Tony Heaton. Sculptor and General Director of Shape Arts (London)

“There is an economic imperative to think about inclusive design; it is not merely a question of ethics”

Promoting inclusive design and accessibility is the “second skin” of the gallery he directs, created specifically to give support to and develop the work of artists with disability. Collaboration with other organisations is natural in some cases – such as the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary project with the Helen Hamlyn Centre – and the “definitive challenge” in others – such as the Venice Biennial – but in any case, the dialogue is ongoing. The objective is to raise awareness, educate and protest by using art as a tool for expression and denunciation.

Q- How can art and creativity contribute to the social model of diversity?

A.- The artistic movement linked to disability begins when people with disability decide to use their art to make political statements on the lack of accessibility, or on unfair or discriminatory social situations. Many of the best works of art created by artists with disability denounce issues of accessibility or attitudes towards people with disability: in short, how society has failed them in terms of inclusive architecture and design.

Q.- Are the institutions aware of what they can or should do?

A.- I don’t think so. We have been fighting for legislation for twenty years and in the last five years the rights we managed to obtain have been eroded with the excuse of austerity measures. People aren’t worried about the fact that as people with disability we are still viewed as sporadic phenomena that occur from time to time.

Q.- Could the ageing of the population be a positive force for change?

A.- Elderly people tend not to consider themselves as disabled because the concept is associated with a very strong stereotype, but the phenomenon is inevitable. In this country (United Kingdom) we’re talking about 12 million people with disability and an economy of 40 billion pounds that revolves around disabilities, including the families. If I can’t enter a restaurant, my family won’t enter either. There is an economic imperative for thinking about inclusive design, it’s not only a question of ethics.

Q.- Are design and marketing professionals prepared?

A.- No, we haven’t advanced much in the 40 years that have passed since accessibility started to be regulated for architects and designers. Inclusive design does not form part of the syllabus and people with disability are not consulted. What is needed is impetus at the schools of design and of architecture to make it a central aspect in design ethics. Why are the aesthetic qualities of a building renounced in its toilets for the disabled? Because architects only think about people with disability in medical terms, not in social terms. It is possible to make easy-to-use taps that are still attractive.

Q.- What should the role of the user be in design processes?

A.- Designers should refer continually to people with disability as advisers, as part of a broader process of consultancy. They don’t have all the answers, they may know little about aesthetics or of practical design questions, but they should be trained to take part in the processes. When we rethink things we should always incorporate inclusivity, how to include everyone in what we do.

Q.- Can design be a creative professional outlet for the artists?

A.- New technologies represent a change of paradigm for a great many people with disability; enabling technology allows the ground to be smoothed. Technology has made the world much more accessible for people with deafness, for example. It wasn’t on purpose; to a certain extent, it simply happened.

Q.- What do you think about the use of disability by advertising?

A.- I think it’s a good idea: people with disabilities exist, they are not going to disappear! We have to make the world more accessible, it would be good for everyone. Once we are truly democratic and inclusive, we will see people with disabilities without needing to think about it.

Q.- Does society segregate according to our abilities?

A.- All of us minorities have traits in common; it’s a question of power and of rank. Unless we see people with disability in positions of power and authority, it will be very difficult for the world to change. We have to empower people so that they understand the equality and diversity agenda. We have to see more people with disability as the workforce; now the focus is on benefits and on the protection system rather than helping them to find work, which would be the fastest and easiest way of liberating people.

Q.- Any ideas for promoting the new social model of diversity?

A.- I grew up as a person with disability and as a concept it still functions. Diversity is interesting, but it runs the risk of ultimately becoming too complex, with too many facets. I don’t want to be subsumed into the diversity agenda; I believe that as artists with disability we have something unique to contribute to the artistic scene and I want disability to represent an interesting agenda in the world of art. Diversity is a good idea, but we must not lose our individual identity. We have more power if we speak with authority from our particular diversity, while supporting each other. Our collective power is much greater if we join forces.

Link to Shape Arts here

Work: Tony Heaton Portrait by Tanya Raabe-Webber

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