Disability access in Historic buildings and Museums

by Ian Streets NRAC (Consultant)
If there is one positive, however slight in the catastrophic context, to emerge from the appalling year that was 2020 it’s the realisation that making adjustments to allow people into your business premises is a good thing.

We’re not even talking about reasonable adjustments to make premises accessible to disabled people, just the now everyday stuff like installing hand sanitiser stations, putting plastic screens up and being aware that we all need more space.

Of course not everybody was happy about it – even those who the measures were primarily designed to protect – but the changes came in because ultimately business owners and operators could see they would attract more customers. It helped that some businesses feared being shut down if they put staff and customers at risk by not complying.

The whole process of creating and implementing the various measures raised some interesting questions about general accessibility. Would businesses be mindful of the need to ensure new facilities and amended layouts being accessible to all?

And if they were capable of demonstrating such foresight in a crisis why couldn’t they do the same before the pandemic struck, when pressures were less intense and life so much simpler?

It’s worth taking a step back to consider why we should bother to make the built environment accessible in the first place, comparing the medical and social models of disability.

The medical model views disability as a “problem” that belongs purely to the disabled individual and is of no concern to anyone else.

The social model identifies the features which make the built environment disabling for some people, and it places responsibility on society to remedy any problems which arise.

We’re reminded of a chap who arrived to play football at a village sports centre and parked his car in the only accessible bay. He was serious in his suggestion that he wasn’t depriving a disabled person of that space, because disabled people don’t use sports centres.

The social model is supported by common sense and by common decency - if you have family members and friends who are disabled do you want them to be part of your days out, shopping trips and celebrations or do you want to leave them at home?

And in recent years it’s been reinforced by the concept of the Purple Pound and the hope that even the most hard-nosed business people can have their heads turned by the prospect of hard cash.

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Purple, an organisation which is led by disabled people and works to promote inclusion, calculates that the value of the Purple Pound – the spending power of disabled people and their companions – is £274 billion every year in the UK. If disabled people can’t get into your place, they’ll spend that money somewhere else.

The latest figures don’t specify the amount allocated to conservation and heritage sites by disabled people but the sectors highlighted by Purple give an idea of the revenue denied every month to businesses which do not make themselves accessible – £935 million for banks and building societies, £501 million for supermarkets, £267 million for high street shops, £163 million for restaurants, pubs and clubs and £42 million for transport providers.

To pick up on a few of those examples, look at your buildings and grounds and think about whether your facilities for vehicles are accessible, whether a wheelchair user can make their way safely into your gift shop or café, and indeed whether they can navigate all the indoor and outdoor attractions.

Then think one step ahead to how you promote yourself in the first place, because Purple reports that the 4.3 million disabled online shoppers who click away from inaccessible websites have a combined spending power of £11.75 billion in the UK.

These are the issues we explore when we assess the accessibility of premises, products and services, drawing on our experience and contacts as members of the National Register of Access Consultants (NRAC), the only accredited body for access consultants in the UK.

We don’t just look for the obvious, such as opportunities to install ramps as an alternative to steps. We examine how a project can meet the needs of a wide range of people by carrying out detailed and varied consultations with those who have different impairments. We are careful to take this pan-disability approach, because failing to do that means you can only address some of the potential problems.
Again, it’s helpful to take a step back and consider why you do what you do. Castles, churches, museums and other historic and heritage attractions – indoors and outdoors – all have stories to tell and they want to share their splendour with as wide an audience as possible.

That means letting people know where you are and what’s on offer. And when the crowds arrive it means enabling them to get as close as possible to the exhibits and the  historic experience.

There may be artefacts so precious that they have to be displayed behind a rope or in secure cabinets, and there may be areas of stately homes and manicured gardens that cannot be made accessible without embarking on the sort of modifications which would destroy the character of the attraction.

A good rule of thumb is to think about the five senses, try to offer something which meets all of them and think about how you can include visitors who have a sensory impairment.

The most obvious example is the use of an audio description to communicate information about an exhibit to someone who is visually impaired. In one of our consultations a blind visitor to a museum couldn’t see the artefacts but they were as interested as anybody else because they could touch and smell the leather which was a feature of one exhibit.

An effective wayfinding guide will align with the principles within BS 8300 that information should be accessible to at least two senses.

Sight is the most versatile, enabling people to identify things that may lead to their destination and to spot people who might be able to provide information. Touch features, such as changes to the floor surface, are helpful to people who have a visual impairment. Audio alerts can extend beyond lift announcements about floor numbers, and smell can play a part in helping people along a journey which includes aromas of food or coffee.

Good signage is so important. It can’t physically lift a wheelchair-user up a flight of steps or across a gravel footpath but it can be used to direct them to an alternative route which is accessible.

Signage has one job - to communicate wayfinding information effectively - and in doing that it must take into account the needs of different users, and the relationship between the reader and the sign in terms of height, placement and visibility.

Tonal contrast is very important so people can identify the text and symbols against the background. Lighting is vital -  you wouldn’t hide an important sign in a dark corner and nor would you bathe it in a bright light which creates glare and shadows.

Other potential issues around the location of signs are  terrain – whether inside or outside, the surface needs to be suitable for wheelchairs and for people who are unsteady on their feet - and the width of routes such as footpaths, doors and gates.

Accessibility is a year-round issue and it’s important to  anticipate the obstacles that can be presented by trees, bushes and other plants which ordinarily are such a delight.

We’ve seen examples at a few properties of benches which are too close to foliage, creating difficulties for wheelchair-users and for families with prams. Grass and gravel can be impossible to negotiate for people who rely on wheels to get around. In times of wet weather, large puddles can render some footpaths unusable, forcing people onto lawns which can soon become muddy and slippery.

At a time of year when the lighting of grounds and gardens is particularly important it’s essential to ensure that overgrown vegetation doesn’t cast shadows which obscure footpaths, and especially potential trip hazards.

Our access audits consider a person’s journey at every point along their route, from arriving at a site by car or public transport to finding the appropriate entrance and navigating their way to find specific features and – crucially – accessible loos. It’s not enough just to have them; they need to be designed properly, with enough space and all the facilities in the right place.

Technology can provide solutions to many of the challenges, and one of our consultation panels liked the idea of doing more with apps on smartphones to direct people around an attraction and to share information about exhibits. But they also pointed out that many people who would benefit might not be that comfortable with the equipment. By extension they acknowledged that an adjustment which makes life easier for someone with a particular type of impairment might at the same time add to the inconvenience for someone who has a different disability.

A popular misconception about accessibility issues is the notion that the aim is to give disabled people an advantage over non-disabled people. It’s not. The aim is to make reasonable adjustments to try to ensure that disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else.

As part of that, and perhaps bizarrely, sometimes there’s a case to be made for not making any adjustments at all.

There should be safe and accessible vantage points from which to view static or moving displays, including re-enactments of historic events, and relevant information should be presented in creative and innovative ways.

But while you might consider introducing some changes to an environment to make life easier for visitors who have certain impairments you should also make sure that in doing so you don’t remove the reason for them coming along in the first place.

We identified a good example when we examined the accessibility of some historic workshops. The entire point of that particular property is to illustrate the less than salubrious working conditions of the individuals who, years ago, negotiated steep, narrow staircases and uneven floorboards and then toiled in cramped spaces with hand tools which were difficult to operate.

If you replace all of that with lifts, level surfaces and ergonomically-friendly automated gadgets you may still have an attraction, but there won’t be a lot of history to it.

We worked at a country house where an access assessor had taken a group of disabled people to the stable block. He told the group there was thought being given to replacing the cobbles them with stone flags to make the area more accessible for wheelchair-users and people with other mobility aids. They said they would rather keep the cobbles because it was more authentic and gave them a flavour of what life was like when the yard was in use.

In another scenario the management team at an historic property decided they didn’t want wheelchair users going into the main hall because it was thought they would damage the highly polished wooden floor. They relented when it was pointed out that high heels and other types of everyday footwear were likely to cause far more damage than rubber tyres.

The majority of historic properties are not as they were when they were constructed. Within a building there may be features that can be removed or added to improve access without destroying the property or the artefacts, and there may be other specific attractions which can only be presented using video if some visitors cannot access upper floors and the exhibits cannot be relocated, such as certain artworks and architectural features.

Such factors are worth bearing in mind at a time when the combination of changes to planning regulations and the availability of Covid recovery funding might tempt some owners of historic properties to improve their sites.

To achieve full value from any development and investment it’s essential to take a long term view. Plan your improvements and design accessibility into them from the outset - don’t find yourself in a few years wishing you’d considered all the options more carefully before you spent the money.

Remember also that most funding bodies will look more kindly on applications which reflect an inclusive approach and some will even make it a condition.

The Arts Council’s Seven Inclusive Principles for Arts and Cultural Organisations are aimed at ensuring disabled people are not left behind in the planning and delivery of measures to overcome the impact of Covid-19.

They present opportunities for some conservation  and heritage sites and they highlight such essentials as accessible evacuation procedures and provision of nearby Blue Badge parking or drop-off arrangements.

Other adjustments are also appropriate including more thorough and frequent cleaning of accessible WCs, provision for suitable gaps for wheelchair users as part of social distancing, offering accessible options for booking tickets and giving priority to disabled customers with queue management.

The fact that the Seven Principles were only published in September 2020 is a strong indication that the Arts Council and its supporters in the project – who include the National Lottery and the Museums Association – don’t expect us to be free of Covid any time soon.

The expectation should therefore be that hand sanitiser stations and one-way systems will be with us for some time, perhaps permanently. Remember – it’s nearly 20 years since the horror of 9–11 yet we still have to take off our shoes before we get on an aeroplane.

In making even temporary changes, consider whether they are likely to create obstacles. Does a hand sanitiser station block an aisle or doorway, and do one-way systems direct people to features and terrain which may be difficult to navigate?

And in the longer term why not turn that round a bit? If you do decide to take the opportunity to invest, build new facilities or make substantial changes to the layout of a property why not give some thought to a plan B from the outset? As you set out to include accessible routes and features in your initial design, maybe that’s the point to consider the ease with which an alternative can be made available if a problem arises?

God willing it won’t be another pandemic presenting problems but it might be flood, fire, a fallen tree or any number of other intrusions.

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