Museums need to do more to welcome disabled visitors

The cultural sector has made progress recently, but with a quarter of museum websites providing no access information, there is room for improvement when it comes to making disabled visitors feel as welcome as non-disabled visitors. By Geraldine Kendall Adams
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Last month, the wheelchair-racing Paralympic athlete Anne Wafula Strike made the headlines after revealing that she had been forced to wet herself during a three-hour journey on a CrossCountry train with no working accessible toilet. Wafula Strike described how she had felt so degraded by the experience that she had cried for hours when she returned home.

The incident prompted hundreds of disabled people across the UK to share similar tales of inadequate access and broken-down facilities, highlighting just how common it is for public venues and services to tick a box confirming accessibility, and then to treat the provisions they have installed for disabled people as little more than an afterthought.

But are museums faring any better than train companies when it comes to accessibility? The sector has certainly made significant strides in the past decade, says Matthew Cock, the chief executive of Vocaleyes, a company that provides audio description services to arts and heritage organisations – but there is much left to do.

Various studies have found evidence of a significant attendance gap between disabled and non-disabled visitors to museums and heritage sites. To examine the possible causes of this, Vocaleyes recently compiled a report on the state of museum website access across the UK, surveying about 1,700 museum websites with the help of a group of volunteers.

The report chose to focus on online access because the web is usually the first point of call for disabled people or their companions when planning a day out – even if museums have made improvements on site, if they’re not advertising this provision online, they are already creating a barrier against visiting.

“For many museums, access just means physical access – the information they’re providing online lags behind the reality,” says Cock. “If you don’t say you have it, then there’s almost no point in having it.”

The survey found that 27% of the museum websites surveyed provided no access information at all, which Cock describes as “quite a shocking number”. The omission of information was most prevalent among museums in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and among military, university and independent museums.

Other museums provided information that was of little practical use, says Cock, or that failed to distinguish between visitors with different access requirements. For example, a website might feature nothing more on its access page than a line saying guide dogs are welcome, when in reality just a small proportion of blind or partially sighted people have guide dogs.

Language barrier

Cock says many sites lacked descriptive information about getting to the venue and the facilities on site. A further barrier was created by the impersonal and bureaucratic language used by some to address their disabled visitors. “This isn’t the audience for that kind of language,” he says. “It has to help a potential visitor, rather than reflect internal policies. You’ve got to think about who the audience is for what you’re writing.”

Making improvements in these areas is a simple and inexpensive way in which to reach more disabled visitors, and Vocaleyes has published a guide alongside its survey to help museums take action.

But there are more ingrained issues that need to be overcome in order to improve access.

Fear of getting it wrong

One commonly cited barrier that prevents museums from taking real action is a fear of getting it wrong. Cock says staff can be reluctant to address accessibility because they either feel they don’t have enough practical training or there might be some legal repercussion if they don’t cover all bases. Such attitudes can be overcome by asking local disabled groups to act as access panels, says Cock, providing a direct insight into the perspective of visitors.

Talking to disabled audiences is the place to start, agrees Lindsey Holmes, the project manager of the newly launched Heritage Buddies Scheme, a partnership between the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and five museum services in southeast England. The pilot scheme is designed to match blind and partially sighted visitors with volunteer “buddies” trained to give personal tours around each participating museum.

Autonomy of choice for the visitor is at the heart of the scheme, says Holmes. Disabled people can often be restricted in which museum they can go to by what’s on general offer at each site – not just with regard to physical access, but also to the accessibility of collections. The RNIB scheme addresses this by enabling visitors to be matched with a buddy whose interests and expertise meet their individual requirements, in terms of practical help and collections knowledge.

“The blind or partially sighted visitor is very much in the driving seat – each buddy has a profile and the visitor can choose who to book,” says Holmes. “Independent choice is the key thing.”

This model should also help to open up museum collections, according to Holmes, empowering visitors to decide which objects they want to discover, rather than having items selected for them for them by museum professionals – and it’s significantly cheaper than technological solutions such as creating 3D prints of objects for touch tours. “It gives people a wide scope of choice without breaking the budget,” she says.

Could do better

Although the scheme is indicative of “pockets of fantastic work” being undertaken by museums, Holmes believes the sector as a whole could go much further. “Awareness is much higher now – everyone knows accessibility is a hot topic but people are still not sure what they should be doing,” she says.

Holmes believes that instead of searching for one simplistic, overarching solution for the sector, museums need to start asking themselves what small steps they could be taking at an individual level. “We’re overlooking simple things – do your front-of-house people feel comfortable going over to welcome someone with a guide dog or cane?” she says. “If you have braille, do visitors know how to find it? At the moment, we’re doing things but not joining the dots together as a whole.”

Another vital element is sharing knowledge and good practice. The RNIB scheme will hold a dissemination conference in early 2018, but in the meantime, there are numerous other examples of excellent access work in museums to discover.

In December, the online review site Euan’s Guide, which rates cultural venues on their accessibility, listed two museums in its top 10 venues for 2016: Bentley Priory Museum in north west London and Cardiff Story Museum. Bentley Priory’s rating was the result of a concerted effort to improve the accessibility of its collections for visitors with sight or hearing loss, starting with a collections project funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.
The project was embedded across the museum, with all staff and volunteers receiving visual- and deaf-awareness training. In addition, a collections research element enabled the museum to draw out interpretation specifically aimed at engaging disabled visitors, which informed audio-described tours aimed at adults and families.

The project’s research and documentation officer, Chloe Marley, says: “We have learnt that small, often inexpensive, changes can make a big difference and can drastically improve a visitor’s experience.”

Events such as Disabled Access Day are also helping to connect disabled audiences with culture and heritage by showcasing and celebrating good access. Organisations can sign up to run an event or open day for disabled visitors as part of the festival, which is in its third year and runs from 10-12 March across the UK.

For many visitors, the knowledge that progress is being made is often enough to break down barriers. “People aren’t expecting perfection,” says Holmes. “But they do want to see that the museum is doing something and wants them there.”

The needs of disabled visitors will be among the issues discussed at a forthcoming Museums Association one-day conference, The Future of Museums: Audiences, taking place on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection, London.

Small actions can sometimes make the biggest difference
Euan’s Guide is the disabled access review website and app where disabled people and their friends and families review, share and discover accessible places online.

By sharing their experiences, reviewers have demonstrated that museums can be innovative with disabled access, and many institutions have been awarded five-star reviews on Euan’s Guide. This is a great success, and something that many more museums and galleries can strive to achieve.

A five-star review means something slightly different to everyone. However, what it represents is that a museum has done something outstanding to welcome disabled guests and visitors. This typically means that staff have been friendly and helpful, and the museum has good, accessible toilet facilities, excellent signposting, alternative formats and imaginative ways of sharing stories and information with all guests.

What tends to be forgotten is that small actions can often make the biggest difference. This could be making sure your disabled access information is easy to find, knowing that staff understand how to work portable ramps or hearing loops, or ensuring that the emergency red cord reaches the floor in your accessible bathroom.

If you can do this, and show visitors that nothing is too much trouble, then more and more people will feel at ease exploring your museum or gallery. 

Euan MacDonald is the founder of the Euan’s Guide review website

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.