FINDING ACCESSIBILITY: Ups and downs on two of Cleveland’s best-known art walks
Once upon a time, in a notable European museum, I answered a broken chair lift by oozing down a flight of stairs into the Greek statuary room. There, I reenacted a scene from The Ring by dragging myself around, long hair trailing on the floor, staring up wistfully at the works of antiquity. After painfully pulling myself back up the stairs and into my wheelchair, we had only a few minutes before closing time to reach the designated disability exit, via an elevator that required management’s keys to operate.
I swear we made it before the clock struck six; regardless, we found the doors chained shut and the elevator locked behind us. My trapped family watched through the window as a stream of patrons poured into the cobbled streets from the main exit staircase.… Then the lights went out and the security system turned on.
This is the story of how I eventually set off the burglar alarms at a major museum, and how the security chief’s dinner was interrupted because the night guard didn’t have a key to the disability-access doors.
This is also a story about why I’m passionate about documenting the accessibility of arts venues. Disabled patrons need to know if they’ll be wasting their time and energy going to an event they won’t be able to enter. Likewise, non-disabled members of our art scene can benefit from a chance to imagine rolling a mile in another person’s chair, so to speak, as a lesson in radical empathy.
As a wheelchair user, I present a recounting of my family’s June experiments with two of Cleveland’s finest art events.
ROLL ALL OVER WATERLOO
The Walk All Over Waterloo first-Fridays gallery hop is surprisingly accessible for an historic district. Limited-mobility visitors can access roughly half of the galleries. Waterloo Road has semi-regular curb cuts on both sides, and our service dog was welcomed in every gallery.
Wherever you park, you’ll only have to cross Waterloo Road once each way to reach all of the wheelchair-accessible galleries. This guide starts at ArtiCle, but could begin anywhere on the path.
ArtiCle has the easiest gallery entrance on the Waterloo strip. There’s completely flat access and ample space inside to navigate. Only a few of the title cards or art works were placed above my viewing level (a problem at most galleries since wheelchair users often see from a child’s eye-level).
Slightly east is Phone Gallery, a literal phone booth mounted to the wall of Russ’s Auto Care. The installations here require only the ability to see over the bottom edge (and there’s space to back up for a better view).
Crossing to Waterloo 7 Gallery / Schmidt Studio is facilitated here by curb cuts on both sides. Don’t be misled by the fence or camouflage from the sculpture garden; there’s easy door access. Inside is crowded with colorful (and occasionally sharp) metal sculptures. Wheelchairs won’t be able to navigate the entire labyrinth, but there’s a clear path through the center. A large studio dog greeted us, but he was entirely polite with our service animal.
Heading east, Praxis Fiber Workshop is only a few inches shy of wheelchair-accessible. The ledge is just high enough to stop many wheelchairs (and ambulatory people who can’t lift their feet). Since it’s en route, it’s worth evaluating the entrance for yourself.
Trekking one-and-a-half-blocks to East 156th brings you to Waterloo Arts Gallery. When there’s live music out front, it’s a great place to park a wheelchair or find a seat (but note there’s smoking here). While the front door of the gallery has a step, it is wheelchair-friendly via the “secret” entrance around the corner on East 156th. Just past Callaloo Café, enter the (currently) unlabeled door, pass the water fountain, take the hallway on the right to the bright yellow door, and finally you’ll find yourself in the office with a direct door to the gallery. (Waterloo Arts reported that signage to clarify this route is in the works when I talked to them in June.)
A four-block hike gets you to Framed Gallery, shortly before East 160th. This gallery is notable for featuring African American art (from paintings to pottery) and for the accessible entrance. Despite the raised entryway, there’s a concrete ramp instead of stairs, plus a doorbell in case you need assistance.
Finally, it’s just one block to the final wheelchair-accessible studio: Matt Shiffler Photography, featuring skillful and socially-conscious travel photos and world portraiture.
CINDERELLA AT 78TH STREET
Third Fridays at 78th Street Studios has been widely acclaimed as the best art hop in Northeast Ohio. Despite having shown my work there from time to time, I’ve never actually attended the event because the entrance opens directly to staircases. Word-of-mouth from curators assured us that an elevator existed, but there are no signs identifying accessible entrances nor information posted about what to do if you can’t use the stairs.
My failed attempt to gallery hop in June was quite a story in itself, but I’ll skip to the ending where management gave us the following information: There are disability accommodations available if arrangements are made in advance. There is a locked external elevator located in the parking lot near West 80th. Disabled visitors are advised to call ahead (440.503.5506) to make an elevator reservation to access the first floor. When ready to access the second floor, they should go to the freight elevator and call management again to have someone come operate it. Repeat for each floor.
While we weren’t able to test this system, we can identify some potential problems. First, the staff with elevator access may leave at 9:00pm sharp when the event officially ends; we were told it was too late to start entering the building via elevator at 8:45pm. (Sadly, we therefore couldn’t attend the Pride party.) While many folks will still be schmoozing or heading to after-parties at 9:00pm, disabled visitors should prepare to leave early to make sure the elevator operator doesn’t leave first. It’s also worth noting that it took half an hour for someone to meet us at the elevator after a curator reached them on our behalf—honestly, a reasonable timeframe for any staff member to wrap up whatever they were doing and trek across the complex, which could mean a lengthy wait for elevator service each time it’s needed.
The infrastructure exists to make the 78th Street Studios accessible since there is an elevator. Information about the location and availability of the elevator needs to be clearly posted at the entrances (plus included in print and online materials), and the elevators either need to be unlocked and adapted for use without assistance or to have dedicated elevator operators. After all, no other community member needs to schedule an appointment to participate in the gallery hop or to call management for permission to move between floors. Just as importantly, under the current accommodation model, a single member of management isn’t equipped to support the level of usage that would occur if Cleveland’s disability population was being adequately supported.
The good news, of course: Management has expressed a willingness to accommodate people who make advanced arrangements—so if you’ve hesitated to visit 78th Street, please do try. If you’ve struggled with the stairs, know that the elevator isn’t just an urban legend. While the lack of open accessibility (and prospect of being stranded on any given floor) may be daunting, this location has many benefits by virtue of being under one roof, such as protection from the weather, shorter distances between neighboring galleries, and smoother walking/rolling surfaces compared to Cleveland’s aged sidewalks.
Just remember the Cinderella rules: You can’t go to the ball without first calling your fairy godmother, and you must leave before the clock strikes closing time or your elevator might turn into a pumpkin.
This is the second of four articles discussing disability and art in the Cleveland scene. We want to hear from you! Please send questions, feedback, and disability/art stories to CripplepunkArt@gmail.com.
This series is supported by an Artists with Disabilities Access Program grant from the Ohio Arts Council. 78th Street Studios proprietor Dan Bush wrote a letter supporting CAN in its application for that grant.
Defining Accessibility vs. Accommodation
Accessibility: Both abled and disabled individuals can access and utilize the space or event equally well. The primary responsibility of planning for accessibility goes to the owner/director/manager.
Special Accommodations: Abled individuals can access and utilize the space or event freely. Disabled individuals need to make special arrangements to access the space, and frequently their access requires unique limitations or risks that abled patrons won’t experience. The primary responsibility of planning for accessibility goes to the disabled person.