As we approach the national Disabled Access Day on the 16 March, we spoke with Chloe Hixson about how accessible the arts and heritage sector really is for disabled people.

Chloe is a qualified Access Consultant in Dorset. She conducts access audits for arts and heritage sites. Encouraging venues to follow Equality Act of 2010, and current building regulations. Her work campaigns to improve accessibility for disabled people.

After studying for her Masters in Ancient History at UCL, she got involved with the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum. Here, she saw first hand what the concerns of large, national organisations in increasing engagement. More recently she has been working with a variety of museums in the Dorset area.

Tell us a bit about what your experiences visiting arts and heritage venues in Dorset and elsewhere?

I have been to a few heritage and arts venues in Dorset, and across the UK that are accessible, but small things do miss the mark. For example, some have a fully accessible site including brand new lifts, but their interpretation is inaccessible. Or they have a hearing loop, but it is not hooked up and no one knows how to fix it. It is especially frustrating to see this with newly refurbished sites as if they didn’t engage with disabled people in their planning stages.

However, there are a few heritage sites that are improving and actively discuss their plans with local disabled groups. Heritage sites have some very real challenges to making their sites more accessible, but there are ways to improve access. As the aging population grows, the need to be more accessible increases too.

Chloe Hixson reading an interpretation board on an access trip to Brownsea Island. Photo by Nicola Berry, a consultant with Dorset Wildlife Trust.

Chloe Hixson on an access trip to Brownsea Island. Photo by Nicola Berry, a consultant with Dorset Wildlife Trust.

Being accessible is also great for business, right?

Yes. There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK, and the Purple Pound (which is the spending power of disabled people and their families/friends) is estimated at £253 billion. When I have complained about an inaccessible business I have been told,

“Why bother? We only get one disabled person every few years. Where’s the financial gain?”

Evidently, saying “it’s the law” is not sufficient to stimulate inclusion, so highlighting the financial gain is often the best way to encourage accessibility.

And, are we, the arts and heritage sector doing enough to cater for all disabilities?

I think it’s about perspective. I believe the heritage and arts sector is not doing enough to cater for the disabled. However, I would argue that it is about enabling disabled people to engage with the material, the art, and the learning opportunity. Not necessarily just “catering” for them.

For me, this stems from a difference between ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusion’. Some organisations are doing good things for those with different disabilities. For example, the dementia programme Stepping in Nature with The Arts Development Company that work with individuals in a creative way to encourage their memory. I have also seen quiet sessions for individuals with Autism, and bespoke learning sessions for individuals with learning disabilities in some places.

These are great examples of inclusion, as opposed to just simply being accessible. This practice is not sector wide, but it should be.

Chloe Hixson boarding the ferry to an access trip to Brownsea Island, Poole. Photo by Nicola Berry, a consultant with Dorset Wildlife Trust.

Chloe Hixson boarding the ferry to an access trip to Brownsea Island, Poole. Photo by Nicola Berry, a consultant with Dorset Wildlife Trust.

What are your recommendations to the arts and heritage sector to improve their accessibility?

More organisations should ring-fence money within their budget to improve accessibility in their venues. We all know that more complex problems are going to be more expensive to fix, however, there are still affordable ways to improve accessibility.

Unfortunately, most institutions think that because they don’t have the money to put something in within a year that it is impossible, or if it’s a listed building then there is nothing they can do.

As well as this, all too often disabled people are being asked about their experiences, their knowledge, and recommendations for improvement without being paid. This knowledge is valuable to the organisation, so disabled people deserve to be paid for this work.

I would also like to see the arts and heritage sector widen engagement in their programming. Installing a second entrance or an interactive guide are not inclusive practices. Whilst it can solve the immediate problem, it is still just a stop gap to the bigger issue.

As we hit the ten year anniversary of the Equality Act 2010 next year, disabled people are going to expect society to be a lot further along than it is currently.

Disabled people are going to start expecting inclusion, not just accessibility.

Do you agree with Chloe? Tell us about your experiences with accessibility in arts and heritage sites in the comments below or via our Culture+ Facebook group or Twitter @theartsdevelopmentcompany

Featured image: Ellie Armstrong, a PhD candidate at UCL in Space Science with Chloe Hixson at the National Maritime Museum’s Fun Palace day. Chloe was leading a session on accessibility in outer space. Photo by Dan Vo from V&A Museum.