How can the arts play a role in promoting a more inclusive society?

How can the arts play a role in promoting a more inclusive society?
Workshop for people with intellectual disabilities / LCCA

There is a lot of discussion about more inclusive societies today, both about how to make the environment more accessible for people with different kinds of disabilities, and about how to change perceptions of inclusive environments and societies more broadly. Arts and culture and their institutions also play an important role in promoting a more inclusive society, seeking new ways to make their programmes not only accessible to people with different needs, but also to raise issues of accessibility, inclusion, and diversity in society.

The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural institutions that has been particularly focused on these issues in recent years, so we invited the people who have been most directly involved in the Centre's accessibility programmes - inclusion expert, educator, and designer Lība Bērziņa, art historian and designer, founder of the Latvian Association for Supporting People with Disabilities Ieva Rosne, and art historian and curator Māra Žeikare. The discussion was moderated by Ieva Astahovska and Elza Medne.

Ieva Astahovska: In recent years, issues of environmental accessibility and social inclusion have become increasingly topical in public consciousness and public space, as well as in the context of art and culture. They are also relevant to us, to the events that the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art produces, so we invited you to talk about these issues in the context of the arts and culture environment.

(...) How do you see each of them - are attitudes in society changing or not in terms of inclusion models? (...) When I talk about the changes that are needed in art institutions in terms of accessibility, I realise that, even in this environment, significant changes have only recently started to happen, and there are constant misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Lība Bērziņa: Everything is relative. I've travelled a lot, I see where it's better and where it's worse. The most important thing is to start with yourself. To ask ourselves how inclusive we are. (...) When it comes to the question of who is going to change the situation, it seems that to some extent we all are, because it is everyone's responsibility.

(...) The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, among others, is a platform for change in this area. For example, when we were involved in the international project "ART vs DEMENTIA", we had to find out that there was no Alzheimer's or Dementia Association in Latvia (or we couldn't find one). And so contemporary art in general and the activities organised by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art became a platform to talk about these issues and do something about them.

Ieva Astahovska: When did accessibility issues become topical at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art?

Māra Žeikare: As an institution, we have been thinking about inclusion for a long time. For example, we realised that we have created a great festival, but not everyone can come to it. Focused work on inclusion developed during the pandemic, when we realised that we needed to reach people who were trapped in their homes and couldn't come to cultural events. This in turn was coupled with the realisation that there were people who couldn't get out of their homes before as well. Gradually, accessibility has become an important aspect of every event and exhibition, from being the subject of individual projects.

Ieva Astahovska: I think the shift towards inclusion also happened through the arts mediator programme, which started in 2017. Realising that contemporary art often remains misunderstood, through the involvement of art mediators in the exhibition - for example, they engaged in conversations with visitors - we aimed to reduce this misunderstanding. As we have already discussed, inclusion is not only for people with disabilities.

Māra Žeikare: Understanding is a process. For the children and youth programme, we created guides on how to understand the artworks in the exhibition more easily, and we noticed that seniors also used the guide. With the introduction of the art mediator programme, we got a much better sense of who our visitors are, what their needs are, etc. If we initially thought specifically about how to talk about art to teenagers, every year there were new target groups to focus on. For example, the "Agents of Change" project also focused on dementia. We involved seniors with a family history of dementia as mediators and trained them. Next, we wanted to reach people with dementia themselves, which was a new challenge.

Creative workshop and lecture on universal design in the framework of the public programme of the exhibition "Decolonial Ecologies"

Ieva Astahovska: Can you outline the stumbling blocks along the way, because learning is done by doing?

Lība Bērziņa: The stumbling block, or the one that needs more work and is very time-consuming, is engaging the target group - for example, how to bring them to the exhibitions. It is not enough to create an accessibility solution and send out a press and social media message. There is a lot more to do in parallel. People with disabilities need to believe that the event will actually be accessible. For example, in the field of cinema, the first Latvian film with audio description has only recently been made. But people with visual impairments and blind people have anxiety and are afraid to go to the cinema because they have never done it before. They don't go to such a film because they don't have the skill or the understanding that they can do it.

Ieva Rosne: One of the reasons could be the fear of disappointment. People find out about an event and its availability, but unfortunately, the experience is often that they are met with insensitivity and discrimination. It is emotionally hard to face, it is easier to just not go. It takes time to gain trust.

Lība Bērziņa: The first thing that is definitely needed is clear information on accessibility and inclusion, because people who care about accessibility will never know if they can attend an event if there is no information. Every institution can organise the information on its website so that these people know whether they can get in or not, because the needs are very different. (...) We have also had different things with exhibitions - it's not that they are always in a perfectly accessible place, but we always come up with something. We have to show the public that we are thinking about it and that some solution is being found. It is also important to involve people with disabilities themselves in the solutions and to test things out. And people with disabilities also need to understand that they need to give feedback and constructive criticism.

Elza Medne: What is the situation of cultural and arts institutions in Latvia in general in terms of accessibility? What is the obstacle to paying more attention to it and what could help - manuals, tools?

Lība Bērziņa: Inclusion issues are important for many cultural institutions. For example, Lūznava Manor is one step ahead of many institutions, including those in Riga, in terms of inclusion. Of course, there are some organisations that pretend that inclusion doesn't exist, that people with disabilities don't exist, that members of the LGBTQ+ community don't exist, etc. But they also have no choice but to start thinking about it. It is inevitable.

Most of the time, it takes encouragement, experience and training to understand what to do and how to do it, because a lot can be achieved with very little resources. It is a stereotype that you need a lot of money to ensure access for all. In fact, you need to think creatively and ask people who know the field: for example, Jurģis Briedis from Apeirons, myself, Māra from the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.

Creative workshop for people with intellectual disabilities in the framework of the exhibition "Wacław Szpakowski. Riga Notebooks."

Ieva Astahovska: Accessibility issues cover a very broad field. Lība knows about accessibility and what people with disabilities need. Ieva, your background is in the context of accessibility and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. We are sort of putting it together, but these are very different groups with very different needs. People with mental disabilities are much harder for us to reach because it is not just a question of the size of an elevator or the font size of an artwork description, but requires other methods and approaches that are in some ways more complex.

Ieva Rosne: Most of the time, in order to reach and involve people with mental disabilities in activities, you also have to think about communication with the people who are in close contact with them on a daily basis. It is often the support persons who make the final decision on whether and how each of the target groups will be involved. They are the ones who provide the necessary support to these people during the activities. This is why links with social workers, service providers and families need to be built.

Lība Bērziņa: There is a decision above all - if an institution that thinks about accessibility wants to be approached by the whole public, not just certain groups, it has to be a priority. Of course, in the daily rush, there is not enough time for many things, and many things remain just an idea that should be implemented. But behind it all are people who do not get into these institutions, even if they want to, and who are always forced to think about where they can or cannot get to. (...) You also often hear that they don't want to provide certain accessibility solutions because they don't use them. But they are not used because the people who need them are not in those places!

Māra Žeikare: It is important to keep this in mind - even if the people who need it are not coming at the moment, we must continue to provide it! Because there will come a time when they will come.

Ieva Astahovska: Another interesting topic that doesn't seem to have been addressed in the Latvian context yet is art made by people with disabilities. A few years ago, there was an exhibition in Tallinn Art Hall called "The Disarming Language", which featured artists with autism, artists with hearing and visual impairments, artists with other functional impairments, and also artists who are working on these topics.

Lība Bērziņa: This is another huge problem - that we don't see that a person with a functional disability can be creative, noticed, understood. There is a huge group of society that is not represented and reflected in the arts. At the New Theatre Institute of Latvia we are trying to address this by inviting performance artists from abroad.

Ieva Astahovska: It's also very sensitive - if an artist who is not impaired in any way takes it upon himself to speak for this part of society, that can also be problematic.

Lība Bērziņa: "Nothing about us without us..." But the question still remains, where are the disabled artists themselves and what could be representative. (...) Many people with disabilities are afraid to be open, to talk about themselves, to show themselves on stage. It takes a lot of courage to do that.

Ieva Rosne: An example of good practice is the Riga Actors' Studio, which has included a person with quite severe disabilities in its company, who is very active there. When I was at their events, I noticed that they don't make inclusion difficult. If something falls, they pick it up, if there are stairs to climb, they help. People are accepted for who they are.

(...) As for professional artists, I know that there are many who have mental disorders, but they don't talk about it and they don't publicise it. I think post-Soviet thinking plays a big role in that, because in Soviet times, the state policy was to isolate people with disabilities from society.

Lectures cycle "Inclusive Tuesdays. Journey through the world of art"  / Public programme of the exhibition "Decolonial Ecologies"

Ieva Astahovska:
To conclude this conversation, I would just like to say that the fact that we are thinking and talking about these issues is already a way for accessibility and inclusion issues to become a critical norm for cultural institutions and society as a whole. That it becomes a given that people with different functional and mental disabilities are with us and that we think of them not as minorities or others who are a burden. We are very diverse as a society and it is only by being together and seeing each other that we can live more fully and more meaningfully. Even if there will be no revolutionary action, it is rather a slow process.

Lība Bērziņa: Yes. And we can only make this change together. In small steps. It's getting better, but there is still a long way to go if we look back at the experience of the world.