Why Access is Love and There is No Such Thing as “Barrier-Free” by Aislinn Thomas

By Aislinn Thomas

About a year ago I reached out to an artist-run centre over email to get more information about their current show. This is not an unusual practice for me, although the response I received was.

Let me explain.

I thrive in low-stimulation spaces which makes bright, loud, sensory-intense exhibitions difficult for me, if possible at all. I was emailing to see if the show was, as I suspected, high-stimulation, and, if so, whether audio description was available. I did so with the knowledge that I was unlikely to find a way to see the exhibition – most spaces I’ve been to in Canada offer little if anything in terms of alternative formats or considerations of access folded into the work itself. For the past couple of years, I’ve been asking anyhow, if for no other reason than to make the presence and needs of people like me known.

Wall text at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (photo: Stephanie Vegh)

I received a response. In it I was greeted warmly by a staff member who I know and have affection for. She thanked me for reaching out and confirmed that the show was indeed sensory-intense. The absence of audio description was a gap in the accessibility of the space. However, she offered ideas for tweaks that could be made to minimize the intensity during my visit. She included images and went on to describe the exhibition layout and content in detail, proposing ways to make it a more sensory-friendly space. She invited me to ask more questions, offering to clarify further with the hope that we could figure something out to make my visit possible. I cried reading this.

Her response was so simple, yet extraordinary. Seeking and negotiating my access is quite a bit of labour. Often my inquires lead to dead ends, or offers of the wrong kind of support, without invitation to further conversation. I’ve been told by a staff member at one prominent institution that hopefully I would “be better soon,” and by another that since their approach works well for others I was simply “too sensitive.” Most encounters are not quite so infuriating, but neither are they the opportunities for connection and support that they could be.

Mia Mingus (photo: Texas Isaiah)

Disability Justice activist and writer Mia Mingus coined the term “access intimacy” to describe the specific (and transformative) space that is created with someone when they simply understand your access needs. This is what I was experiencing! It was one of the first times I’d encountered such affirmation of my needs outside of my personal life, and I can’t tell you how meaningful it was. Here was someone who I don’t know well at all, yet she was willing to share the labour of navigating my access, she recognized the barriers and constraints involved (instead of denying them), and she didn’t treat me as a burden or inconvenience, regardless of how unusual my needs and requests might be.

I’ve facilitated a few workshops about access in arts spaces. In each instance I prefaced a list of accessibility considerations with my belief that access should be relational – that is, grounded in conversation and relationship. If I were to give another workshop today, I don’t think I would provide such a list at all. Many toolkits exist in the world, and though they have their place, I am opposed to an approach to access that seeks to merely check the boxes. Disability is dynamic and in flux, different from individual to individual and moment to moment. Barriers are faced at a multitude of intersections by the disabled and those without a named disability. All marginalized communities encounter barriers of various kinds, and all marginalized communities include people with disabilities as members.

Given the broad range of human experience, perhaps the most kind and ethical stance is to realize that we can never anticipate every need, let alone develop adequate boxes to check in response. Not that this should keep us from trying to anticipate and meet the needs of our community, but that it should keep us humble. I am especially frustrated when spaces describe themselves as “barrier-free.” Usually this is a shorthand for barrier-free physical access (i.e., accessible for those using wheelchairs and other mobility aids), but the claim to universal accessibility is suspect. After all, not only are needs diverse, but they are frequently in conflict. It is not uncommon for one person’s point of access to be another person’s barrier. And so I ask instead, who is not present? Who is beyond our welcome, consideration, and care for the simple reason that meeting their needs is not straightforward? Or for the more complicated reasons that lead us to not even notice they’re missing?

Access is Love promo video

Access is about welcome, consideration, and care. And, as access intimacy suggests, connection. More radically, as proposed by Sandy Ho, Mia Mingus, and Alice Wong, access is about love. Not cishetero love or romantic love of any kind, but genuine expressions of care and understanding. Ho, Mingus, and Wong recently launched the “Access Is Love” campaign and I am swooning! I love that they don’t hesitate to claim love as not only a possibility of access, but the entire point – and a public good that we need more of. When I think of access as love, I’m reminded that access can be connected to joy and pleasure, also. It needn’t come from a place of duty, it needn’t be a chore when shared and held with care. Access that seeks to merely check the boxes or do the right thing is not true access. It is not loving and it does not address the injustices that create and support ableism in the first place. (For more on true, meaningful access, please see here and here.)

I never did make it to that exhibition. My appointment ran late, or I had more pain than usual that day, or public transit was too much of a challenge. But I did make it to a future one, months later. When I thanked my kind access-collaborator in person for that initial email exchange (and the subsequent ones), she told me that it’s great having me there, that she loves to hear my thoughts on the work. Her generosity in problem-solving with me wasn’t about compliance with legislation, and it wasn’t even about inclusion being the right thing. It came from a sense of care and a desire to have lots of voices be part of the conversation. Because her world is enriched by that, too. I can’t think of a more loving response.

Aislinn Thomas is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice includes video, performance, installation, and text. Her recent and upcoming exhibitions include the WRO Media Biennale in Wroclaw, Poland; Holding Patterns in Toronto; and a project for the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff. You can learn more about her work at aislinnthomas.ca.