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Artsline win gold prize at the Visit London 2007 awards


Disability Access Information Service

History of Artsline

Artsline began in September 1981, founded by John Whitney of Capital Radio and Nicky Gavron. 1981 was the International Year of the Disabled Person and this event reflected a growing awareness of the extent to which disabled people were excluded from enjoying or working in the arts. Although operating with limited resources from a tiny office in North London, Artsline was born with high ambitions, energetic determination and an unfailing commitment to best serve the needs of the whole disabled community.

Artsline's principle aim was to increase participation in the arts by disabled people of all ages and to provide them with accurate information about access to arts and cultural events in London. Artsline took on an educative and motivating role targeted specifically at those who were least likely to use the existing facilities. It was equally concerned with changing attitudes to the needs and aspirations of minority groups in relation to the arts and to encourage arts providers to meet needs previously ignored.

The challenges facing the organisation at the time were enormous - the documentation of physical access at over 1,000 venues across the city - the need to convince funders, managements and other charities of the importance of this information and that disabled people were genuinely interested in active participation as audience members, as participants and even employees.

But Artsline met these challenges head on and in its first decade grew steadily to become the most comprehensive information service on all aspects of the arts. It continually expanded its remit to include new areas and facilities and to cover theatres, cinemas, museums, art centres, galleries, music venues and restaurants. Alongside the core telephone service it published access guides and directories including the Play Booklet on activities throughout London for disabled children and young people and guides for elderly disabled people.

In 1986 Artsline in conjunction with the London Disability Arts Forum began producing Disability Arts in London (DAIL) magazine which quickly established itself as the leading media resource for not only the disabled community but for the arts world in general. DAIL was instrumental in broadening awareness of disabled artists, encouraged new and innovative work and moving away from the view of 'arts as therapy' for disabled people.

Photo of Artsline offices
Artsline offices, Chalton Street, Camden

The mid 90s were a critical period of change in Artsline's history. Its expanding portfolio saw it move to larger offices in Camden and a plan was drawn up to make fundamental changes to the way in which Artsline stored and presented access information through a complete overhaul of the computer data-base system. An Asian outreach project was also established which later grew into the Cultural Diversity Project. As venues became increasingly aware of physical access issues a demand also grew for education on how best to serve disabled customers and Artsline began to offer Disability Equality Training as part of its remit not just to provide information but to change attitudes and approaches.

While knowledge created awareness it was also clear that new legislation was essential to eliminate the most intractable barriers that stood between disabled people and equal access to arts opportunities. From it's inception Artsline put itself at the forefront of pushing for this structural change and co-ordinated the all-party lobby on access issues for disabled people in both Houses of Parliament.

These efforts came to fruition in the 1995 Disability and Discrimination Act, which made it a legal responsibility for employers and service providers to take account of disabled people's needs. The benefits have been evident and have clearly given disabled people more confidence to use facilities and to insist upon their right to do so. But the act did not instantly resolve the problems Artsline set out to address and indeed has extended the remit of its work. Rather than just assessing a venue for its existing accessibility, Artsline advice service and access audits put it at the heart of actually changing facilities and influencing the design of new venues. As the legislation has been rolled out and continues to be strengthened the demand for this service grows and the number and range of venues asking for Artsline's help as grown exponentially.

Artsline has continued to strive over the last five years to improve the way it provides information and find new ways of reaching as many people as possible and new technology has become central to this objective. Artsline along with the London Tourist Board embarked upon the exciting millennium project of creating a comprehensive online access database, which was launched this year as part of the European Year of the Disabled. This has already made Artsline's information accessible to anyone in the world and there are plans to connect this with other disabled organisations nationally and across Europe to form a continent wide information base.

But Artsline has never lost sight of its primary commitment to the needs of all members of the disabled community that it serves. In 1999 the Youth Project was launched to facilitate arts access for young people and assert their right to an exciting and stimulating social life. Over the same period the Attitude is Everything project has achieved major successes in transforming access to music venues, clubs and festivals along with creating partnerships with major industry figures, most notably the Mean Fiddler Group.

Over two decades Artsline has been at the centre of a revolution in arts access for disabled people and has achieved great respect. It has won an Investors in People award, several awards from the National Information Forum and continues to serve on several advisory panels for major arts venues in the capital.

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