Some museums are finally taking accessibility for visitors with disabilities seriously. This progress has been achieved as part of a wider battle by activists and campaigners to create awareness and advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities to have access to all institutions, including cultural ones.
Although museums are starting to wake up to the needs of disabled visitors (hardly a surprise considering that about 20% of the UK population identifies as disabled, accounting for a sizeable segment of spending power), there remains a question of whether the sector is building knowledge, skills and capacity around accessibility among staff. Do museums simply outsource exhibition design to private firms as part of a brief, or are they building accessibility literacy into their workforce?
How many disabled museum staff are involved in the creation of museum experiences? How many museum workers have disabilities and what kinds of obstacles do they face? Are museums removing institutional attitudinal, physical and digital barriers to allow more recruitment and retainment of staff that identify as having disabilities?
What about the senior curator who has a degenerative condition and has lost almost all their sight? Can they continue their job in a workplace where digital collections are managed by software that cannot be read by screen readers?
What about the brilliant computer programmer who uses a wheelchair? Can they work in a digital team when their offices are up three flights of stairs with no elevator access?
What about the neurodivergent individuals who wish to volunteer or apply for positions but cannot navigate complicated online applications?
What about the HR professional who has become paralysed? Can they access the staff toilets in their institution?
Over the past six months, I have spoken to a range organisations in the UK to try to get answers to questions such as these. From national and private cultural sector institutions, to digital companies that create accessible exhibition experiences, I wanted to gauge to what extent disabled people in the museum workplace have real influence and agency within their organisation – and, indeed, whether they are there at all.
In short, in terms of their work and workforce, are museums largely ableist institutions? Are they still choosing to turn away disabled representation?
Sadly, most of the cultural institutions that were part of this initial investigation had very few, if any, disabled staff. Even fewer had any policies to create conditions where retention and recruitment of disabled staff could be improved.
The National Trust was one of the few institutions that I found to be embedding strategies to ensure physical and digital accessibility not just for visitors, but staff as well. The trust is also are making strides in recruitment and retention of disabled staff by looking at different application processes that would remove barriers to entry into their workplaces.
More institutions need to follow this lead and allow disabled people to be not only part of the conversation, but also included as valuable contributors to the process.
Without the removal of institutional barriers, qualified disabled people will continue to be prevented from gaining access to professional opportunities, or retaining jobs that they already are doing.
Other sectors have worked diligently to change their operational culture and recruiting practices to ensure that barriers are lifted and disabled people are welcomed as valued members of their workforce.
They have built institutional knowledge and confidence regarding accessibility, not only by having disabled people as members of staff, but in hiring disability champions whose sole job is ensuring accessibility issues are identified and managed going forward.UK museums should acknowledge that other sectors are changing and that it is time, finally, to genuinely and substantively move the needle on the accessible workplace.
There are signs that the museum sector is changing, in large part due to shifting public opinion and expectations of what a museum is and what it provides. People not only expect accessible service and experiences, they also demand equal access to participate either as volunteers or as employees.
There is also an unprecedented injection of funding in the cultural sector at the moment that is aimed at increasing digital capability and literacy. It is aimed at strengthening leadership and widening the range of people that represent diverse voices within the sector.
However, with the current mindset of museums and the lack of accommodation for people with disabilities in the workplace, there is a risk that accessibility issues will be overlooked. They need to be promoted as priorities in the way gender, racial and LGBTQ+ issues often are.
Public funding for museums should include conditions that commit institutions to follow accessibility best practices. Funding bodies should draw up guidelines or refer institutions to resources that will help them on their accessibility journey. Funders must also hold institutions accountable for reporting progress on accessibility.Going forward, we need to focus on creating lasting and meaningful change within organisations. For accessibility to be advanced in any museum it must be:
- championed by leadership and entrenched in governance;
- embedded in recruitment processes and reflected in the workforce who are hired as staff or volunteers;
- supported by procurement policies and operational practices so as to remove physical or digital barriers to staff;
- promoted and supported within the culture of the institution through learning and development.
By focusing on these areas of improvement, museums will be able to begin and continually advance accessibility within their institutions and create new and more inclusive models of what is possible for existing and future museum staff.
By developing new museum models based on equality, fairness, inclusion and social justice, we can show that there are viable, and necessary, alternatives to the ableist institution. And these are alternatives that will ultimately benefit not only disabled people, but the institutions, their collections and the public that they serve.
Yoti Goudas is a user experience/customer experience consultant who specialises in creating accessible products, services and experiences for everyone. He has worked in North America and Europe, and recently completed research in partnership with Leicester University and Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) on how to improve digital literacy in museum staff as part of the One by One project