Shape CEO Tony Heaton OBE – artist, access guru and wheelchair user – talks access on the continent...

Over the last month I have spent some time in Venice, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. I realise this sounds like something you might read on the back of a perfume bottle, but bear with me...

Despite the Venice Architecture Biennale being billed as an opportunity to ‘Report from the Front’ I saw very little reality to this rhetoric. The Giardini was as inaccessible as usual, with its heavily-gravelled pathways to sink your wheels into, many of the pavilions still had no wheelchair access, some had token access, one had a ramped fire exit which I went up only to arrive at a door without an external handle: because it was a fire door you could only open it from inside – genius!

There was a wheelchair accessible toilet however, heavily used of course by the non-disabled, which always gets me wondering ‘whatever did you non-disabled lot do before we disabled people fought so hard to get them?’

The British Pavilion had the ubiquitous external stair lift to the rear of this grand classical folly, but no signage for those not in the know, no real visual clues that you could get round the back to the tradesmen's entrance. The registration desk was up at the top of the 20 steps of the principal entrance with no-one at the bottom to ask for someone to operate the lift – obviously disabled people cannot be expected to work it themselves –, but hey, I was an invited guest, what did I expect, to be welcomed?

My requests to the British Council to knock this anachronism down and get a good, British architect to design a modern, accessible building, fit for purpose as a gallery for showing art, has become a bit of a broken record and standing joke, but it would be an opportunity to tell the world that we can excel in accessible architecture and lead the world in this little model world village, and that disability art is a UK phenomenon that the world does want to see. Not having this debate about access and inclusion at an architecture biennale did seem like an opportunity wasted but visiting has energised me to continue to play the broken record.

The British architectural offering wanted to show us the House of the Future. I won't be living there and I suspect you, dear reader, won't either...

I'm a Northerner, so naturally I wanted better value for my money than just to struggle around the Biennale. My main reason to be there was to take part, as an artist and activist, in Venice Agendas 16, organised by ARMB judge and artist Terry Smith and curated by Mark Segal. I created a series of sculptural access interventions intended to #DisruptVenice; we did this simply by placing tensor barriers, sponsored by Tensator Limited at various ramped entrances and bridges with the intention of stopping people and engaging with them in conversations about the lack of access in Venice. We had some Italian students to help us do this, resplendent in ‘workinprogress’ hi-vis jackets. We even roped in Sandi Toksvig, good sport that she is, who opened for the British Council and seemed happy to be on message with our barriers campaign.

The Venetians seem very reluctant to come up with an access solution so we thought we would try to engage with them to get some kind of dialogue going, particularly with the disabled Venetians and their families because, just like everywhere else in the world, Venice is home to disabled and elderly people, many with limited mobility.

It's a curious fact that some of the many canal bridges have 'temporary' ramps constructed from scaffolding planks and uprights – singularly ugly appendages. Are they there to give access to wheelchair users, people with prams, people with luggage (lots of these) or people delivering supplies on trolleys? No – surprisingly the ramps are put up for the Venice marathon... Yes, for people that are not only running but I suspect won't have much luggage either.

 Apparently, permanent ramps would be 'ugly'. Well potentially, if they were badly designed, but if you have ever seen a Vaporetto (waterbus) stop or whatever you call a  bus shelter for boats you will have seen potentially the ugliest thing ever imagined, strewn throughout Venice with what seems like little thought to aesthetics and no one seems to object. If you haven't seen one, imagine the offspring of a bright orange Lifeboat, but oblong, following an ill-advised coupling with a sea container. As long as you don't get the person who designed these to design the ramps then you should be fine – whoever, please get on with it, it's the 21st century.

We spoke at an access and inclusion symposium at Palazzo Franchetti where we made many connections and allies, including Gondolas4all, a small company run by a couple of intrepid guys who reckoned wheelchair users may also want a ride on a gondola and went ahead creating wheelchair-accessible gondolas! This idea went down like a torpedoed Vaporetto with the authorities, who didn't want to support it, so they instead opted to crowdfund and the people said yes, they built an accessible jetty and installed a platform lift and modified a gondola and we're afloat! (Cue for cheesy photo with Allesandro and Enricho,) for it was them.

I returned via Paris to visit the recently reopened and refurbished Picasso museum, reopened after five years and refurbished to the tune of €50 million euros. The museum wouldn't allow me to leave my suitcase in their cloakroom and directed me outside and around the corner to a little scarves and umbrella shop, run by the very helpful Claire, who said that she would be happy to look after my suitcase of laundry. I returned some hours later with gratitude to pick up the suitcase and made sure to buy some scarves.

Once in the Picasso Museum I took the lift to the top floor, (I like to work my way down) and as the lift doors opened I saw a ramp, rolled down, turned the corner, ramp down again, turned the corner and there was a flight of stairs. More surreal than cubist, I suspect Picasso would have loved it.

Tony and Sandi Toksvig in Venice

Image: Sandi Toksvig and Tony Heaton in Venice with part of his #DisruptVenice work

I was invited to speak at a two day conference in Berlin - Neue Perspektiven - exploring access and inclusion. Many of the themes were sadly familiar: lots of disabled people present, many youthful allies and supporters, a strong sense of the need for change but no real change-makers in attendance. A feeling that the preservation of objects to remain the same over time was mistakenly to also mean preserving custom and practice, structures and systems that had long needed a thorough overhaul. The conference participants knew this and had good ideas, they just need to send a carrier pigeon with a message to those in charge.

Berlin is a great city and I like it enormously, however it does have a cobble problem. Talking to Berliners I found that many realised this, but were a tolerant people who endured these kinds of idiosyncrasies.

I also visited a couple of museums – you have to pay to enter, but I got a discount if I could prove I was a cripple (the wheelchair I was in cut no ice but I fished out my little green disabled railcard which bizarrely seemed to do the trick). The accessible toilets were locked and I needed to find someone in a uniform with a key to gain access – both were disincentives to return to them.

I did see again one of my favourite paintings: The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin. The interpretation didn't tell me it was oil on board, I guessed this, although it did inform me that it was Hitler’s favourite painting.

Banner Image: Neue Perspektiven conference, Berlin

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