Disabled artists explore access and overcoming barriers in the city

A new exhibition at the University of the Atypical asks disabled artists to consider the challenges of the built environment. CEO of the organisation Damien Coyle believes those with disabilities should be consulted in construction design to facilitate the access and comfort of those with different needs

Thursday, 16th December 2021, 2:24 pm

Now open at the University of Atypical for Arts and Disability Gallery on Royal Avenue in Belfast, the Accessing Architecture exhibition reflects on contemporary attitudes and artistic interpretations to access and inclusion in urban design and architecture.

The work, created by D/deaf, Disabled and Neurodiverse artists, is the culmination of a two-year project. It delivered a series of creative workshops, lectures, research opportunities, disability awareness training, a film archive collaboration with Northern Ireland Screen and a partner project with the Strand Arts Centre. A documentary film on the project will be released in January 2022.

The exhibition includes work by disabled artists Paula Clarke, James Ashe, Jacqueline Wylie, Marie–Therese Davis and Helen Hall.

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Sean Fitzsimons, chairperson of the University of Atypical, commented: “The Accessing Architecture project and exhibition address an important aspect of disabled people’s experience of the built environment. The project gave an important voice to disabled people who faced barriers to access within the built environment in Belfast and beyond.”

Damien Coyle MBE is chief executive of the organisation. He said: “The exhibition is about disabled people’s reflections on how they engage with the built environment and the barriers and difficulties they encounter on a daily basis explored in a myriad of media and art forms

“Part of it is about how disabled people were able to access spaces and buildings historically before the days of the Disability Discrimination Act which introduced legislation that made buildings much more accessible.

“We are looking at the progress that has been made since then.

“Disabled people still encounter barriers to access and inclusion within buildings but also more broadly within society. Modern buildings are more often designed with disability access in mind but often if doesn’t go far enough in fully catering for disabled people’s requirements.

“There are a lot of situations where we don’t have full compliance and where there is a difference between legislation to improve disability access and the spirit of that.”

Damien has personal experience of grappling with the built environment. After suffering a brain haemorrhage he has problems with physical mobility that make getting up the stairs of his third floor apartment difficult.

“I can do the stairs but it takes me a very long time and I am in fact lucky because we often hear horror stories of people with disabilities who are marooned in their homes because say they are in a wheelchair and cannot move freely within their home because of the size of it.

“We need to see a wider consideration of the needs of disabled people in terms of access to buildings. The days of disabled people entering buildings through the back door because that is the only point of access for them has become unacceptable, thankfully.

“It is important that when there are buildings being constructed that there is consultation with a broad range of disabled people because we automatically assume that within the physical infrastructure the issues are going to be solely about people with mobility problems, but it is about more than that. We have to think about people who are blind or visually impaired and how they move throughout buildings because you will not always find braille signage or audio information about the geography of a building so that those affected in this way know how to navigate it.

“Disabled people need to be involved at the design stage.

“Access to places like theatres, restaurants, cinemas and so on often to do provide adequate access points, but all this is variable.

“For someone with autism, navigating a new space can be a source of huge anxiety and sometimes in that situation people need knowledge of the layout and features of a building in order to feel comfortable there and find a pathway around a venue.”

Commenting on the Accessing Architecture exhibition he added: “This is about disabled artists’ experiences of going around the physicality of a place, like Belfast.

“It’s about the barriers they encounter on a daily basis and all of the artists have tried to interpret this in different ways. So for example. you have choreographer Helen Hall who has produced videos of people doing dance outside and within various spaces and she is thinking about how she navigates the city, and actor Paula Clarke has produced a video work about her experience as a profoundly deaf person engaging with physical infrastructure.”

Coordinator of the exhibition Deirdre McKenna, explained that the two-year project allowed people to explore the built environment through a range of different perspectives. “Being able to access a building or move through the streets is every person’s right. Each of the artists responded to the project in different ways filtering their experiences through their creative process and unique perspective.

“There are video works and a piece made along with NI Screen on documentaries reflecting on disability over time and the evolving discourse in how the media reports on disability.

“We did some photographic work outside the Strand Cinema and James Ashe made illustrations of the building from 1935 to 1990. We worked with a group called Disordinary Architecture who work with artists and architects and consider how spaces can be accommodated for say those who are neurodiverse and might need a quiet space incorporated.

“We also have sonic compositions informed by the sound of the city by Marie Therese Davies and Eva McDermott has looked at how those who historically worked in the mills in Belfast often experienced hearing impairments because of the sound of the machines and in different factories in different parts of the city therefore developed their own unique forms of sign language.”

Jacqueline Wylie, originally from Dungannon, is a conceptual artist interested in social engagement who contributed to the exhibition. She suffers from dyslexia and is neurodiverse.

Her conceptual work involved taking disabled artists from east to west Belfast via the Glider, taking photographs along the way.

“The project is of course about how disabled people access the built environment. So I wanted to take people across the city and see how they experienced it because depending on your disability, whether you are deaf or visually impaired or neurodiverse or have mobility problems then the challenges you face are very different.”

She added: “I was interested in taking people on this mini-odyssey because I am intrigued by the way there is this kind of invisible barrier between the east and west of the city as a result of our historic divide and how because of this people can feel uncomfortable in places beyond their home environment due to the kind of tribal geographic delineation of the city.

“I was taking some people from the east who had never been to the west before.

“I’m interested in ideas of the flaneur and the beat under the street. I love the idea of people taking public ownership of a space and being able to move around it freely.

“I wanted to show how the experiences and people in the east and the west of the city are in essence the same in spite of this physical and cultural divide that we have.”

The exhibition runs until January 27 at the University of Atypical Gallery, Belfast.