Disabled museum visitors and employees still face barriers

Geraldine Kendall, 08.11.2012
Museums must focus on more than just physical access
Disabled museum visitors and employees still face barriers, in spite of the progress that has been made in improving access over the past few decades, according to disabled museum practitioners.

At a session entitled Speak Out at the Museums Association Conference in Edinburgh, disabled museum professionals described how there is significant room for improvement in areas of practice such as collecting and interpretation, inclusive design, marketing material and access to information for people with disabilities of all kinds.

The representation and retention of disabled people in the museum workforce has also stalled since a Museums, Libraries and Archives survey in 2005 showed that they were significantly underrepresented, said the panel.

Tony Heaton, chief executive of disability arts charity Shape, said: “Did we become side-tracked thinking that disability is just about physical access? The barriers have become more subtle. It’s not just about providing ramps and disabled toilets, it’s about changing practice.

“What does your museum do to highlight representation of disability? How do you engage with disabled visitors? Do you work with disabled artists? Have you reinterpreted objects to tell disabled people’s stories?”

Session chair Marcus Weisen of the European Centre for Cultural Accessibility said that inclusive design of exhibitions and spaces, like including tactile objects or replicas for visually impaired people or subtitles and sign language on audiovisual displays, often seemed to be an afterthought for museums.

“Make sure people are involved from the start,” he said, adding that it was a question of sustainability as well as inclusivity.

Graphic designer Edward Richards, who worked with Tate Modern to create marketing material for deaf and hearing impaired people for Tate Talks, said museums also need to consider how marketing materials like advertising, flyers and websites should be adapted to target disabled people.

“[At Tate] we needed to get in touch with the deaf community and actively involve them. After we designed a leaflet for them, participation increased tremendously and now over 100 deaf people regularly attend. The demand is there if we provide the access.”

The panel said that museums needed to challenge their policies both internally and externally, improve recruitment practices and learn to recognise all forms of disability to ensure they are more inclusive.


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Judy Dixey
Executive Director, VocalEyes
14.11.2012, 17:44
Congratulations to the MA for having access as a topic in the main hall at the conference. But we must beware of ghettoising it. Many others face barriers even if they don't 'declare' or have a registered disability (eg hard of hearing people) so accessible provision can be very helpful for lots of people. Good access services can inspire better customer care and consideration for all your visitors - and should not be something you provide as an afterthought.
MA Member
14.11.2012, 15:45
Apart from a passing mention of employees, this article focuses on visitors, which is well and good. It would be interesting to know more about disabled employees in museums and whether there are genuine attempts to accommodate or retain disabled workers. Do they receive the same opportunities to prove themselves and are they subtly or disingenuously given less chances than able-bodied colleagues? I am not sure that this has been looked into, if at all.