One of the main advantages of living in London is that you have some of the world's greatest museums and galleries on your doorstep. I haven't travelled much overseas but in a sense I don't really need to do so. If you live in the capital, you can discover other cultures and societies without ever leaving the confines of the M25. You can even travel back in time.
In recent years I've learnt about the Turks, the Chinese Qing dynasty and Byzantium at the Royal Academy. I've explored the Persian civilisation, the life of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the ancient city of Babylon at the British Museum. And I've immersed myself in the magnificence of the Russian tsars and the opulence of the Baroque at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
At school I never attended art lessons. As I can't hold a paintbrush there didn't seem to be much point. But since moving to London I've developed a strong interest in art history and become a frequent visitor to place like the National Gallery, the Courtauld Institute and Tate Britain. Cézanne, Hogarth, Holbein, Picasso, Raphael, Renoir, Titian, Velasquez - these are just some of the artists I've grown to appreciate thanks to exhibitions at these galleries. What's even more exciting is becoming acquainted with artists and themes which were previously unknown to me, such as the Camden Town Group, 18th century neoclassical sculptures, and 19th century British orientalist painting
I'm fond of these museums and galleries not just because they broaden my cultural horizons and enrich my understanding of humanity, but also because they demonstrate how much progress has been made in achieving disability equality in 21st-century Britain. London's large museums and galleries have made a real effort to be accessible to wheelchair users. In the last 30 years they have all installed ramps and lifts where necessary, sometimes aided by major new building or refurbishment projects. Indeed, it's quite interesting to compare the different lifts on offer. The British Museum's lifts are efficient and functional. The British Library's one exemplifies upmarket luxury. And the Royal Academy has opted for a stylish glass-walled affair.
As well as taking measures to ensure physical access, these museums also have charging policies which demonstrate their commitment to welcoming disabled visitors. For a number of years now, the permanent collections at major museums have been free but they do usually charge for entry to the special temporary exhibitions. What deserves praise is that they take into account the needs of disabled people like myself who require assistance by offering a free ticket for a carer (commonly known these days as a personal assistant).
There's a key principle at stake here. I wouldn't be able to access these museums without the help of my PA. She has to come into the exhibitions to push my wheelchair. While I'm happy to pay for myself, I don't see why I should have to pay for a second ticket for my PA. That would mean I was paying twice the amount that other visitors do simply because I am disabled. I can't ask my PA to buy her ticket because it's not her choice to see the exhibition, she's only there because it's part of her job, and most of the time she isn't particularly interested in the subject of the exhibition anyway.
Most staff give me a free ticket for my PA automatically, but a few months ago I found myself in a surreal situation at one museum. When I asked for a free ticket for my carer, the man behind the desk asked me, "Do you regard yourself as disabled?". Now, bear in mind that I'm a wheelchair user and paralysed from the neck down. I'm about as visibly disabled as it's possible to get. Why on earth was this man bothering to ask me? Was he simply following orders and querying anyone who dared to ask for a disability-related discount? Or was he trying to be funny? On reflection, I think it was the former rather than the latter. He didn't look as if he was renowned for his sense of humour.
I'm grateful that it's become standard practice for museums and galleries to give free tickets to PAs. However, when you are disabled, museum charges also become the gateway to a world of moral dilemmas. Occasionally the person accompanying me is a friend, not a PA, and yet he or she still gets in for free as my helper. This is despite the fact that the friend wants to see the exhibition as much as I do, is perfectly capable of paying for a ticket, and would expect to pay the full price if he or she wasn't with me. So should my friend still be given a free ticket for pushing my wheelchair?
Thankfully, I don't have to confront this ethical quandary very often as I usually prefer to see exhibitions with a PA rather than a friend. The joy of going round with a friend is being able to discuss what you are seeing with someone who has similar tastes to yourself. However, I find it's not possible to talk easily in exhibitions. Obviously, there's a museum convention that visitors are relatively quiet and that's part of the reason. But, in my case, it's also due to the fact that holding a conversation is difficult when I'm sitting down and the other person is standing up. A friend might crouch down so their head is at a similar level to mine but there's a limit to how long they can do this before their knees begin to complain.
The second moral question concerns my own ticket. The large London museums usually give a small discount to disabled people themselves. For example, when I went to the Garden and Cosmos exhibition of Indian paintings at the British Museum in August, I was charged £10 when the standard adult price was £12. In fact, if you're disabled, the Victoria and Albert Museum will give you three free tickets for their special exhibitions - that's one for you, one for your PA and one for a friend. But is it morally right that I should benefit from a reduced price purely because I use a wheelchair?
A decade ago, when I first moved to London, I believed the answer was a clear yes. After all, people with disabilities frequently have to manage on tight incomes, and at that time my own salary was relatively low. Despite the Disability Discrimination Act, disabled people are twice as likely to be out of work than able-bodied people. Meanwhile, those in employment may find they have to work part-time or accept a lower grade job with a smaller wage because their disability makes it difficult for them to gain promotion.
To justify the lower price, I could also point out that, even if I can get into the exhibition, there are still factors which may make an exhibition less accessible to me than it is to other people. Often museum exhibits like old books are displayed horizontally on tables at heights that make it impossible for me to see the object in question. For some disabled people this isn't an issue because they use battery-powered wheelchairs with seats that can be raised and lowered. But my wheelchair is a standard NHS manual wheelchair and it doesn't have such a function.
Of course, in art galleries, this table problem doesn't arise as most of the exhibits are either free-standing sculptures or paintings and drawings which are hung on the walls. However, in these exhibitions my view of the paintings can still be impeded - by other visitors.
Paintings are usually placed on the wall at the eye-level of a standing adult. As I'm sitting down and my head rest prevents me from tilting my head backwards, I like to position myself a reasonable distance away from a painting to appreciate it fully. But this means people sometimes wander in between me and the painting oblivious of the fact that I'm trying to examine it. Sometimes visitors are so absorbed in the paintings that they step backwards, not realising that I'm behind them, and almost trip over me. (For some reason, I find myself apologising when this happens, even though it is the other person who has collided with me, not the other way round. It's a typical English reaction, I suppose.)
Yet in recent years, the discount on my ticket has made me personally feel uncomfortable. Not only am I in employment, I now earn well above the national average. Consequently, I went through a phase of insisting on paying the normal adult price. In the end, though, I stopped doing this. It just became too much hassle. I grew tired of having to explain to museum staff why I wanted to pay the full amount. And eventually I could no longer face the strange looks they gave me. It was an expression that said: "You don't want a discount? Are you bonkers?".
These days I pay the reduced rate, but I keep a clear conscience either by putting extra pound coins in the donations box or by spending money in the museum shop. And soon I'm going to solve the problem altogether by joining the Art Fund. As an Art Fund member I will qualify for an even larger discount on museum tickets than I do as a disabled person. Life's other moral dilemmas will remain, but this one will disappear.