The time is right to rethink disabled access

Claire Madge, 22.09.2015
Claire Madge reports from the Opening Doors seminar
The title of the Museum Practice seminar, Opening doors: Rethinking disabled access and interpretation in your museum, might have referred to the physical considerations of access.

But that didn’t stop an enthusiastic group of museum professionals coming to together on the 15 September to look beyond ramps and lifts, and examine how we can open minds to new practice.

The seminar, which took place at the Royal College of Physicians in London, was expertly chaired by Tony Heaton, the chief executive of Shape Arts, who needed to keep tight reins on a day that covered many topics and wide-ranging concerns.

Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies provided a great introduction to the day by setting their years of work and research into context and asking us to look differently at the lived experience of disability.

The fascinating reality of putting on an exhibition focusing on disability was discussed by Emma Shepley, the senior curator at the Royal College of Physicians. It was inspiring to hear of the new and collaborative methods that put disabled access and, crucially, input from disabled people at the heart of its award-winning Re-framing Disability project.

Practical steps for change were convincingly showcased by Deepa Shastri and Adam Werlinger from Stagetext, and Anna Harnden from VocalEyes, highlighting that providing a supportive environment is not just about your disabled visitors but understanding the needs of your museum audience as a whole.

Trizia Wells, the inclusion manager at Eureka! in Halifax, impressed the audience with the wide range of supportive and inclusive programmes that her museum runs, which enable it to welcome families that have a range of different needs from autism and Down’s Syndrome to hearing and visual impairments.

Wells related how one family travels 90 miles to join a monthly Saturday club. While a great confirmation of the work Eureka! is doing, it made me incredibly sad for the lack of options that that family must have locally.

The sheer number of people at the seminar demonstrated the need to find out more. So it was fitting that Becki Morris, the collections assistant from Heritage and Culture Warwickshire, used the seminar to launch a network designed to share best practice and knowledge.

The Disability Co-operative Network aims to encourage museums and professional partners to submit case studies and raise the profile of the great work already being done in the heritage sector.

Questions put to the panel on the day touched on budget cuts, and some delegates expressed concern about how museums can make changes on limited budgets.

But Ellen Lee, the education officer at the RAF Museum, made it clear that little changes can go a long way. She gave the example of the inexpensive transformation of a redundant room at the museum's branch in London to a quiet space for visitors with autism and sensory processing issues.

I spoke to a number of people on the day, from the head of exhibitions at a major museum to a volunteer trustee of a regional heritage museum. We felt that more work was needed to open not just doors but eyes to what can be done and what needs to be done.

But I also got a sense that some felt overwhelmed and were really not sure where to start.

Many on the day had taken that crucial first step of coming to a seminar on disabled access and inclusion, and listening to inspiring case studies and making those vital contacts can often prove crucial when forging ahead with new ways of working.

I only needed to look at the list of attendees, from curators to collections assistants and conservators, to see the tide is changing. It is true that some dedicated access roles have been cut, but there is a debate to be had as to whether this is a role that should now be integrated across the museum.

To me it does feel like the beginnings of a sea change where access and inclusion is no longer an add-on or a worthy cause, but vital practice that time and time again shows that changes to benefit individuals with specific needs actually benefit everyone.

Claire Madge blogs at She is also a blogger-in-residence at the RAF Museum, a volunteer on the access panel at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London and a collection care volunteer at the Museum of London. Follow her on Twitter @Tinctureofmuse


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Heather Bowring
MA Member
artist, Heather Bowring
16.10.2015, 17:02
I am so sorry to have missed this event. I am a tactile artist and create relief work paintings using fine plaster. Commissions include Touch Tours of Tate Modern, The Mary Rose Museum and Wordsworth museum. The whole experience of being able to touch work reaches out to all audiences no-one is excluded. This work is a huge success for Visually Impaired visitors and in addition has drawn the attention of carers and teachers who look after , adults and children with learning difficulties, so they too can share the art experience. My latest collection of 14 portraits launched World Sight day at Moorfield Eye Hospital and is soon to be exhibited for its 4th solo exhibition. In my need to avoid using braille I have attached a vocal description to each of the portraits, in nearly all cases, spoken by the sitter. and
My experience is that when work can be seen, touched and there is a vocal description, it is a joy to observe visitors.
Sadly it is an area where people like me have had to fund the whole of the collection and have to have been self supporting.