Now is the Time to Increase Accessibility in the Arts

Making an art gallery accessible is more than providing a ramp for people to enter, an accessible art gallery ought to include accessible art. The bare minimum a gallery or performance space can do is follow the guidelines around accessible buildings (ramps, floor space, etc.). Over at Art News, Sara Reisman, executive and artistic director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation in New York, argues that 2021 should be a turning point for the art world to make the entire field accessible so more people can create and appreciate art.

During our talk, Papalia presented examples of sensory experiences that diverge from the art world’s focus on visual art and its bias toward sighted audience members so frequently referred to as “viewers.” In the past few years, he has become known for participatory performances that he describes as “nonvisual walks,” using his cane (and sometimes a megaphone or even, in the case of a special event on the High Line in New York, a marching band) to lead groups in daisy-chain-like formations that enact the kinds of interdependencies articulated in the principles of “Open Access.” Like Papalia’s approach to conversations around accessibility in general, instructions for the walks avoid medicalizing terminology and frame the experience as a function of embodiment instead.

I have participated in three such walks, and each has recalibrated my relationship to the environment and people around me. In a rural setting, I felt rocks and dips in the dirt road under my feet. In an urban landscape, I felt pavement, curbs, and the presence of vehicles in constant motion. Each time, I have experienced the world with a heightened sense of perception—and my understanding of the sensorium has been further transformed.

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