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Separate and together

Targeted programs for Deaf and disabled audiences, and big organisational change

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Meg Riley at work. Photo: Sia Duff[Image description: Meg, a white person with short brown hair and black glasses, holds her hands up to the pair of red headphones on her head. She looks down in happy concentration.]

A woman thanks me as she hurries out the door, hand grasped by a young child.

“This is great,” she says. “Normally we wouldn’t make it out this long, but we got a bit of time in.”

“Amazing,” I say. “See you next time.”

I talk to a parent whose kid usually refuses to go to the Museum because last time they came, they were overwhelmed by the crowd and cried. They needed to make new memories during the quiet hours.

“I can’t come during opening hours because the lights are too bright,” another visitor says, their face half-covered in a scarf and sunglasses. They have only come to view the new exhibition - they arrived at 8am on the dot, did a round of the show, then left quietly.

This was my introduction into disability access in museums and galleries: targeted programs which served the needs of very specific communities, like these quiet times outside of regular opening hours for autistic visitors or anyone with sensory needs. A state institution, especially, has public collections which should be accessible to all of the public. And yet we’re stuck in a cycle of invisibility: we don’t make space for people, so they don’t show up, so we say we’ve never seen them and it’s not worth making space for them. Targeted programs can create that kind of accessibility — whether it’s adding Auslan interpretation, or having a quiet hour, or running an audio described tour.

I am autistic and physically disabled. My career has jumped around through education and the arts, and now I seem to have a little drumbeat inside of me, drawing me on. Make it more accessible. Bring in others. Show them how good this stuff is. I have tried through a few different avenues to draw people into cultural institutions; I have successfully coordinated writing programs for people living with dementia, audio described exhibitions for blind and vision impaired patrons, and hosted Auslan days with interpreters stationed around a museum, among other programs. I now want to talk about the relationship between targeted programming, and organisational change.


A tour group shuffles through the exhibition. A rapid stream of signing flows from the guide, who is Deaf, and a rumble of laughter goes through the group. A participant signs a quick question and gets a quick clarifying answer. Everything flows quickly and naturally in a language that they share.

To the arts workers reading this; when you think about access in museums and galleries, do you think about a Deaf-led tour group full of people signing together, oblivious to the hearing visitors around them? Do you think about universal design, and making all your current exhibitions accessible for everyone? Do you think about the copy you have to write for the monthly e-news, and how you can comply with a style guide while making it accessible?

Under the social model of disability, someone is disabled not by their medical impairments but by the failures of the systems around them. If a building can only be accessed by stairs, under the medical model it would be a wheelchair user’s fault that they couldn’t enter the building. Under the social model, the stairs would be the problem; replacing them with a ramp would remove the disabling aspect of visiting this building.

That is an incredibly simple example of the medical and social models. When we talk about getting people into museums and galleries, the barriers become more numerous than stairs: the lights, the sound, the information available on the website. Targeted programming can meet the needs of a variety of people, particularly if we focus on need rather than diagnosis (the need for quiet/space/interpretation/information). Targeted programs do break down barriers in some ways, but they are also an act of segregating people based on need; the risk there is that in providing for a single group we may neglect the bigger picture — organisational change.


As well as targeted programs, we need organisational change. And this rarely happens without someone placed within a museum or gallery who can advocate for that change; usually this is someone from the programs or education teams — I posit this is since they interact with the public more than other departments.

It also rarely happens without a comprehensive document unique to the institution. A Disability Access and Inclusion Plan (DAIP) can lay out where the organisation is currently at, and what it can aim for. It gives you something to point at when you need to argue your case in meetings. DAIPs need to happen through consultation or co-design with the people affected by the Plan: staff and visitors with disabilities. It should cover not just programming but all aspects of the organisation.

Organisational change can be led by and informed by disabled people, but cannot be wholly the work of disabled people. This is everyone’s job, and anyone can strive to make their work more accessible. We need it all to work together, and that cannot be the work of one person — although one person can certainly create the spark of change.


I don’t have a comprehensive answer to this expansive and ever-evolving topic. I’m just one person on the ground, advocating and writing DAIPs and consulting. I need to tell you that forays into targeted programs and organisational change are worth doing even if it feels like you are making only tiny amounts of progress. Many people start very small while dreaming very big.

There is nothing wrong with targeted programming alone as a way to observe, gather information, and send feelers out. The special places that are created when we gather with a group of other people with the same communication needs as us, the same access needs, can be safer. And more enjoyable. In these spaces, there is more room for disabled joy. But access tends to fall by the wayside unless there is greater accountability and organisational change. It falls on the shoulders of a single person, or a small number of people, who may leave the organisation or become burnt out and commandeered by other work.

All day, every day, people in arts organisations make decisions about access which may be ill-informed, meaning the outcomes are ineffective. When decisions around access are made that are educated, tried and tested, we can change the course of an organisation. Targeted programs can exist in a larger context that make sense, and we can create a fertile ground where access grows from every angle: not just programs, but communications, building works, leadership and recruitment. Everyone is invested, and everyone is welcome.