Actor Mat Fraser, who developed Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept inaBox,a project that questioned the way in which disability and disabled people were portrayed in museums

Are cultural attractions doing enough for disabled people?

Nicola Sullivan, Issue 115/11, p12-13, 01.11.2015
Twenty years after the Disability Discrimination Act was passed, disabled people still face multiple barriers to visiting museums and galleries
Anniversaries often provide a good opportunity for reflection, and the 20th year of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is no different.

The legislation was introduced in November 1995 to prevent discrimination against disabled people and ensure they have enforceable rights.

Imposing changes is a significant duty for employers and service providers, and means that disabled people can overcome any barriers to gaining and remaining in employment and accessing goods, services and buildings.

Museums, galleries and heritage sites were among the institutions that became more inclusive and accessible as a result of the DDA, but many campaigners believe the act has not done enough to ensure equal access and rights for disabled people.

Chris Holmes, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, says: “It is unacceptable that provisions which have been on the statute book for 20 years have not yet been brought into force.

Many disabled people are still locked out of full participation in society due to barriers remaining in the provision of housing, transport, leisure facilities, education and workplaces.”

According to Tony Heaton, the chief executive of Shape Arts, the DDA merely set out the minimum access requirements, which were then used as a benchmark.

“[The act] is weak and toothless, but it is what we ended up with,” he says. “You can go a lot further.”

Dimmed lighting, lack of signage, poorly placed pictures and text panels, no subtitles for videos and minimal use of audio are among the factors that can reduce the chances of someone with a disability enjoying a visit to a museum.

Improving access and facilities for disabled visitors can be challenging in those museums, galleries and heritage sites that are in listed buildings, which have restrictions on what can be done to adapt them.

This can mean that any changes made are purely functional, such as installing a ramp or lift, which will improve access to some extent but will not address other areas.

But new technology can help relieve these problems, with some museums designing venue-specific apps to help people get around. Nick Goss, the founder of equality, diversity and inclusion specialists Goss Consultancy, can see a future in which information is specifically tailored to the needs of the visitor.

“For example, the person could indicate that they are a wheelchair user or that they have another impairment, and information that specifically meets their needs could be delivered to them,” he says. “But it may not be about access. It could also be about what people are interested in.”

Wireless beacons can also be used to help people access content in exhibitions. These small sensors communicate with devices such as smartphones and tablets. A visitor’s proximity to a beacon triggers a relevant audio clip, piece of text or an image.

Barriers to access, however, are not just present inside a museum. Continued public funding cuts mean more venues are increasing or introducing admission charges. Cost is more likely to be a consideration for disabled people, who, according to Disability Rights UK, are twice as likely to be living in poverty.

Multiple barriers

Elanor Cowland, a museum professional and volunteer, says: “It is important to understand that barriers are complex and can begin well before someone’s visit takes place.”

But one of the most significant barriers, she says, is that many museums fail to represent disabled people through their collections.

“Representations of disabled people in interpretation and in exhibition content will have a positive impact for all visitors,” adds Cowland. “The history of disability is relevant to all of us.”

Rising to the challenge

Some museums, galleries and heritage sites are rising to the challenge of increasing representation. The People’s History Museum in Manchester has teamed up with disability charity Scope to establish a collection to record and commemorate the movement that led to the DDA – a story that remains largely untold, especially compared with other civil- rights movements.

While the resulting temporary exhibition, which opened on 27 October and will run until 19 November, celebrates the DDA and the campaigning that led to its introduction, it also highlights what still needs to be done to ensure the equal treatment of disabled people. The objects collected for the project will also boost the number of items in the museum’s collection related to disability rights.

“We launched an appeal to collect more material about disabled activists and their demands for a better world,” says Chris Burgess, the curator of collections and exhibitions at the People’s History Museum.

“There is a section of our galleries that focuses on disability rights, but when we were putting it together, it quickly became clear that our collection wasn’t really addressing the activists and was more about state support for disabled people.”

Less reliance on the showcase and text approach and an increasing number of multi-sensory exhibitions has also widened access for disabled people.

A recent example was Tate Britain’s exhibition Tate Sensorium, which created a multi-sensory experience around four paintings by 20th-century artists: Francis Bacon, Richard Hamilton, John Latham and David Bomberg.

The museums that are most effective at improving access tend to collaborate
closely with disabled people. So it is also crucial that cultural institutions do everything in their power to remove any barriers that may hinder their employment of people with disabilities.

“We have to get it right for the disabled customer and the disabled employee,” says Goss. “There needs to be more awareness about what working in a museum is about, and more pride and confidence in its [approach] to making reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities.”

“Representations of disabled people in interpretation and in exhibition content will have a positive impact for all visitors,” adds Cowland. “The history of disability is relevant to all of us.”

Rising to the challenge

Some museums, galleries and heritage sites are rising to the challenge of increasing representation.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester has teamed up with disability charity Scope to establish a collection to record and commemorate the movement that led to the DDA – a story that remains largely untold, especially compared with other civil- rights movements.

While the resulting temporary exhibition, which opened on 27 October and will run until 19 November, celebrates the DDA and the campaigning that led to its introduction, it also highlights what still needs to be done to ensure the equal treatment of disabled people.

The objects collected for the project will also boost the number of items in the museum’s collection related to disability rights.

“We launched an appeal to collect more material about disabled activists and their demands for a better world,” says Chris Burgess, the curator of collections and exhibitions at the People’s History Museum.

“There is a section of our galleries that focuses on disability rights, but when we were putting it together, it quickly became clear that our collection wasn’t really addressing the activists and was more about state support for disabled people.”

Less reliance on the showcase and text approach and an increasing number of multi-sensory exhibitions has also widened access for disabled people.

A recent example was Tate Britain’s exhibition Tate Sensorium, which created a multi-sensory experience  around four paintings by 20th-century artists: Francis Bacon, Richard Hamilton, John Latham and David Bomberg.

The museums that are most effective at improving access tend to collaborate
closely with disabled people. So it is also crucial that cultural institutions do everything in their power to remove any barriers that may hinder their employment of people with disabilities.

“We have to get it right for the disabled customer and the disabled employee,” says Goss. “There needs to be more awareness about what working in a museum is about, and more pride and confidence in its [approach] to making reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities.”


Disability Cooperative Network

A network has been set up to meet the demand for more information and knowledge sharing on how to break down the barriers to disabled people in the cultural sector.

The Disability Cooperative Network, established by Heritage & Culture Warwickshire, the RAF Museum in London and the Horniman Museum & Gardens, provides information on the public-facing aspects of museum work and how to support disabled, voluntary and paid staff.

It is also building up a bank of best-practice case studies on its website, which outline the work of several institutions. These include the University of Leicester, which commissioned actor and performance artist Mat Fraser to devise a project inspired by museum collections and expertise in medical history and disability.

The resulting performance, Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept in a Box, was staged at several arts venues and museums. Its purpose was to question the ways in which disability and disabled people are portrayed in museums.

Becki Morris, the collections assistant of human history at Heritage & Culture Warwickshire, says: “The network is a platform on which to find a wide range of information, whether that relates to access panels or how to go about developing an access strategy. It can be quite difficult to find this information and we felt the sector needed one place for this.”

It is time to stop paying lip-service to inclusivity

Excuses such as a lack of funding are unacceptable, as it does not present museums with any major expense; problems like this are just a matter of planning with care and thought.

With 9.4 million disabled people in England alone, according to the 2011 census, and Office for National Statistics figures showing that there are more than 22.7 million people aged 50 and over in the UK, this represents a huge potential audience, many of whom may be excluded unless we strive to rectify some of these issues.

There is a pressing need for robust new institutional policy to make sure that such access considerations are higher up the agenda of all museums, galleries, heritage sites, historic houses and gardens.

Government policy is also slow to recognise the needs of our ageing population in terms of heritage engagement. Loneliness and isolation are a growing phenomenon for older people and disabled people, often leading to depression, dementia and a decline in mental and physical health.

Breaking down barriers, engaging individuals and communities in cultural heritage, represents a wonderful opportunity to promote social cohesion, social interaction and lifelong learning within our museums, galleries and heritage sites.

Policymakers need to remember the adage “a stitch in time saves nine” and support the sector to encourage and facilitate older people, many of whom are keen to continue to contribute to the economy by reskilling and volunteering.

The time has come to embrace the enormous possibilities to encourage greater diversity and inclusion for people from all walks of life and all ages and abilities, not simply to pay lip-service to it.

Caro Skyrme is an arts and culture PhD researcher who has worked with several organisations, including the British Museum and the Geffrye Museum, on projects to widen access and interpretation through their collections.

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