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> > > Assessing access at the Royal Academy of Arts: InPractice

Several times a year the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) hosts InPractice, as part of its wider access programme. The sessions aim to provide a platform for disabled artists, and others whose work faces barriers, to share best practice through talks and debates. Artist and regular DAO contributor Deborah Caulfield went to the latest event in London to see if it delivers on its promises.

A picture of Frederick Heymann's painting Chelsea Old Church. Watercolour on canvas.

Chelsea Old Church by Frederick Heymann.

Access is a tricky business. Like peace, making the world fully accessible to disabled people is faultless in concept but fraught with difficulty in practice. Or so it would seem. And yet, some organisations try very hard to get it right.

The RA in London runs a series of mostly free events and activities specifically for disabled people. The Community and Access programme has five strands: InPractice, InMotion, InTouch, Interact and InMind. Events include talks, supported tours, workshops and dedicated private views.

On 30 October 2015 I attended an InPractice event. Here 'disabled artists and creative people at risk of exclusion from the art world' are invited to share their practice and showcase their work 'in a warm and welcoming environment.'

Six visual artists showed slides of their work, and a 'surprise guest' read aloud a selection of her poems. Some people struggled a bit with speaking in front of an audience, perhaps because of shyness or because English wasn't their first language.

But the audience was friendly and encouraging, gently probing the artists with questions, eager to know more, for example, about technique or intention. The artists talked openly and passionately about their work. Art is how they live and what they need to do. I enjoyed hearing all this. I was cheered and impressed by all the artists. The work of two made most impact on me.

The first, Vera Freire, a ceramicist, is involved with Studio Upstairs, a charity that supports people experiencing enduring mental health and emotional difficulties. Vera makes animals, insects and fish from clay and then paints them. She showed slides of her models of cats and bees. Her work is well observed, expressive and not at all cute.

The second was Tania Britto, who studied at The Slade and Chelsea schools of art. She is an accomplished printmaker and creates large, mainly figurative, works in mixed and multi media. Examples of her beautiful work –  subtle, delicate and strong – can be seen on the ArtSlant and Saatchi websites. A film she made at SoundMinds is on YouTube.

I have no idea if the RA's access programme achieves the stated aim, 'to make sure your experience of the RA is enjoyable, comfortable and memorable.' However, the 30+ people at this event clearly had a great time. The event was interactive and inclusive, with BSL interpretation throughout.

Time for socialising is built in to every event in the programme. I would prefer to have refreshments at the start or in the middle, not at the end of the event. This is because after two and a half hours in a hard chair I'm longing to be home and horizontal. And return journeys always take longer. But that's just me and this is how it is with access – there is no one size that fits all.

In the BSL break I got chatting to someone sitting behind me. A community arts worker, Ismail attends the Access events regularly. He told me the programme was very popular and urged me to come again. He said the InPractice sessions were typically not as 'anarchic' as this one. Usually there was more 'structure' and the audience more 'respectful'. I was keen to explore this point. In conclusion, Ismail said that at this event there was more engagement, more interaction and more questions put to the artists, which he saw as a good thing.

On the evidence of this event, together with the RA's publicity, it would seem churlish of me not to applaud the RA's attempt to provide opportunities for disabled people to feel valued and included as both practitioners and visitors. In fact, I enjoyed the InPractice event so much that I have applied to present my own work at the next one.

Call me a hard-to-please activist, or maybe it's the old community development worker in me that makes me want to know more about who attends, how many, and what they get out if it, before giving the big thumbs-up. Nor am I convinced that this programme quite cuts it in terms of equality of access, in social model terms. I wouldn't be doing my job properly if I didn't wonder how inclusive, how accessible, the mainstream programme is. I hope the RA is wondering too. 

Arguably, some of the shown work might be labelled 'Outsider Art' (work by people who are not 'professionally' trained.) But I'm uncomfortable, almost to the point of outrage, with any mention of disabled people as outsiders. As a disabled person whose childhood was spent in a segregated institution, the mere thought of exclusion makes me mad as hell. Which is why I genuinely congratulate the RA on its commitment to facilitating and enabling disabled people, and other excluded groups to appreciate, enjoy and participate in the Arts.

I'm glad these events happen. I hope they continue and develop.

The next InPractice event at the Royal Academy is programmed for the Friday 22nd January 6-8.30pm