Museums have a responsibility under the 2010 Equality Act to make “reasonable adjustments” if an individual is placed at a substantial disadvantage because of a disability. The term itself is broad, referring to changes made to both physical environments and any “provision, criterion or practice” that might take place under the remit of an institution.
There is also a duty to be anticipatory, meaning that individuals should not have the onus placed on them to ask for appropriate adjustments.
This duty of care includes not only visitors, but staff and volunteers operating both on and off-site. Thinking beyond minimal modifications is vital if museums want to create a truly inclusive environment.
Chloe Hixson – a freelance access consultant who has worked with various organisations, including Wessex Museums – says in the museum sector, there is still a lot of work needed with even basic accessibility.
“Making an experience more equitable can often be an issue when we are talking about very old, historically inaccessible buildings,” she says.
Where to start
Making appropriate adjustments will often require specialist knowledge from a consultant or third party, who can not only advise, but also help build communication with heritage and local authorities.
“The whole point of protecting these spaces is to preserve them for future generations, but that doesn’t work if only one part of the population can access them,” says Hixson.
The phrase “nothing about us without us” is incredibly important as, too often, policies and adjustments are made without the direct participation of individuals who will be affected by them. This is partly down to a lack of representation of disabled people in the sector.
“Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and only 4% of the museum workforce define themselves as D/deaf or disabled, despite disabled people forming about 19% of the working population,” says Melissa Boxall, the digital editor at Curating for Change, which creates strong career pathways for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent curators through trainee and fellowships.
“The sector is missing out on the insight and experience that disabled people can bring in telling disability stories authentically.”
The competitive nature of the museum job market is likely to reduce the number of people who feel safe to identify themselves as disabled.
Important tools for reducing barriers in the workplace include the use of “access riders” – documents created for the staff induction process that can be used to outline and discuss workplace adjustments such as equipment, communication processes and working patterns.
Disability Arts Online provides a useful template on its website.
Kyle Lewis Jordan, a Curating for Change Fellow based at the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford, said in a recent Sector Forum on induction processes: “[Access riders] allow you to put that conversation about access first – and your needs first – and doesn’t put the onus on
you as an individual to have to navigate that process alone.”
Taking a new approach
Justine Reilly, the director of the Neurodiverse Museum, says the whole sector needs to re-evaluate its approach to disability.
“Terms like inclusion aren’t being used correctly, and there is this idea that if we’re doing something, then that is enough – but it isn’t,” she says.
The museum’s principles are understanding neurodiversity, valuing neurodivergent individuals and creating equitable access, which includes adequate training and safeguarding that is still lacking across the sector.
“The stereotypes around neurodivergent people still exist and there is so much misunderstanding,” says Reilly. “People need to be honest when they don’t know something and speak directly to neurodivergent people about their experiences – not parents or carers.”
Reasonable adjustments may include sensory backpacks or ear defenders for sensory processing needs, or programming that welcomes groups with different needs. For some visitors, access to the museum at quieter times or when sensory triggers such as flashing lights, sound installations and even loud hand dryers in the toilets are switched off, will hugely improve the quality of their visit.
But Reilly warns that offering “quiet hours” is not ideal because they are, ultimately, exclusionary.
Sam Bowen, the developer of Send in Museums, says: “True inclusion comes when spaces, programming and interpretation are multi-layered or open ended and flexible, allowing for different but equitable access points into the stories of that museum’s collections. Everywhere should aspire to it and new developments should ‘bake in’ with designers to make this change happen.”
Reilly says: “Organisations need to be working on these principles at a strategic level, to create real change. Ultimately, hearts and minds need to shift.”
Holly Black is a freelance journalist