The accessible & inclusive culture and heritage experience

With an aging population and statistics showing that one in four of us will have a temporary disability during our lifetime, and one in ten a hidden disability, accessibility is becoming increasingly important to us all, whether we recognise it or not.

Accessibility is therefore of paramount importance, and for culture and heritage venues, inclusive tourism is a growing market with real commercial benefits that are often ignored. 

According to the Euan’s Guide Access Survey 2018, commissioned by Tourism GB, 83% of disabled travellers tell others about their experience, whilst 86% of seniors make return visits, making them loyal customers. Disabled travellers and senior travellers also spend significantly more when they go on holiday than other market groups: over 55s spent 42% more than under 35s when on a ‘staycation’ in the UK. Regarding their experience with cultural venues, one respondent even said, “It’s not unusual for access to be described as ‘fully accessible’ yet you can’t use the toilet or get around easily.” Whether visiting a new-build museum or castle built on thousands of years’ worth of history, the importance of inclusive tourism is undeniable.

Christopher Samuel, an artist who uses an electric wheelchair, was one of 19 artists who were invited to curate rooms at the Art B&B in Blackpool. Christopher designed a room that was deliberately difficult to stay in, giving visitors an idea of the lack of access to products, services and spaces faced by many disabled people.

Describing his own experiences as inconvenient, frustrating and humiliating at times, Christopher explains;

“On the surface level it’s quite playful and theatrical, but it’s real… I knew people would find it amusing at first, but in reality, when you live that every day it’s not funny anymore. “Many cultural institutions are housed in historical/listed premises. Whilst beautiful, these buildings present a complex, but not impossible, challenge when it comes to accessibility and, if correctly considered and co-created with disabled people and their relevant organisations, can empower future users in the right ways.

Source: - Christopher Samuel's room design at the Welcome Inn

On a recent holiday to Germany, Emily Yates, CCD associate, accessible travel writer and wheelchair user, visited several historic sites which she was delighted to discover had carefully considered inclusive design. : “[The trip] left me feeling empowered, rather than burdensome, as a wheelchair user”, she said.

For Emily, this experience highlighted the importance of access feasibility at historical and cultural  sites, as well as ‘new build’ experiences;

If a fortress – a structure built to be inherently inaccessible to the most able of intruders – can be adapted to welcome all, there is really little excuse for many venues in the UK and further afield not to follow suit.

Emily and Christopher’s experiences highlight the sad truth about inclusive design: there is still a lack of understanding, awareness and willingness to strive for more than the bare minimum.

User responses from Euan’s Guide show that there is a significant gap in the understanding of access as more than just a single interaction or facility. Many respondents reported experience with inaccurate accessible information or facilities – toilets that are accessible but corridors or lifts to them are not. 72% of respondents reported that they had experiences arriving at a venue and being unable get around, and 24% had incidents where staff couldn’t work necessary equipment.

Physical access is often what people think when they hear the word ‘accessibility’.  It’s the tangible part that they can see and understand, and includes ramps, lifts, accessible bathrooms, and handrails. Emily argues that consideration needs to be given to the strategy as a whole; “Of course, physical access is extremely important. However, to make an impact it must be considered as an end-to-end strategy. Simply adding a ramp but not considering the rest of the accessible experience, and how disabled people are treated throughout that experience, feels like an afterthought… and its very obvious”.

Rosie Smith, one of our Senior Wayfinding Designers, recalls a moment she was conducting on-site research at a cultural institution who have a good reputation for being accessible. “There was a mechanical lift at this venue to allow physical access. However, the staff didn’t know how to use it, or deal with the situation”.

Unfortunately experiences like this are all too common. Social access is often ignored but has significant power to impact how all visitors enjoy an experience, and situations like this highlight the lack of investment and priority given to accessibility, and the understanding of it. Properly trained staff have the power to really make a difference, empathising with, and empowering those with access requirements rather than leaving them feeling burdensome, frustrated and humiliate

The social model of disability states that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives.

What’s important to remember here is the difference between someone’s impairment and their disability. An impairment is internal and is the condition that affects the body. A disability, however, is external – it relates to the barriers that are in place when a disabled person visits an inaccessible venue, struggles to use public transport, or is discriminated against by society.

Whilst most people would say that they believe inclusive design is important, these examples drive home the catch-22 that often befalls the concept; standards set out a bare minimum requirement for access and inclusion, largely focusing on wheelchair users alone. Therefore, an inadequate benchmark and a lack of umbrella focus also become a source of exclusion for those with differing impairments and requirements.

Those that lack user insight, or their own lived experience can’t begin to understand how it feels to be excluded on the basis of access. For inclusive design to be successful we need to co-create meaningful solutions alongside users, not for them.

A great example of this in practice is Signly and their solution, SignIt, for D/deaf visitors to the Roald Dahl Museum. It is commonly claimed that D/deaf children aged sixteen have a reading age of nine. This is largely attributed to the first three years of life being the most important years for developing spoken language through listening as the human brain completes 85% of its physical growth by the age of three and a half. For those who are pre-lingually D/deaf (D/deaf before they begin speaking) their first language isn’t English, it’s British Sign Language (BSL). This means that accessing information can be a challenge, which is particularly problematic when visiting culture and heritage venues. Working with a deaf charity partner, Deafax, and co-creating with end users, Signly developed the technology to translate many of the Roald Dahl Museum’s exhibition artefacts into BSL, creating a significantly more accessible experience.


Chris Girling

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