Why has it taken a pandemic for museums to become more accessible?

The sector must remember disabled people when it reopens, says Samantha Bowen
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Samantha Bowen
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Very soon after the UK retreated into lockdown, a unifying flourish of rainbows appeared at windows, lampposts and on social media, while painted pebbles were left in random places to happen upon on your daily walk.
Along with these colourful displays of solidarity sprung one of the most misleading memes I have ever read. It said: “We may all be stuck the same storm, but we are travelling in different boats. Be kind.”
The underlying message was to remember people’s individual situations and not judge others – which is of course what has happened as the weeks of isolating started to snag like a pair of old tights.
I love the concept of us all managing to ride out the storm with the same chance of weathering it, but let’s face it: if you’re sat on a yacht sipping a martini, you won’t feel the waves quite like those clinging onto a dinghy.
My experience of lockdown has been dictated by my daughter’s disability and medical vulnerability. We are officially in the shielding category, although this took four weeks to establish and unlock access to the magical online supermarket slot.
The fear of food running out pushed my thoughts right to the bottom of Maslow’s scale of needs. When this is over, I will make a bigger effort to contribute to food banks. One positive is that I now have a better developed empathy – perhaps others will feel the same towards fellow citizens classed as “vulnerable” in the crisis?
I am a disability activist, specifically SEND (special educational needs and disability) in the museum sector, and I follow a lot of similar voices on Twitter.
At the start of the crisis, there was a belief that everyone isolating at home would develop an empathy for disabled people but this quickly flipped to concern that making non-disabled people feel guilty would further alienate disabled people and hamper inclusion and understanding.
Then the government announced emergency Covid-19 powers and overnight disabled people’s rights were threatened. SEND children had their right to social care and even education stripped from them for up to two years.
The Guardian reported that vulnerable people – including learning disabled and autistic people – would not be able to access ventilators. Subsequent reports that suggested families like mine would be expected to carry out palliative care at home, posted morphine and instructed how to use it reduced me to floods of tears.
This was confirmation of inequality that I had long feared but persuaded myself was paranoia. Caring for a vulnerable loved one can do that to you.
At the same time, I have been working from home as a museum development officer. As sector support we have been aiding museum staff to apply for funds, talk through plans and are now planning tentative steps for recovery support.
One of the positive outcomes from the crisis has been creative online content aimed at engaging a range of audiences, which has made museums more accessible to disabled people by default. There are some areas for improvement in digital accessibility such as closed captioning, but the sector has been quick to acknowledge and fund this.
When museums in the UK do reopen, it will be a privilege to be able to visit them. So many visitors and volunteers will still be shielding.
Will the sector remember them or be focussed on bestowing (social distanced) hugs on the few who return in person?
If it was possible to reconfigure our delivery to be innovative, accessible and relevant online in a matter of weeks, why did it take a pandemic to do this?
We need to ask ourselves as a sector whether our purpose is to make money or make memories. How can museums show all audiences – real and virtual – that they matter to them?
As we look towards a “new normal”, museums must ensure we are all in the same boat and no passenger is left behind.
Samantha Bowen is a museum development officer for the South East Museums Development Programme and a SEND in museums campaigner

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