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26 August 2007

Standing Around in Toilets with men for money

Vicky Waddington Photo by Viv Lewis

Vicky Waddington

Image: Photo by Viv Lewis

Joe Bidder interviews Victoria Waddington as part of a series of profiles looking at the lives of leading figures within the Disability Arts movement

Within a single generation we have witnessed a massive transformation of Britain's built environment, a transformation largely brought about by the disabled people's movement, of which Victoria Waddington has been a pivotal figure.

Waddington, born in Newcastle in 1948, is undoubtedly one of the UK's leading access consultants, operating through her company, Victoria Waddington Associates. Her client list is extensive: comprising theatres, galleries, cinemas, museums, civic buildings, arts centres, colleges, universities, offices, hotels and private homes throughout the country.

Waddington gained a degree in textiles at Manchester College of Art. Graduating in 1970, she was employed, initially, as a designer in the fashion industry, working for Ben Sherman Shirts, then as a manager for Asylum Models which served the film industry. In 1983, when living in London, she was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but continued to work, grappling with access difficulties and discrimination as her symptoms progressed.

In 1987 she changed her life and became deeply in involved with the disabled people's movement. Employment as Press Officer for London Dial-a-Ride Users Association and then as Development Worker for Lambeth Centre for Independent Living brought her into everyday contact with hundreds of disabled people. She became an activist with several campaigning groups notably the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) where she coordinated press and publicity.

In May 1990 Waddington with her partner, Allan Sutherland, organised the press for Campaign to Stop Patronage, a demonstration against ITV's Telethon by 200 disabled people which, in time, eventually led to the demise of Telethon.

On Saturday 15 September 1990 CAT organised a famous demonstration in London's Oxford Street when hundreds of disabled people blockaded the street. 16 disabled protesters were arrested, including Waddington, who recalls proudly “It was one of the best days in my life” adding triumphantly “I was carried in my wheelchair up the steps of Marlborough Street Magistrates' Court!” The event received widespread media coverage which forced the authorities to drop obstruction charges.

Also in 1990, Waddington founded All Clear Designs jointly with James Holmes-Siedle. Its mission to provide access consultancy. Its first contract was an Access Audit of BBC Television Centre. This was followed by an audit of Arts Council's head office in Westminster where Waddington forged a productive working relationship with Wendy Harpe, Arts Council's Head of Disability.

Eventually Arts Council made significant changes to its building and operations: it became a role model for the arts because thousands of arts leaders pass through its doors every year. The revolution had begun.

By 1993 Waddington had founded Victoria Waddington Associates, employing a team of specialists, taking on a variety of access consultancies particularly those funded by Lottery Programmes. She also organised training programmes and became a noted journalist in the access field.

“It's amazing how much of an access consultant's work is involved in checking out the loos” she says, laughing, which is how she came to coin the apt description for her work - Standing Around in Toilets with Men for Money.

For the full length feature profile, please go to next page.

Victoria Waddington profile

Joe Bidder interviews Victoria Waddington as part of a series of profiles looking at the lives of leading figures within the Disability Arts movement

In 2007 a young disabled person might assume that access to buildings and transportation was always like it is today: not perfect, perhaps, but many buildings have level entry, are equipped with handrails and lifts, pavements have dropped kerbs, and buses and trains have improved access for wheelchair users.

In the past twenty years there has been a revolution in the provision of access for disabled people. True, there is much left undone and we all have something to complain about but none of us can deny the tremendous positive gains in access provision.

Victoria Waddington is undoubtedly one of the leading access consultants in Britain. Her ceaseless devotion to the causes of access and disability rights has been inspirational and she has left her mark on the built environment in a way that has enabled many thousands of disabled people to gain everyday access to arts events, transportation and public buildings.

Born in Newcastle in 1948, she undoubtedly came under the influence of her parents who were active members of the Communist Party and prominent in working class politics in the local community. Victoria was used to taking part in protest marches on Tyneside, experience which would be useful forty years later when disabled people were on their march for human rights, access and participation.

Academic success at school led her in 1966 to a degree course at Manchester College of Art where she studied textiles and design, graduating in 1970 after four hectic university years at the close of the sixties. During the next fifteen years Waddington was employed, initially, as a designer in the fashion industry, working for Ben Sherman Shirts, then as a manager working for Asylum Models which served the film industry. Her philosophy was work hard - play hard. In 1983, when living in London, she was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but continued to work, grappling with access difficulties and discrimination as her symptoms progressed.

A break in work routine came in 1987 when, with a friend, she spent three months driving a truck around Africa in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho, seeing the country and meeting people. “It was just great” she recalls, a gleam in her eye.

Returning to London, she bought a garden flat in Brixton where she still lives, and then changed her life. Victoria became deeply involved with disability issues and organisations of disabled people. The passion, creativity and energy previously ploughed into fashion and textiles were now directed to campaigning and access issues. She became a warrior for disabled people.

Employment as Press Officer for London Dial-a-Ride Users Association and subsequently as Development Worker for Lambeth Centre for Independent Living brought Waddington in close contact with many hundreds of disabled people struggling with the consequences of a society that seemed to care little for disabled people and their access to a productive and civilised life. The spirit of her parents urged her to become an activist and for the next three years she became involved with a number of key campaigning groups led by disabled people. Chief among these was the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) for which she became a leading activist, coordinating publicity, press and campaigns strategy.

1990 was to become a turning point in Waddington's life.

In March 1990 CAT organised a fundraising benefit at the Red Rose Club, London N4, where Victoria met Allan Sutherland - writer, critic, poet, historian, stand-up comic, activist, pivotal figure in the disability arts movement - and they have been partners ever since.

In May 1990 Waddington and Sutherland jointly organised the press and promotion for Campaign to Stop Patronage, a demonstration by 200 disabled people against ITV's Telethon, an inspirational united action by artists and activists which, in time, eventually led to ITV discontinuing its Telethon programme. A notable victory for disabled people.

In mid-1990 All Clear Designs was founded jointly by Waddington and James Holmes-Siedle. Its mission to provide access consultancy to a wide range of organisations and institutions.

On Saturday 15 September 1990 CAT organised an iconic demonstration in London's Oxford Street when hundreds of disabled people, many in wheelchairs, blockaded England's premier shopping street. Traffic throughout the West End was gridlocked. Squads of police flooded the streets in an attempt to get the wheels of commerce moving. 16 disabled protesters were arrested, including Victoria Waddington.

“It was one of the best days in my life” she recalls proudly, punching the air “I was carried in my wheelchair up the steps of Marlborough Street Magistrates' Court!”

Charges of obstruction were made and then dropped after the Evening Standard made the demonstration its front page story, which forced the authorities to minimise the profile given to CAT and its professionally planned action. The officer responsible for the arrests that Saturday, Chief Inspector Arnold of the Metropolitan Police was subsequently immortalised as the central character in an Allan Sutherland stand-up routine.

In December Waddington was awarded the 1990 Brisenden Bursary one of three national awards for outstanding service to disabled people. The Bursary (in honour of the late Simon Brisenden, activist and poet) enabled Victoria to finance a wide range of training programmes; project planning, marketing, negotiating, team building, etc: skills which she would utilise most effectively in the future.

Waddington now entered the most productive period of her life as the leading disabled consultant in the field of access, embarking on a mission to change the built environment. There was no UK disability legislation at that time. Disabled people gazed enviously across the Atlantic Ocean where the United States Congress had recently enacted The Americans With Disabilities Act - in place of that progressive legislation we had Thatcher's legacy: a shattered economy, mass unemployment and a largely uncaring and discriminatory society. Obtaining civil rights and decent access for disabled people would have to be achieved by inspiration, resilience and relentless pressure, plus the help of friends in influential positions.

Waddington's 1990 breakthrough was at BBC Television who commissioned All Clear Designs to carry out a comprehensive Access Audit and to consult all its 35 disabled staff. The fee was £350 a day, a fortune to Waddington at that time. She had an office at the BBC and set about conducting the audit of Television's Centre's nine buildings, studios and galleries and writing a 5-year change programme. The outcome for the BBC included dual-power controlled lifts, emergency fire access for disabled staff and regular consultation.

In 1991 Waddington was introduced to Wendy Harpe, Head of Disability, at the then Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) based at Great Peter Street, Westminster. Harpe, a radical and powerful advocate of disabled people at ACGB, perceived the value of Waddington's BBC project, and promptly commissioned her to analyze access at Great Peter Street and propose modifications. Harpe knew that ACGB offices had deplorable access and that the consultancy would throw up serious practical and philosophical issues for Arts Council.

Eventually Great Peter Street had a wheelchair lift in its elegant entrance hall, automatic doors, wheelchair accessible toilets, accessible lifts within the building, staff training programmes and training for members of Arts Council and its many advisory panels, each of which had a disabled artist as a member. Disability arts performances were organised for Council members.

The revolution had begun: Arts Council became a role model for all arts organisations because thousands of artists, arts administrators, politicians and business leaders passed through its head office every year.

“It's amazing how much of an access consultant's work is involved in checking out the loos” says Waddington, laughing, which is how she came to coin the apt description for her work - Standing Around in Toilets with Men for Money.

In 1993 she exited All Clear Designs and set up her own company, Victoria Waddington Associates, operating from Brixton, which served a large portfolio of clients in the commercial and public sectors. The company developed links with both primary and secondary funding bodies and gave advice on fund raising where appropriate. Waddington built a team of skilled assistants, specialists in design, surveying and preparing building plans: she became an entrepreneur project manager.

Wendy Harpe was an influential ally and Waddington's achievements at Arts Council were a gold-plated reference. Additionally, in 1995, the Arts Council National Lottery commenced operations with a powerful mandate to ensure disabled access in all ACE funded projects, eventually totalling more than £1,000,000,000.

Commissions flowed. “It was a great period” says Waddington “Every building in Britain needed to be improved. The market seemed infinite and I was one of the few disabled people with the track record and expertise”.

Her client list is extensive: comprising theatres, galleries, cinemas, museums, civic buildings, arts centres, colleges, universities, offices, hotels and private homes all over the country.

Disabled artists will have first hand experience of the transformation her work achieved at London's Diorama Arts Centre where several key disability organisations were based, such as LDAF, NDAF and Survivors' Poetry. Many notable events and disability art exhibitions took place at The Diorama.

Waddington was in demand to organise training programmes and seminars for organisations such as the Department of Health and the Association of British Orchestras. Her influence and expertise was further disseminated via journalism and she wrote for many magazines including, Radar Contact Magazine, DAM, DAIL, London Disability News and had a quarterly column in The Journal of Museum and Galleries Disability Association entitled The Diary of an Access Consultant.

Conducting access audits was often arduous work, involving extensive travel on a largely inaccessible transport system, and then having to work in buildings which were inaccessible themselves. Waddington completed a 10 month contract with Brighton & Hove Council preparing an access strategy and giving advice to staff. Three mornings a week Victoria would travel to Brighton by taxi and train, returning that same night to London. On arrival at her destination she had to be bumped up the stairs in her wheelchair to get to her Brighton office!

Competition for work intensified. The DDA legislation had spurred a growth in demand for access audits which encouraged many non-disabled consultants to enter the marketplace. They had lower costs because they had no access requirements themselves, and, despite not having the expertise of Waddington, these new entrants to the market increasingly took the majority of new business. As the Arts Council Lottery programme began to wind down in 2001 Victoria's work load diminished, although recent projects include audits for Nottingham Castle and Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, a celebrated World Heritage Site by the River Thames.

The legacy of Waddington's work is massive. Comprehensive access is now taken for granted. Disabled people expect to experience thoughtful access provision wherever we go: be it the cinema, the theatre, the town hall, the bank, the bus, the railway station or the shopping centre. We complain when it is inadequate and know there is still much work left to complete.

Within a single generation we have witnessed a massive transformation of Britain's built environment, a transformation largely brought about by the inspired actions of the disabled people's movement, for which Victoria Waddington has been a leading architect.

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