Q&A with Francisco echo Eraso, arts and access consultant.
How did you get involved in accessibility work?
I’m a disabled, trans, Colombian American artist, curator, arts administrator, and access consultant. I started my organizing work at the now disbanded Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, where I learned how to approach accessibility in a grassroots context. I moved on to larger institutions such as the Ford Foundation, where I worked on a Disability Futures Fellowship. That experience, developing programs with 20 leaders of various disability arts and justice movements, is central to how I now understand contemporary access in the arts.
What are access services?
Institutions often approach access issues through the framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many art spaces are working to meet a checklist of services now required by law, whether affecting exhibition design or programs for disabled workers. Recently, there has also been a lot of recommitment to diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI), but all these efforts can still leave out many types of access that disability justice organizers foreground.
My own communities of disabled people concentrate on making space for being together. That includes access services like tours designed to meet specific disability needs, access work, care work, event coordinating, public programs, and virtual spaces. Access work should be locally centered, but also very expansive, community engaged, and led by disabled people.
What does your role entail?
Access work in the arts incorporates services such as consulting with installation teams and graphic designers to develop a universal exhibition design, which often includes tours in ASL for those who are Deaf and hard of hearing, and visual descriptions for those who are blind or have low vision.
One of the biggest parts of access, however, is community organizing, relationship building, and establishing an ongoing learning process throughout an institution. If I have an access program in the museum, and the front of house and security staff aren’t included in conversations on making the space accessible, then I haven’t done my job. Every level of an organization has to be on board. It’s about a total paradigm shift.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing you in your role right now?
There are barriers for all of us, especially disabled people. If an organization claims that providing basic access is a burden or not in the budget, that really comes down to an attitudinal problem.
We’re forgetting how to be creative, how to care, how to demonstrate radical hospitality—in other words, the foundations of what the art world should be. There has to be more openness and creativity when it comes to meeting access needs, not just in terms of infrastructure but also aesthetics. Captions, audio descriptions, interpretive aids, and sensory elements can all be made part of an artwork, a public program, or an exhibition design.
How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
A huge challenge is the ongoing negotiations over masking versus unmasking. Institutions need to consider things like masks and/or virtual attendance as part of accessibility work. Dropping mask mandates or requiring visitors and staff members to be present in-person is unsafe for many people, such as seniors and the immunocompromised. On the other hand, some Deaf people need to be mask-free to communicate through lip reading. Everyone has different needs.
I’m surprised that disabled people are often left out of these debates. The pandemic is a hard topic to discuss, but masking is a big factor that should still be considered. It’s important to keep having these conversations, checking in every few months for the next year or two. Institutions should take cues from disabled people, so that we can figure out how to move forward through Covid-19 together.
How can access services be improved in institutional settings?
A lot of organizations and caretakers aim to serve disabled people, but we also have a lot to say. Don’t just consider us. Listen to us, involve us, pay us for labor, hire us in positions of leadership, prioritize our feedback, make space for flexibility and nuance in access, and collaborate with us on community gatherings. Change should be determined by the people most directly impacted by that change.