Social model of disability

This is the underlying framework of my research. The social model of disability (Barnes, 2012) states that disability is caused by societal barriers that prevent or restrict people with impairments from taking part in community life. In art galleries, barriers to people with visual impairments can include: assumptions about how people engage with art; lack of information and interpretation in accessible formats; not being allowed to touch artworks or replicas; inadequate staff training; poor signage; layout; lighting; and so on.

social model diagram

The social model of disability is the underlying framework of my research, to which I’m also taking an asset based approach – more on this in a later post.

See the appendix below for a document I drafted and I used in disability equality training many years ago, a sort of joint and iterative statement refined and adapted over the years.



NDACAThe disability arts and the wider disabled people’s movements are closely linked – this was particularly the case in the 1980s and 1990s (Barnes, 2008). This has been recognised by the recentrly launched National Disability Arts Collection and Archive – NDACA.

A number of disabled artists and disability arts organisations use this social model as a basis for their work and their understanding of disability.  I cite them in my research – many of them are cited for other reasons as well.


Blind artist Carmen Papalia calls for ‘A New Model of Access’:

If the language above is familiar to you it’s because it was lifted from the definition of the Social Model of Disability—a concept that proposes that disability is not a quality inherent within me as an individual, but is something cast upon me and defined by the choices of people in positions of power. For example, if I, a person who learns about his surroundings through his non-visual senses, experience limited access to a museum exhibition because there are few opportunities for me to engage with the material being presented in a way that is not visual, it is the institution, in its failure to accommodate me as a non-visual learner, that disables me as a museum visitor. With my limited access to the museum comes a limited access to cultural learning and culture itself. With my limited access to culture comes a host of limitations with regard to the things that I can learn and the things that I can know. If a museum exhibition, for whatever reason, limits the things that I can know, the museum, as an institution, is promoting inequality (Papalia, 2013).

Shape Arts, a disability arts organisation in London, provided me with a lot of useful information about audio description (Shape Arts, 2017a). Read how they describe the social model of disability on their website (Shape Arts, 2017b).

Unlimited, the arts commissioning organisation that promotes disabled artists, has produced an animated video (Unlimited, 2018) to explain the social model (there’s an audio described version too):  The image at the top of this post is from this animated video.

Now we need more mainstream arts organisations to use the social model of disability to inform their approach to improving access and dismantling barriers that exclude disabled people.



Barnes, C. (2012) ‘Understanding the Social Model of Disability: past,
present and future’, in N. Watson et al. (eds.) (2012) Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies London: Routledge, pp. 12-39.

Barnes, C. (2008) ‘Generating Change: Disability, Culture and Art’ Available at: (Accessed: 24 June 2018).

National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (2018) Available at: (Accessed: 24 June 2018).

Papalia, C. (2013)  ‘A New Model for Access in the Museum’ Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 3. Available at: (Accessed: 25 April 2018).

Shape Arts (2017a) Ways of Seeing Art: Exploring the Link Between Art and Audio Description. London: Shape Arts.

Shape Arts (2017b) ‘Social Model of Disability’,  Shape Arts. Available at: (Accessed: 3 May 2018).

Unlimited (2018) ‘Animating The Social Model Approach to Disability’, Unlimited. Avauilable at: (Accessed: 24 June 2018).



Social approach to disability: an introduction

This approach, or way of thinking, makes an important distinction between medical conditions and disability. It has been developed by the disabled people’s movement whose experiences have shown them that most of their problems are not caused by their medical conditions, but by the way society is organised.

Ken Davies, one of the founders of the disabled people’s movement in this country, said:

“it is disabled people’s own re-definition of their social situation, which has brought about a struggle for ideas which lies at the heart of disability politics. Those who define the problem have the key to controlling the solution.”

Disability is caused by barriers in society, because many things have been set up without taking account of people who have medical conditions. These barriers disable people with medical conditions and prevent them taking part in everyday life.

Disabling barriers include: prejudice and negative stereotypes; inaccessible buildings; inflexible ways of organising things, such as work; inaccessible information; inaccessible transport and beliefs about the way people should look.

So disabled people are people with a range of medical conditions (hearing, visual, mobility, learning difficulties, mental health conditions and so on) who are excluded from community life by these barriers.

And bear in mind that disabled people come from all sections of the population and from all communities, groups and ages. This means that many disabled people face other barriers and oppression due to racism, homophobia, sexism and ageism, to name just a few.

There are many other definitions of disability, including in legislation, the benefits system, service provision.  So the most important thing is how people define themselves: are you a disabled person?

The joy of risk assessments

A necessary part of any event. I am using a form provided by Leeds Art Gallery which helpfully includes information from previous assessments so I can adapt it. Some risks e.g. causing offence, unruly behaviour, may be minimal! It’s designed for many eventualities.

But need to factor in any additional risks in the gallery for blind and partially sighted people. All the participants hate freestanding barriers!

Things to consider / include:

  • Welcome and introduction – include practical information
  • Moving around the gallery
  • Furniture – use of folding stools, need to make sure they aren’t obstructions
  • Keep the numbers fairly small so we can hear
  • Avoid noisy areas for descriptions e.g. top of stairs
  • Don’t use electrical equipment
  • Some people might not want to be photographed
  • Ask a friend to be a guide and look out
  • Ask people to arrive in good time
  • Check the descriptions for any potentially offensive material!

Art writing and audio description

(main picture: Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd).

Yesterday I met two of the writers who are taking part in my final project. We met in Leeds Art Gallery to discuss the project a bit more and so they could decide on which work to audio describe.

This resulted in useful discussion about approaches and role:

  • Intermediary – between specific audience, rather than general audience
  • Mix of approaches from different writers
  • If something is indistinct to sighted person, is that a good subject for description? Is it indistinct because of artist’s intention or due to the environment of this gallery (ie brightly lit gallery with skylights means a projected film is very faint)? Perhaps this doesn’t matter, as you are describing the work under the conditions it is in.
  • Styles of art writing – reflective criticism, not straight art criticism, but writing about art that incorporates the writer’s subjectivity.
  • Could you audio describe moving image? How would this differ from audio description for film / television, which aims for objectivity? Should you treat description for moving image in a gallery as an artwork or as a film / tv programme? Something to explore at a later date.


Helped me to describe and situate my event: as a “sampler” or taster of different creative approaches to audio description.


Pictured above, artworks that are under consideration:

Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960), Frank Auerbach

Movie (2015), Hilary Lloyd

The Remains (2007), Roger Palmer

Reflections on the Thames, Westminster (1880), John Atkinson Grimshaw.







Touch tour as part of RCA degree show

It was great to read about the touch tour that the Royal College of Art students union has organised. The touch tour is of selected works from the textiles end of year show on 27 June and is already fully booked. Maybe this could be replicated in Leeds in future?

Here’s the information about the event:

As part of the Royal College of Art Degree Show the Students’ Union invites you to a touch tour of works by graduating Textiles students. This tour is an opportunity for visually impaired visitors to experience the work of up and coming textile artists designers through the sensation of touch. The makers will be on hand to provide short presentations on their practice and audio describe the works.

Please feel free to call or email Benji on 02075904211 / with any access questions. Guests may bring a support worker / access assistant with no need to order a ticket.


  • Alice Blackstock
  • Phoebe Corker-Marin
  • Marika Grasso
  • Renfei Huang
  • Andrew G Illman
  • Domenica Gabriela Landin Burbano
  • Orla Lawn
  • Carley Mullally
  • Annie Richardson
  • Ruby Smith
  • Maria Francisca Vidal Vergara.

Heritage Lottery Fund access chat

A few useful snippets from the HLF’s recent ‘disability inclusion and access’ live online chat last month (Freeborn, 2018). Pertinent to my research:

  • [Accessibility] It’s about making places usable and welcoming for everyone, regardless of age, ability, and circumstance
  • It’s as much about people and relationships (and a will to try!!) as it is about resources, policies, processes and infrastructure
  • Listening to the experiences of disabled people, and making changes together in achieving best inclusive and accessible practices
  • Listening to colleagues and audiences to identify and remove barriers which may stop people completing tasks they want to achieve
  • It’s about making sure everyone has an equally high-quality experience
  • Accessibility means everyone can have the same opportunities as others.

Some tips around accessibility for blind and partially-sighted people:

  • 3D-printed handling objects
  • Large-print photographs
  • Conversations with specialists
  • Audio description of visual works
  • Tactile imagery.

More info, including links to resources, on HLF’s website.


Freeborn, A. (2018) ‘Highlights from our ‘disability access and inclusion’ live chat’ Heritage Lottery Fund. Available at:




“I don’t see why you shouldn’t enjoy it just because you can’t see.”

Today I visited a group of older blind and partially sighted people who meet fortnightly at Leeds Jewish Welfare Board. Of the nine members present, most were over 80 with at least three in their 90s. We had a great discussion, and a couple of people were really engaged and interested. It will be great if one or two can come to the July event.

Comments entirely consistent with research interviews. One woman asked if I’d described the paintings during the interviews – my reply: yes, but I’ve learned that you need to prepare in advance to do it justice. Tried demonstrating my lack of skill by describing a boardroom portrait!

This group were keen on touch and audio description or recorded audio guides. No comments on size of label text though.

“If you touch things, you know what they are.”

[The gallery] is “nice and quiet.”

“Quite an experience.”

[There needs to be] “somewhere to sit.”





Blindness and visual culture: the politics of sensorial identities

Some notes from a presentation given by Thomas Tajo, of Visioneers, World Access for the Blind, at the Histories of Disability: Local, Global and Colonial Stories conference, University of Sheffield, 7 June 2018.

In the Western Cultural Sensorium, vision occupies the highest position of the senses.

The invention of the printing press came to influence how we think of blindness as disability, scientifically and culturally. This made (printed) books more accessible to the masses, without the need for an intermediary such as a priest. But of course you had to have the physical ability to see. Sight therefore became associated with reason and understanding. Sight was essential to pursuing a range of productive goals.blind people were also thought to have a different sense of morality than sighted people.

Visual culture therefore dominated the arts. For a long time it was believed that blind ppl couldn’t appreciate or produce art.

Before the age of integrated education and technological advances, screen readers etc, blind people were unable to enter into many professions.

Spatial and navigational ability became associated with vision. While other senses are used for navigation, the dominant thinking was that blind people can’t perceive beyond what they can directly reach with hands or feet. This has influenced the teaching of navigation and mobility to the present, which has led to the idea that blind people are incapable of independent navigation, so can’t teach others to navigate either.

Visioneers promote a different method, taught by blind people:

  • Use of the full length cane, which is lighted and longer than the common short cane, so extends the area of spatial perception
  • Human echo-location, by making mouth clicks, people can get information about the environment and objects in it, so this extends spatial perception even further.

This breaks the myth, influenced by visual culture, that blind people can’t navigate beyond the reach of hands, feet and cane. Importantly, it increases independence and freedom for blind people. Physical space is social space, so improved mobility and navigation opens up social opportunities.

Organisations for blind people have historically limited the perception and role of blind people in society.

Instead, a non-disabling philosophy promotes the idea that blind people can use sensorial perceptions to tap into their abilities and lead productive lives.

The narrow cultural view of visual culture means that blind people aren’t taken seriously. The role is determined by biology and the non-visual senses are ignored.

The solution is a culture that takes a broader view of bodily capacities and breaks down the binary between “disabled” and “abled”.

Why is the social model of disability failing? We need to think about the reasons to revive it.

It has perhaps been too focused on access, rights, discrimination rather than on developing the capacities of disabled people.


Tajo, T. (2018) ‘Blindness and visual culture: the politics of sensorial identities’ [Lecture] at Histories of Disability: Local, Global and Colonial Stories conference, University of Sheffield 7-8 June 2018.


Touching natural history

At Oxford University’s Natural History Museum there are all sorts of objects you can get your hands on, including real ancient trees, rocks and fossils, bears, badgers and other animals. Plus the Touching Evolution display which has objects, tactile models, raised relief drawings and Braille.


These exhibits were in prominent positions, part of the general displays, available to everyone top experience. It was good to see all ages, including teenagers, engaging with the exhibits.

I now know that I’m uneasy stroking or touching taxidermy animals. The brown bear and badger were too realistic for me.

Progress report

Yesterday the MA Curation Practices cohort – full and part time – updated on our progress. I didn’t quite manage to keep within the requested 200 words, but here’s my summary.

Visiting Leeds Art Gallery with blind and partially sighted people: informing an asset-based approach to curating

Literature review:

  • Many reasons for visiting galleries
  • Rights issue
  • Intellectual and emotional meaning
  • Deeper relationship with art than sighted people?
  • Hirose: ‘Tactile learning will change the museum, and the museum will change society!’
  • Kleege on audio description: ‘a literary / interpretative form with infinite possibilities’
  • Hayhoe: ‘…, experiences of visitors who are blind can teach those with sight about the importance of the exhibit, as the narrator and as a repository of our subconscious human evolution’.

Research findings:

  • As above!
  • Having people around who will guide, talk to you, explain, answer questions
  • Emotional connection: Art is a good medium for expressing emotions, feelings, relationships, particularly difficult emotions (Paul)
  • Touch – definitely
  • Getting close – barriers really annoying!
  • Audio description: don’t need training, enthusiasm, fun
  • Doing things differently = good for everyone.

Practical curated event:

Half a dozen writers will prepare and read a description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection at an event in the gallery 19/7. Audience = mixture of sighted and blind & partially sighted people.

Prepared guidelines for describers.

‘Abandon the pretext of objectivity. It is impossible and besides the point’ (Kleege, 2018).

‘I wouldn’t worry about trying to get things right straight away, what is more important is to have a go’ (Partington, 2017).

‘We were drawn into it, they explained it, the way it was lit, the brightness, the colours, it came to life!’ (Brian, 2018).