Improving museum access practice

picture1Monday’s post about the VocalEyes report on The State of Museum Access for people with Disabilities drew a lot of attention on social media from professionals seeking or driving change in their own institutions. I’ve had some really good conversations about breaking down barriers and heard about some excellent resources, and I thought it only fair to share!

It was particularly brilliant to hear from Roz Chalmers (@elsiebiades) who is a freelance audio describer and trainer, Thanh Sinden at Culture Coventry who is currently reviewing access practice in-house, and Becki Morris,  a museum professional specialising in inclusion and representation of Disabilities in museums.

Becki drew my attention to the Disability Co-operative Network in Museums, which is committed to raising the profile of inclusive practice in the museum, heritage and cultural sectors.  You can follow them on twitter @museumDCN.

DCN aims to raise confidence, challenge preconceptions and reduce barriers to service delivery by broadening audience participation and engagement.  They work with corporations, businesses, charities, organisations and individuals to identify and challenge barriers, support inclusive service delivery, technological innovation and attract disabled talent to the workplace.

Their website is available to all museums, art galleries, heritage sites and cultural venues and includes free resources and case studies contributed by heritage, arts, charity and corporate sector organisations.  It also includes a free virtual exhibition space for disabled artists which includes profiles and links to the artist’s website.

One long term goal for the website is to begin a blog for disabled people to share and feedback on their experiences of cultural venues.  For further information, you can contact DCN directly.

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Challenging museum access practice

As someone with poor sight, I am always intrigued to see what provision museums make for blind and partially sighted visitors.

It is a strangely overlooked area – most services manage to provide Large Print captions, but there is still a lot of work to be done around providing handling materials, tactile interpretation and the navigation of darkened exhibition spaces.  On one occasion, my negligible depth-perception meant that I nearly pitched headfirst down a very stylish but completely unreadable flight of ash-wood stairs that had no contrasting colour-stripe on the steps. My ‘favourite’ experience, admittedly 10 years ago, when asking at a museum reception desk about the prize-winning special trail advertised on their website, was to be asked “Just how BAD is your eyesight?” before being given a water bowl for my (non-existent) guide-dog.

So I admit that it is a bit depressing to read in the VocalEyes State of Museum Access Report 2016 published today, that, in 2016, for too many museums, website access information for blind and partially sighted people consists of a solitary message welcoming guide dogs.  As VocalEyes point out, it might be useful to note that for every guide-dog owner in the UK, there are around 75 registered blind or partially sighted people who do not use a guide dog, and for whom information about resources and events at the museum would be a welcome and necessary prerequisite for a visit.

The State of Museum Access Report 2016 shares the results of an accessibility audit of the websites of all 1600 accredited UK Museums.  The report breaks the data down for Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and the English regions, as well as for categories of museum (independent, local authority, university, military, national museums, and heritage sites), and is very valuable reading for us all.

Evidence shows that online access information is a key factor in the decision-making process for disabled visitors, and that many will not visit if access information is absent. With that in mind, some of the key findings from the report should give us pause for thought:

  • 27% of UK museum websites audited provide no access information for disabled visitors planning a visit
  • Only 30% of UK museum websites provide information that would be useful for a blind or partially-sighted person planning a visit
  • Only 18% of museums publicise the fact that labelling or information about their exhibits is available in Large Print.
  • Only 10% of museums advertise that they offer live audio-described tours / handling sessions for blind and partially sighted visitors.
  • Only 5% are taking advantage of websites that provide detailed access audits such as DisabledGo.com and Euans’ Guide, a site offering Disabled Access Reviews by disabled people for disabled people

An element I find really interesting here is how few museums advertise on their websites the access resources they do actually offer. Many of the museums I have worked with over the years have invested time in providing Large Print captions or handling sessions for the public at large.  Some have even trained their staff in audio description.  But the number who don’t actually advertise the fact in their publicity material means that very few blind or partially-sighted visitors take up the offer and these access services lapse into disuse.

So – two take home actions here people –

  1. Check out and implement the good practice guidelines that VocalEyes helpfully provide to help museums move towards far better practice in accessible web, digital marketing and social media
  2. TELL THE WORLD YOU DO IT!