About 24% of people in the UK are disabled. Yet there is widespread exclusion of disabled visitors from heritage and museum sites, and volunteering programmes. .
For the past 18 months, VocalEyes, in partnership with Stagetext, Autism in Museums, and the Centre for Accessible Environments, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, has been delivering Heritage Access 2022.
Designed as a successor to State of Museum Access 2018, this project aims to highlight the importance of quality online access information for UK museums and cultural heritage sites and track changes in the state of access over the previous four years.
Most crucially, the project aims to raise digital skills and confidence in both volunteers and employees across the heritage sector.
Research for Heritage Access 2022 was carried out remotely by a team of over 60 volunteers. The remote nature of the role opened opportunities for individuals based nationwide.
VocalEyes actively sought volunteers with personal experience with access barriers, devising inclusive volunteer recruitment strategies and a tailored onboarding program.
The result was a group of passionate and knowledgeable digital volunteers, of whom over 75% identified as disabled, d/Deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing, neurodivergent, blind, or visually impaired.
The project centered on the volunteers' lived experiences of disabilities and access barriers encountered when visiting heritage and arts physical and online sites.
The project team worked closely to design a checklist for best practice in online access information, including web accessibility, which was used to survey over 3,000 websites.
Volunteers were involved in collecting data, contributing to the final report, and presenting the findings at leading sector events.
Once completed, evaluation of the volunteer experience found that volunteers' sense of community and connectivity had increased during the programme.
With disabled and vulnerable communities still being affected by the isolation amplified during the Covid pandemic, remote and digital volunteering offers an alternative way to build community without exposing oneself to potentially life-threatening environments.
As the sector continues to adopt and implement a hybrid approach to employment, volunteering, and visitor engagement, VocalEyes hopes that projects like Heritage Access 2022 will become commonplace.
Digital volunteering, either remote or hybrid, opens opportunities not only to an audience based outside of one geographical area but also to a more diverse audience with valuable lived experiences.
Catrin Podgorski is the project and volunteer manager at VocalEyes