After having written two blog entries that have been well-received I thought now would be good time to tell you all about that thing that I have been desperate to share with you… that is my dissertation. Last year I completed my Masters in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings at Kings College, London and submitted my dissertation on disability access in heritage settings. The reason that it mattered to me so much was because I genuinely cared about it. Disability access came to be something I care so much about after working for the Royal Collection as Access Team Leader, managing the Access department – I don’t know – it stirred something in me and was the reason why I chose this a my research topic. Now before I start, I should say, I signed an agreement with all my participants that their participation in my research be confidential. I submitted an ethics proposal to that end. Therefore, I shall not name anyone, I shall not reveal any details that would encourage anyone to make a guess and I will be discreet in order to honour that promise I made and the ethics application I signed. But I will try to tell you as much as I can with a little bit of the friendly and informal thrown in for good measure…
What was it that I researched?
So my thesis followed the basic structure you’d expect; abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion and references. It followed all the guidelines etc. etc. that King’s College set out. I had to set parameters for my study early on and had to decide what I would and would not include in the remit of my study; I chose to focus on heritage sites in the south east of England and London, due to the restrictions of the ethics application I chose to focus on physical disability and not mental or intellectual disabilities and I had to establish what I meant by ‘heritage’. After reading several wide-ranging definitions I settled for heritage being a place of historic interest where objects were displayed for the reflection and enjoyment of the public. These were to be historic buildings (therefore nothing newly built) and could include galleries, museums, historic houses, castles etc.
My tutor and I decided it would be inappropriate to make judgements of the participants and what work they carried out regards disability access, so we wanted a title that would be free of judgement or assessment. We came up with the title “How do Heritage sites Conceptualise their Disability Access Provision?” We decided that in looking at conceptualisation people could talk about what their approach was, how they thought of it, without any judgement on their facilities. So this was to be an information gathering exercise with no judgement – just linking together the commonalities.
How did I do it? What form did the research take?
So the aim was for me to conduct a literature review. I would research and research and research, reading all I could about disabled access to heritage sites, disability studies, heritage sites, legislation (very dry), architectural journals and so on… If tangible I checked the bibliography for anything a bit more useful and I cross checked and cross referenced everything I could find. (This literature review lives in my mind as taking a good few months of my life in and around the new year of 2015 – tucked away on dark January nights with strong coffee and highlighter pen squinting in the desk lamp light!) Once done I would draw conclusions on the literature review and then compare the conclusions of the existing literature to the conclusions of my own research. And this was the fun bit – going out and meeting people. I had to travel to ten sites, meeting ten people, asking them a whole load of questions about how they made provision for their disabled visitors being careful not to assess or make judgements but to tap into ‘conceptualisation’ (it sounds easy but it’s so much harder than you think). It took weeks of refining the questions to ensure that my questions were neutral and not leading, that they would give me a good and developed answer, something that would allow for good analysis and then I had to contact people and beg. Literally beg. But not like that. In the professional way. And I have to say I was lucky because most people who responded were more than happy to help and those who couldn’t were so very polite about it. So fortunately I didn’t have to do too much begging. So I would chat with these lovely people for about an hour then go home to transcribe that interview before drawing together the points raised that were common to all, to establish themes.
The above is a very colloquial and informal way of saying:
I conducted a social research project whereby a sample of ten was identified from the available population and a semi-structured interview was carried in order to collate a selection of qualitative data for thematic analysis.
The Essential Background Reading
So what did the literature review say? Well, there were some key documents I had to look at. The most obvious ones would be the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, the Equality Act of 2010, and the Scheduled Monuments Act (which protects historic buildings). Some people have written brilliant pieces highlighting the difficulty between protecting a building in terms of conservation and providing disabled access – for example, when a building is protected it’s not possible to have mass building works to fit a lift, neither can you widen doorways to allow for wider wheelchairs or electric mobility scooters. One of the over-riding issues with the DDA was that it told service providers to make “reasonable adjustment” for the disabled, but as one piece I read so eloquently put it “what is reasonable when dealing with a 300 year old castle?” And it’s not just about building works and physically changing the layout. It’s also about being in keeping with the décor and the design of the architecture that exists, plus some of these old buildings are just so fragile that they couldn’t take any of that poking and prodding – they’d just acquire too much damage as a result.
So this was all interesting stuff, and the government had published guidance (People and Places was a fab document for the planning of public spaces if you’re tickled by that kind of stuff) as did English Heritage (as they were) who tried to kind of ‘translate’ what the DDA actually meant for anyone in a historic environment in their document Easy Access to Historic Buildings. But the dominating ideology was that of the Social Model of Disability. “The what?” I hear you cry. The Social Model of Disability. I call it the SMOD. But honestly don’t worry it’s not that complicated. In a nutshell it is the argument that people you would typically call ‘disabled’ are not actually disabled. No. They are only impaired. They have something wrong with them and it is called an impairment. They are still able. Able to do things. To take an example – a wheelchair user. At home in their own environment they can do stuff. Their home might be adapted or different somehow but they can do what they need to do. They are able. (Think about the word ABLE and what it means – it basically means you can do stuff, and do it for yourself. You can do. ABLE as a verb in essence. Able as a doing word). Right. Now take that person outside of their home. Try to take them on the London Underground for example (which btw has appalling accessibility for a modern city but I won’t leap on that soapbox right now). The poor wheelchair user in our example can’t do a ruddy thing. Can’t get on the train because there’s a gap. Can’t use the escalators. Can’t inter-change at stations because there’s steps everywhere. Only lifts in some stations. Only recently ramps, or raised platforms to get on the train. Yeah sure once on the train there’s seats that flip up so a wheelchair can fit in but you’ve got to be able to get from the train to the platform then the ticket hall then the street. It’s complicated. I spent a fortnight on crutches once after an op and I’ll tell you London Underground for the walking impaired is no fun. So our poor wheelchair user cannot. He is not able. His able-ness has been taken away from him. He is now DIS-abled. But who is he disabled by? Not himself. He’s not done anything wrong. No. It’s us. It’s society. We have not adapted to his need. We have DIS-abled him.
Now this is very basic, and I’ve made light of something incredibly serious for the point of explaining what the Social Model of Disability is. But I think the example explains it. The SMOD argues that we (society), our attitude, or lack of willingness to adapt is the thing that DIS-ABLES. Mmm… there are lots of pros and cons to this. But it was the core ideology at the heart of my literature review and has shaped so much of disability studies and political thinking. It’s kind of at the heart of everything.
So my lit review concluded that the DDA was long over-due, very needed and slow to be enforced. Current and recent government policy has been shaped by the ideas of the SMOD. The acceptance of the SMOD places services providers under a great deal of responsibility to make adjustments but in the heritage sector with regard to building maintenance and structural improvements there is relatively little guidance on what this should be. The People and Places document I mentioned gives guidance for new builds but not historic buildings. It does make the suggestion that sharing of best practice and consulting with your audience and community groups is a good way forward, therefore moving towards a more cooperative equity. There was also in some architectural readings reference to the Modular; a generic six foot strong man on whom architectural designs are based (though obviously not all people fit this categorisation).
Results from the Research
The results from my research made for interesting comparison. After the interview transcripts were analysed I identified ten themes; Inclusivity, Networking and Guidance, Conservation and Building Restrictions, Acceptable Substitutions (for a physical visit), Customer Service, Holistic Approach, Expectations, Information and Commercial Need. These ten themes were common to all of my anonymous participants who themselves represented a diversity of heritage; in there was a cathedral, three castles, one national museum, four historic houses with gardens and three other unclassifiable buildings. One was in the middle of a HLF funding bid and another had just completed the process. In every place I asked to speak to the “person in charge of disability access provision and daily operations for disabled access on your site”. This in itself turned out a variety of different responses ranging from site managers, through directors of audiences and engagement, to regional directors and dedicated access and inclusion managers. The conceptualisation of whose responsibility it was to provide disability access was varied. Some saw it as the role of only a select few while others responded that it was everybody’s responsibility and the approach was holistic. All ten participants were inclusive, that is they encouraged everyone to take part regardless of their gender, age, ability, social background, ethnicity etc. Everyone was completely on board with that openness (though something I love about working in this sector is that fact that we do, literally embrace and welcome everyone).
So I could go on about these results there was pages and pages of it. (This again feels like it took many weeks from my life!) But I shan’t include it all here; I’ll summarise the important bits and tell you what I concluded:
So there was stuff that I anticipated. I anticipated discussion about financial restriction and the complexities of working around conservation and building restrictions. I had anticipated conversation about staff attitude and awareness. But there were some really interesting things that popped up; stuff that even with all my hands on operational experience of access I hadn’t anticipated. For example, in one anonymous place they had encountered a conflict of interests whereby after centuries of pilgrims coming to visit the cathedral the steps had worn away. The steps were now soft and shiny, with a dip where the erosion had made new shapes out of the stonework. Staff at the cathedral had made full use of this for visitors with visual impairment or blindness who could touch and feel the steps, taking real joy and pleasure in hearing about the stories of the pilgrims and feeling deeper connection, but this wearing away of the step therefore creating an uneven surface posed obvious problems for those with walking difficulty and therefore there was a contrast, and a collision of interests if you like, between the different access/visitor groups. Amazing. What do you do? That’s a complete catch 22 situation because whatever choice you make someone potentially loses out?
There was discussion that took place around networks both internal and external (which varied among participants and was different for each organisation). Some people had positive experience of working with those in their own organisation’s structure whereas others found that these representatives from different departments just came with their own agenda and a lack of understanding. Others who had worked with outside access consultants had varied experience – one participant could not praise them enough based on her very positive experience, but another who had worked with an access consultant and architect simultaneously reported that they just had a “can’t do” attitude. So there was variety. And complexity among the varied experiences my participants had encountered.
So my conclusions were that more networking and sharing of good practice. Every single person I spoke to asked and wanted to know what other people were doing. The desire to share and support one another was great and literally everyone I talked to wanted to know “what are the others up to?” Then one conclusion that I drew was that there was an over-reliance on virtual technology as an “acceptable substitute” for visitors who could not physically access certain parts of the building. Everywhere had an iPad/computer touch screen. Everywhere offered this to disabled visitors in place of the real thing. As a visitor I know this would get tiresome. That everywhere I go does the same. I can access a virtual tour on my iPad from home-why visit? Don’t get me wrong – I see the point – nothing can recreate the room or offer such a good visual capture of this inaccessible place (room or gallery etc.) as a good quality computer generated image – and there is a place for that, but are we coming to rely on this too heavily? Its samey, and I have met the wonderful people that curate and run our places – we are capable of so much more. Something much more stimulating. Stories that my participants told me of using touch objects and handling collections, bringing something from that out of reach place to show the visitor, created a deeper connection and a special feeling. Surely that’s what we are here to do? Another conclusion was that visitors were surprised when they could visit every part of a heritage site because they had become used to restrictions of access; that actually visitor expectations were (generally) in line with what we find ourselves able to provide. There was an example discussed of disabled visitors wanting to go to the front of the queue and experience treatment that would not equal that of other visitors but exceed it. Though this was an exception and remains so.
So to finish, it became apparent that all who I spoke to were embracing their responsibility to make “reasonable adjustment” as per the DDA. Everyone did this. But most, if not all did this, not because of the legal requirement but because to “do good”, to improve the visitor experience and because they recognised a strong business case for improving disability access. There was also a desire to go above and beyond as demonstrated by one venue that had met all the necessary legal requirements by providing a stair lift but were actively looking for one that was more comfortable to use. It was also clear that most disabled visitors are humbled and grateful by the adaptations heritage sites put in place. There were very few examples of dissatisfaction and those were generally as a result of other concerns (such as a poor encounter with a staff member, for example).
What I learnt from all this…
It seems that generally we do it well. We do it well but we need to support each other more with doing it. More networking. More sharing. More helping each other with something that let’s face it can be tricky to implement. And less iPad stuff. Less reliance on the technology as a replacement experience. More of other stuff – more smelling herbs from the inaccessible kitchen, more touch objects, more of someone coming to talk to you face to face and tell you about it – something ‘other’. Just something to engage those different senses we have – not just a touch screen of information folder full of photos. These have their place, but perhaps we overly rely on them? Just a thought.
But we are doing disabled access well. We just need to help each other. And keep aiming for better. We may have reached our goal (in terms of DDA and legal obligation) but why not aim higher? Why not see if you can change the world?