the ground up.

There is no doubt that when opportunities are offered specifically for artists with disability to gain exposure for their work, they are well intentioned. They often stem from a desire to increase visibility for work which is all too often ignored. Often there are genuine financial barriers which need to be resolved before full access is possible. But failure to consider access at all, particularly when artists with disability are the feature, feels dangerously close to exploitation and a long way from full and equal access to the arts.

When it comes to disability rights, we as people with disability are in a powerful position to encourage presenters and venues to walk the talk in relation to access. So next time you are exhibiting or performing, it is worth asking some key questions in relation to audience access before deciding whether to proceed.

Arts Access Australia is currently developing a resource on this topic that will be available soon from If you decide to go we will also have a list of free or low cost access solutions available on our website soon. You can suggest these as a starting point for creating better access. Perhaps the most important message we as artists with disability can give about access is that it should be seen as an opportunity, not a box that needs to be ticked.

Access doesn’t have to be difficult. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. And it benefits everyone – not only people with disability. Access can help to build a wider audience for the work.

Emma Bennison is the CEO of Arts Access Australia. Emma is a passionate advocate for the rights of artists with disability, Emma is also a singer, pianist and song-writer with a bachelor of Music from the university of Queensland.