This autumn, the shielding programme for people considered clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) officially closed in England. With similar measures also at an end in other UK nations, it marks a new phase in the pandemic for those at highest risk from Covid, following a period of intervention that left many housebound and isolated for 18 months.
The impact of the pandemic on disabled and clinically vulnerable people has been particularly severe. The Office for National Statistics has found that 46% of disabled people – classed as those with a long-standing illness, impairment or condition that reduces their ability to carry out day-to-day activities – said Covid had adversely affected their mental health, while 49% felt lonely, compared with 26% and 37% of non-disabled people respectively.
In the culture sector, the need for an inclusive recovery that does not leave vulnerable groups behind has been recognised since the early days of Covid. In June 2020, a group of D/deaf and disabled cultural leaders, #WeShallNotBeRemoved, wrote an open letter to the then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden asking the government to ensure “the progress we have collectively made does not falter in this moment of crisis”.
The collective subsequently published seven principles for an inclusive recovery (see box), calling on institutions not to forget the needs of disabled audiences or workers as they navigated a way forward in the post-pandemic world.
Last summer, as the sector began opening up, Arts Council England reiterated the call to ensure an inclusive reopening that gives “disabled and CEV colleagues, performers and visitors the support and flexibility they need to take advantage of reopening like everyone else”.
Benefits for all
Prioritising access and inclusion has benefits for all parties. This recovery period is a unique opportunity for cultural institutions to reshape their practice and demonstrate the positive impacts they can have on people’s health and wellbeing.
A recent report by Museums Galleries Scotland summarised a range of demonstrable benefits that museum activities and volunteering have had on people living with dementia, hospital patients and those with additional medical or mental health needs, concluding that “with the right support, there is so much more that can be done”.
But the road to a fully inclusive recovery is not straightforward. Managing Covid has always been a delicate balancing act between risk, freedom and responsibility. As people celebrated reopening and legal requirements for face coverings and social distancing were dropped, many vulnerable groups felt they were back to square one.
Ditchling’s new norm
“When it became an individual responsibility to manage risk, many CEV people went back to shielding, just when they were starting to venture out,” says Steph Fuller, director of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in East Sussex. “The more people relax, the more those who have managed to stay safe for so long are at risk.”
Ditchling is among the museums taking into account the needs of disabled and high-risk visitors in their long-term planning.
“We are continuing create a safe and relaxing environment for people with sensory needscreate a safe and relaxing environment for people with sensory needs, which will now be the norm,” says Fuller.
Measures undertaken include prebooked quiet sessions with greater social distancing in place, and private viewings outside normal hours for families and groups from care homes and day centres.
But while Covid has created additional barriers, there is optimism that it has broken others down. Calmer, less-crowded galleries have been welcomed by many disabled visitors, while the expansion of digital access to collections and activities was one of the few bright spots of lockdown.
The consideration of people with additional needs is at the heart of museum operations in a way it never was before, and some organisations are taking it as an opportunity to build accessibility into their core programming.
V&A Dundee recently announced a programme of Sensory Friendly Days, when the museum will be closed to the general public to create a safe and relaxing environment for people with sensory needs, including autism-spectrum conditions and learning disabilities.
University of Cambridge Museums is embedding a blended approach across its programming, offering a range of ways to engage with its collections and activities, both on site and remotely.
“The process of finding new ways to connect that are not necessarily about coming together in the same room will have been beneficial for access and inclusion in general,” says Miranda Stearn, head of learning at the Fitzwilliam Museum. “It has pushed us to think differently and is encouraging a culture of working together with participants to find solutions. Longer term, our plans for ensuring inclusion will continue to be about offering flexibility and choices.”
Covid has also challenged the assumption that “an in-person encounter with a museum object must always be the gold standard, in terms of engagement”, says Stearn. “The pandemic forced us to explore the positive things that remote engagement makes possible. For example, via our conference phonecalls with elders, we were able to have longer and more-equitable encounters and dialogues around works of art than would have been likely as part of a gallery visit.”
It is also important not to make assumptions about what groups want or how they will feel about visiting. “My initial reopening protocols assumed that elders who had been shielding in care homes would be some of the last groups to feel confident to come back in person, but when we talked to them, they really wanted an in-person experience,” says Stearn.
“One of my most powerful moments over the past year was welcoming back groups from a local care home for exclusive visits not long after we reopened,” she says. “I found it humbling that they chose to make us one of their first trips out of the home.”
How to ensure an inclusive recovery
- All organisational activities must comply with the requirements of the Equality Act (2010) and make reasonable adjustments to operating practice that ensure disabled people are not unlawfully discriminated against.
- All actions relating to disabled people should be undertaken in accordance with the Social Model of Disability and aim to combat and eliminate ableism.
- Disabled people should be consulted when organisations develop bespoke operating or reopening plans, and undertake equality impact assessments before making decisions.
- Organisations need to provide clear, accurate and comprehensive information about Covid-19 measures, to enable disabled artists, practitioners, employees, visitors, audiences and participants to assess their own levels of risk. They must also be prepared to adapt to specific enquiries or requests.
- The customer journey for disabled audiences and visitors should be thoroughly mapped, ensuring it is equality impact assessed, clearly communicated in multiple formats, and prioritises free companion tickets to maintain essential access.
- Disabled artists are an important cultural asset in the UK and their engagement in all new creative projects should be prioritised.
- Organisations should ensure they celebrate diversity, embed anti-ableist principles to support and protect disabled people, and demonstrate due care for the disabled workforce when making decisions about redundancy, restructuring and new ways of working.