Freak Show

An Open Letter to Nick Gorse, Dean of Camberwell.

Dear Nick,

A few weeks ago, on the spur of the moment, four friends and I chose to go to the private view of the BA degree show at Camberwell College of Art. I live near the college and take a keen interest in viewing new work by graduating students. The evening would have passed without incident but for the fact that I am a wheelchair user.

In 2006 I was diagnosed with Tourettes Syndrome, a neurological condition characterised by repetitive involuntary movements and sounds known as tics. I first became aware of my tics when I was six but they became much more noticeable and harder to manage when I reached my mid-twenties. In 2011 motor tics in my legs meant my mobility deteriorated and in December that year I started using a wheelchair for most journeys in order to avoid continually dropping to the floor and the resulting frequent injuries.

I found the transition from independent mobility to using a wheelchair quite a challenge but having worked for many years with disabled people, many of whom have mobility difficulties, I was able to adjust to my new circumstances with relative ease. Crucially, I understand that disability can affect people at any point in their lives, a fact that I am keen to share with anyone responsible for considering the importance of accessibility as part of their job.

Talking about Tourettes Syndrome is not something I have much choice about – explaining my condition to others is a part of my daily routine. As a result, speaking out about disability rights issues and sharing my experiences of living with a disability has become part of my life. In 2010 I co-founded Touretteshero, an organisation that shares the humour and challenges of Tourettes Syndrome with the widest possible audience.

Here is what I experienced that night at the private view:

I arrived at the crowded stepped entrance and waited for one of my friends to find someone to assist me. A friendly security guard informed me that stair lift access to the building was not possible because the stair lift was broken. Noting that there had been several complaints about this over the past few days, he led me and my friends past the waste bins and down a steep ramp to the goods entrance. We waited there for a few minutes while the security guard un-padlocked the barrier and let us though to the building.

As I am sure you are aware, the lift in the Peckham Road campus serves only the new block of the building from the basement to the fourth floor. There is no wheelchair access at all to the north and south blocks. What I did not realise before getting in the lift in the new block was that each floor that can be accessed leads out to a narrow corridor with stairs at its end!

Fortunately for me, I am able to transfer out of my chair and can walk with support. Despite the building being extremely busy with students and their families, I opted to persevere and look at the work I had come to see.

This decision quickly led to some extremely precarious situations and horrified looks from many guests. At each set of stairs two of my friends helped me out of my wheelchair while the other two cleared a path for me and carried my chair to wherever I was going. This was an exhausting process for all of us and we became keenly aware of just how many steps there were.

Going down one flight of stairs in the north block, my motor tics meant my leg swung precariously up over the banister and it was all my friends could do to prevent the rest of my body slipping over into the stairwell. We attracted so much attention from everyone around that I began to wonder if they thought we were doing a performance art piece for their benefit. It felt like a freak show.

As I am sure you are aware, there are two key ways to define disability, the medical model and the social model. The charity Scope has the following to say about the social model of disability. It:

“…says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives.

Disabled people developed the social model of disability because the traditional medical model did not explain their personal experience of disability or help to develop more inclusive ways of living.”

My experience at the private view offers a vivid example of the social model in action. My wheelchair facilitates my mobility, but the Peckham Road campus took that mobility away.

It took determination and a great deal of physical strength from us all to get to the exhibition spaces I wanted to see, and by the time we had reached the photography gallery on the third floor, we were all too exhausted to take anything in.

However, I consider myself lucky because I am strong and mobile enough with the right support to access the building. For the vast majority of other wheelchair users this simply would not have been the case. And even for me, accessing this site on a regular basis would be impossible.

We laughed about these extreme difficulties at the time but I was stunned that the building was so comprehensively inaccessible. It made me wonder what I would do if I wanted to study there.

My personal and professional life brings me into frequent contact with issues surrounding accessibility and inclusion and with the Equality Act 2010, so I was keen to see what considerations had been made by the University of the Arts London (UAL) in this respect and how the Peckham Road campus could possibly be allowed to get things so wrong for anyone (students, teachers, technicians, parents, visiting lecturers, funders) using a wheelchair.

After some careful searching on the UAL website, I was able to find three documents that appeared to relate to issues of accessibility. The first is a draft copy of your ‘Accessible information guide’, which opens with a fantastic quote from the European Institute for Design and Disability, Stockholm Declaration, 2004. It states:

“Good design enables, bad design disables”.

I was disappointed to discover the content of the 12 page document was only concerned with “Applying accessibility standards to all the information we produce” in relation to printed texts. Although this consideration is welcome, it does nothing to address wider issues of accessibility. What the document did provide however, was a link to the second document, the guidance on “Organising Inclusive Events”. Although the focus of this document is on communication support and “Working with interpreters and Communication Support workers” it does make some direct references to wheelchair users: a total of three references in a nine page document.

Most usefully, in the “Access and way-finding” section on p.3 it states:

“Ensure delegates with mobility difficulties can use the same entrance as other delegates. Wheelchair users should be able to use ramped access routes independently.”

In the case of the Peckham Road campus, this statement cannot be applied, not only because the current wheelchair access is via the bins, but also because the ramp on the foyer level is so steep it cannot be safely accessed independently by anyone in a wheelchair.

The other two references to wheelchairs in the document are about signage and room hire. Amazingly, though, there is no mention of wheelchairs whatsoever in the six point “Anticipating access requirements” information on p.2.

Does the Organising Inclusive Events guidance not apply to events organised at Peckham Road campus? I certainly saw no signage (at any height or font size) advising me that the show was not accessible, a warning I would have appreciated had I known what I was likely to experience.

The third document I found, “Camberwell College of Arts, Peckham Road” was the shortest and most telling of the three. This one-page document states:

“Lift access is provided to all floors in the new block.

No lifts are provided in the north and south blocks.

Ramped access is available to access the ground floor of north block.

Access to other areas of the north and south blocks is difficult for wheel chair users…”

There are no explanations given for why access to this heavily used building is so badly provisioned, nor are there any statements of intent for making any improvements. It simply offers the bleak and bald facts, exactly as I found them.

But it is not all bad – this final document does offer some light relief:

“No fire evacuation lifts are provided in the College. Therefore lifts will not be available for use in the event of a fire alarm activation.

Please contact us in advance if you would require assistance to leave in an emergency. Advanced contact will help to ensure that an emergency evacuation plan is in place for your safe egress from the building before your visit.”

I am not exactly sure why I find this funny, but I think it is the idea of having to plan my emergency evacuation in advance with staff who are managing an almost entirely inaccessible campus. What advice could they possibly offer other than ‘Don’t even think about going in there!’?

Southwark Council’s website features the following statement about Camberwell College of Art:

“Camberwell College of Arts run numerous community and education projects in Southwark, and across London, to increase access to the arts by local people and support the creativity of people across the community.”

Can you tell me how disabled people fit into this “community” and what specifically is being done to increase our access to the arts?

In an interview about your workshop at the Open House event, when asked how you foresaw Camberwell interacting with the locality in the future, you said:

“In many different ways, I would like to Camberwell College to work more closely with the local community and I want more people to come into the college and see what we do.”

On June 17th I attempted to do just that and found it more difficult, dangerous and disturbing than I could possibly have imagined. As it currently stands, the Peckham Road campus is anything but an open house.

I understand that you are newly in post at Camberwell and that there is a lot to do, but I urge you to give genuine consideration to accessibility and inclusion at the Peckham Road campus. Your considerable background in quality assurance and enhancement should certainly stand you in good stead to do this, and I will be happy to demonstrate how difficult it is to get around if you are sitting, not walking, when coming in to see what the College does.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,


One response to Freak Show

  1. bobcorrick says:

    Tremendous letter! The reply would be interesting.

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