Back Photo credit: Making space … Yinka Shonibare’s Refugee Astronaut at the Wellcome Foundation’s Being Human exhibition exploring arts and disability rights. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

No art lover left behind: how galleries are finally welcoming disabled people


After years of being shunted to the sidelines and made to feel in the way, disabled people are finally getting galleries to listen – and enable access to all 

A few weeks ago, Tate Modern found itself at the centre of a storm after wheelchair-user Ciara O’Connor took to social media to protest that there was no ramp to enable her to enter and experience a key cylindrical work in an exhibition by the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

Within days, more than 2,000 people had retweeted her words and more than 100 had piled in with their own angry anecdotes, drawing apologies from the London museum and from the artist’s studio, which pointed out that it was an old work, created in 2002. There is now a video at the side of Your Spiral View, showing what it is like to pass through. Tate and Eliasson have promised to do better in future.

“It turns out that this is about far more than me, a ramp, the Tate, Eliasson,” concluded O’Connor, who clearly spoke for many when she tweeted: “I never get to lose myself in a picture, or wander in a reverie. I am always, ALWAYS aware of my body, how it’s blocking people, how it’s taking up space, how it’s inconvenient and cumbersome.”

While the row was swirling around the South Bank, a few miles away curator Clare Barlow was putting the finishing touches to a new permanent gallery at the Wellcome Collection that aims to address these issues. Entitled Being Human, the gallery’s mission is to “explore trust, identity and health in a changing world”. Contributors include several leading disability activists – so one of the first things Barlow had to get right was accessibility.

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Written by: Claire Armitstead