Long reads


Accessibility in residence activities

Photo: Otto-Ville Väätäinen

Are arts residencies meant for all artists? What aspects related to accessibility should residency organisations take into account in order to be accessible to as many artists as possible? The idea of ‘everything for everyone’ with regard to arts residences is beautiful and high-minded, but impossible to implement in practice. Instead, the best approach is to strengthen the residence’s strengths and opportunities in order to promote accessibility.

In early September, Res Artis, the worldwide network of arts residencies, organised a three-day conference in London, which was attended by more than 200 residency organisations from around the world. The title of the network conference, Mind the Gap: Designing Residencies for Everyone reflects the residency sector’s global dialogue on who arts residencies are intended for and who can participate in them. Accessibility and inclusion are important concepts in the discourses of residency organisations and involve reflections on creating a caring and safe residency experience for artists from different backgrounds.

What does accessibility mean?

Accessibility refers to our ability to access or benefit from our physical environment and the built environment designed and implemented with accessibility in mind, so that the environment promotes equality and takes into account the barriers and physical limitations that may prevent people from using the facilities. In terms of the physical environment, accessibility is implemented in buildings, public transport and outdoor areas, etc.

Accessibility also extends beyond the physical environment and refers to our ability to access and benefit from services, communications and websites. Accessibility is also related to attitudes towards human diversity.

When designing accessible environments, services, communications, websites, etc., it is necessary to take into account both the physical and non-physical environment. The aim is to make sure that everyone has access to the same services and opportunities, regardless of their functional capacity.

Inclusion refers to taking diversity into account in all activities, ranging from planning to implementation, and it is based on human rights and non-discrimination legislation. Inclusion aims to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in activities. According to the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health’s definition, inclusion refers to “an equitable, non-discriminatory, inclusive and participatory approach.”

Who are arts residencies aimed at?

Residences for artists are mainly staffed by artists representing western culture and the mainstream population. The residency sector is changing, and recently diverse perspectives have emerged relating to accessibility and the desire to offer residencies to as many artists from different backgrounds as possible, such as people with disabilities or families and artists from the Global South.

Accessibility issues are multidimensional and concern not only physical limitations or diversity, but also neurodiversity. Neurodiversity refers to neurological differences in how the human brain works and how we use it. People can have a neurotypical or neuroatypical brain. An artist may have physical limitations or be neurodivergent, meaning that they have, for example, ADHD, an autism spectrum disorder or learning difficulties which may cause challenges for their ability to work at the residence. Some artists may only be able to work a few days a week and others would benefit the most from a day residence that allows them to spend the night at home.

The accessibility of a residence also involves issues related to family: is it possible to attend the residency with one’s family? Many residences cannot offer the opportunity to bring one’s family or children along, and this puts many artists at an unequal footing compared to other artists. At the Saari Residence, we have several apartments suitable for families and families are welcome, as long as the applicant informs us of their intention to bring their family already at the application stage.

Economic barriers can also be decisive, for example for artists from the Global South. For them, working at an arts residence is often impossible due to financial considerations, since travel is expensive. When applying for a residency at Saari, artists and groups of artists from the Global South can apply for a grant to help them with travel and visa costs. In addition, we provide support for ecological travel.

A safe residence environment is also part of accessibility. A safe residency experience begins already at the application stage when the applicant reviews the information provided and considers whether they feel that the residence in question will support their working processes. It must be possible to deduce from the information provided how they can travel to the residence and whether it will be possible to move around the residence safely, for example, in a wheelchair. It is gratifying to see that these days a large number of residency organisations have also prepared instructions for safe spaces, which support accessibility and shed light on the possibilities available for working at the residence.

One of our apartments is barrier-free and has a kitchen, a barrier-free toilet and three rooms. The apartment is located on the ground floor and can be accessed by a wheelchair lift. Photo: Jussi Virkkumaa

Accessible, barrier-free and inclusive residence?

How can a residence take different needs and challenges into account to ensure that artists have an equal opportunity to work in a safe environment? What is possible and what is not possible within your own residence’s activities and environment? What can we as a residence offer artists and what can we not offer? These are key basic questions when starting to implement improved accessibility.

Since 2012, the Saari Residence has had one accessible apartment, which has been improved over the years. During the renovation of the main building, which was completed in 2022, we also installed a lift in such a way that shows care and respect for the old historic building. The lift provides wheelchair access to the building.

The group residency of summer 2022 included the Peer Artists working group, which consisted of a group of artists in need of special support. This was an important residency for both the participants and the staff at Saari, because it taught us a great deal about what we need to develop further in our operations and facilities. Our remote location and the lack of public transport pose a particular challenge to the availability of assistants, for example, as few of them can take two weeks to be away from home.

In spring 2023, we returned to the accessibility issue in more detail and started cooperation with Riesa Consultative Oy. Together with the Saari staff and Joel Hentunen and Atso Ahonen from Riesa we pondered ways to make the residence more accessible.

In summer 2023, Riesa conducted an accessibility survey, which listed the most critical development proposals for the residence area and its buildings, as well as other accessibility-related observations and development suggestions. After this, we considered different solutions to the problems found through the survey, such as the difficulty of using the entrances to the workspaces. In October, the Saari staff participated in special training to increase their accessibility know-how on issues such as how to interact with people with disabilities and how to take neurodiversity and diversity into account in the residence’s activities.

We will continue our accessibility work also in the future and plan to invite an accessibility expert to participate in the planning phase of future renovations. When planning accessibility, it would also be useful to hear the opinions of the end users, that is, artists with accessibility-related needs.

A residence must also consider the possibilities and restrictions related to its residency programme, taking into account accessibility. The Saari Residence’s residency programme is based on encounters and, during individual residencies, also on the fact that the artists will stay and live on the site for two months. As some artists find social situations challenging, it is also important to communicate the expectations associated with the residency programme. Shorter group residencies in the summer may be better suited, for example, for groups of artists in need of support who are focusing on their group’s activities on their own terms.

The Saari Residence’s milieu and buildings also set their own limitations for a fully barrier-free residence. The terrain is challenging – the gravel road leading from the main building to the barn is steep and you have to cross the driveway to get there, which poses its own challenges for an artist in a wheelchair, for example.

Because the old manor buildings are protected by the Finnish Heritage Agency, they cannot be renovated to make them completely accessible. With every renovation, it is necessary to consider how the new solutions can be adapted to the protected building or space.

The language used at an arts residence may be one limiting factor. At the Saari Residence, joint events, encounters and discussions are held in English. This requires everyone staying at the residence to be able to converse in English; otherwise the residency experience will not be accessible or equal.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to make residency activities equal for all and possible for all artists. Many residences strive to be as good a fit as possible for everyone, but unfortunately only a few of them have the opportunity or resources to tailor their residency activities and environment into something that can provide residencies to as many artists as possible, regardless of their needs. However, this negation can be reversed by carefully considering and skilfully expressing who the residency is suitable for and in what ways it is or is not accessible.

Accessibility can be improved in many ways

Communication plays a key role in putting accessibility into words so that residency organisations can reach artists with accessibility needs. The obstacles artists with special needs often face when applying for residency include lack of information, scarce resources, and attitudinal and physical barriers.

It is essential to provide sufficient information, clearly expressed, about the residence’s activities and physical environment. Artists should be told how the residence is accessible and barrier-free, and especially how it is not. As there is a lot of information to impart and as special needs vary from one person to the next, it is a good idea to let the artists know that they can request additional information by contacting the residence directly. Any information on the website must be clearly expressed, illustrated with photographs and easily accessible. The website should have its own, separate section for accessibility information and there should be a link to it from the ‘Contact us’ page. Texts should be written using the right kind of terminology and avoiding the use of negative language.

At the Saari Residence this autumn together with Riesa, we have prepared a clear accessibility information package that includes practical information on the accessibility of the Saari facilities and surroundings. We will guide applicants to request additional information and information on accessibility already at the application stage. With the help of the information given, the artist can consider whether it is possible for them to work at the Saari Residence, considering their particular special needs.

Already at the application stage, it is a good idea to explain to the applicants what the residency programme is like, who the residency is aimed at and what kinds of applicants the residence wishes to receive applications from. The information provided must also clearly explain what is expected of successful applicants. Is there a condition attached to the residency, such as an exhibition, a meet-the-artist event, artist presentations or something else? The call for applications should reach the desired applicants, and information can be shared, for example, with the communications officers of various disability organisations for further distribution.

The website and any application form should be made as accessible as possible in terms of content, technology and visuals. For example, PDF documents and tick boxes in online forms are not accessible to visually impaired people. Photographs should have alt text so that they are accessible to screen reader users. The Culture for All service provides information on accessibility, diversity and equality. Find out what the Culture for All service has to offer on their website.

The application itself must also be as accessible as possible. Residency applications are often based on a written work plan, which is problematic for many artists due, for example, to issues related to verbal or written limitations. Not everyone is able to express themselves in writing and this should be taken into account in the application process. The residency organisation should consider various implementation methods, such as whether the work plan could be, for example, a video or expressed in pictures, or whether a two-stage application process would work better.

Flexibility and avoiding assumptions

The needs of artists in need of support can be better taken into account during the residency when the starting point is flexibility and encountering the artist on an individual level. There is no such thing as a universal checklist that you can tick off to achieve a good result. As artist Michael Achtman, who led the accessibility workshop at the Res Artis conference in London, aptly summed up: don’t assume, ask. The best way to increase accessibility is to ask the artist directly what they need and what kind of support would enable them to work.

Residency-related needs can be investigated through an access audit or access raider that is sent to artists before their arrival at the residence. This confidential document is used to map and assess the artist’s needs and it also gives the artist the opportunity to share their wishes and needs as regards accessibility. After this, it is a good idea to discuss the details more thoroughly, for example in a video call, before the residency begins.

Sometimes artists with special accessibility needs are accompanied to the residency by a personal assistant or they need the help of other support persons, such as a sign language interpreter. The residence should consider whether it is possible to provide accommodation for a personal assistant in the premises and whether interpreters are available if the residence is located in a sparsely populated area like the Saari Residence is.

The need for different kinds of residencies is clear, since it is almost impossible to offer residencies to everyone. Different forms of residency are important, for example, for artists in need of special support.

The desire for change is the key to accessibility

Many arts residences have already implemented changes that improve accessibility, and each one is making these changes within their own resources. There is an increasing amount of discussion about the accessibility of residences, and for example Kettuki Association, which promotes the interests of artists in need of special support, organised a network seminar in Mänttä, Finland, on 21–22 April 2023 under the theme of accessible arts residencies. Summary of Kettuki Association’s Accessible Residences network meeting. (In Finnish)

There is no need to start from scratch, as help and information are available, for example, through the Culture for All service and various disability organisations. A key way to explore the most accessible residences is to read what other residences have shared about what they have done to improve their accessibility. One way to share and get information about this is to attend the meetings of the Finnish Artist Residency Network and its morning coffee video meetings.

Measures and perspectives related to accessibility are not a static state but require constant updating through feedback and the changes made based on the feedback. Accessibility should be seen as one sector of residence activities that people commit to, invest time in and also communicate about outside the organisation.