Accessibility at the Sydney Opera House


Accessibility into and within all cultural, arts and entertainment venues in Aotearoa is essential if publically owned venues are to provide equal access for all people. We all have the right to benefit from performances, programmes, collections and exhibitions.

Richard Benge with Jenny Spinak, Accessibility Manager,Sydney Opera House. I was recently inspired by examples of accessibility at the Sydney Opera House.  I was fortunate to be taken on a tour of the iconic building by my friend, Alan Croker, who is its Conservation Architect, along with Jenny Spinak, its Accessibility Manager.

The Sydney Opera House is now 45-years-old and undergoing a "Decade of Renewal". Alan Croker was responsible for producing its Conservation Management Plan that guides changes to the building to be in keeping with the vision and design principles of its original architect, Jorn Utzon, and Peter Hall, the architect responsible for its completion.

Within the massive renewal project there have already been thoughtful and successful accessibility achievements – some of which have been extensive, given they have to work within the iconic concrete and steel structure.

Fit for twenty-first century use

It is impressive that thorough consultation that respects the architectural vision is making it more accessible and fit for twenty-first century use. This was to be expected. Utzon himself once wrote: “I sincerely believe that a large multipurpose structure such as this building, in time will undergo many natural changes.”

Today the Sydney Opera House is Australia’s number one tourist destination. It welcomes more than 8.2 million visitors a year and presents more than 2000 shows 363 days a year to more than 1.5 million people. This ranges from the works of the seven flagship arts companies to which it is home to First Nations’ arts and culture, talks and ideas, theatre and dance, and the superstars of classical and contemporary music.

The Sydney Opera House has an Access Strategic Plan, which states: “Sydney Opera House belongs to everyone. As an organisation, our goal is to provide barrier-free access, making the site, building and the experiences they offer accessible to all people”.

The “house”, as staff proudly refer to their place of work, employs Accessibility Manager Jenny Spinak for three days a week. Jenny gets to focus on and co-ordinate accessible programming and outreach to users across the multi-use building. Audio described performances and Auslan interpreted performances for Deaf people are common accessible programming experiences. The accessibility page of the Sydney Opera House’s website is one of the finest I have seen.

Lack of wheelchair access at Te Papa event

An example of what can happen in the absence of a strategic plan and management commitment to accessibility has been in the news. Te Papa was unable to provide wheelchair access to a stage for Chris Ford of the Disabled Persons Assembly. invited to speak at a conference.

Exterior of Te PapaTe Papa senior staff have apologised for the series of oversights that led to this happening and promise to do better. It has been 18 months or more since I attended a meeting with senior staff at Te Papa where commitment to providing an access coordinator and strategic access plan was strongly indicated.

Nothing has been forthcoming. New Zealand’s national museum, which is committed to telling “our story”, needs to demonstrate authentic attention to accessibility needs for the 20% of New Zealanders who identify as having a disability or impairment.

The job cannot be left in an ad hoc way to the access champions within Te Papa, who nevertheless do a very good job on delivering access tours. There must be an accessibility strategy that covers every aspect of the institution.

Interestingly, I can see no reference on Te Papa's website to strategic planning for leadership in accessibility. Under the heading "Museum renewal and revenue growth", it says: “We will redevelop our long-term exhibitions and commercial facilities and create new offerings for visitors so that all aspects of the museum work together to deliver a richer experience.”

I would hope this means a richer experience for everyone, with no basic accessibility errors.

Arts Access Aotearoa coordinates a national Arts For All Network for arts, entertainment and cultural venue staff to encourage them to increase accessibility by developing strategy and action plans. To get your organisation to commit to accessibility, join the network and lead the change.

A completely new corridor was created to provide access for wheelchair users to the glass elevator in the northern foyer of  the Concert Hall
A completely new corridor was created to provide access for wheelchair users to the glass elevator in the northern foyer of  the Concert Hall
Alan Crocker, Conservation Architect, talks about the new glass elevator
The glass elevator at the end of the corridor takes patrons to different levels of the harbour foyer
The exit from the glass elevator. Note the redesigned grip rails on the stairs for comfortable holding
The exit from the glass elevator. Note the redesigned grip rails on the stairs for comfortable holding..



Accessibility at the Sydney Opera House


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