Making Disabled Access Day activities a regular feature

audio description, case studies, museums & galleries, 2016, wheelchair users, Greater Manchester, Belfast, London, England

Making Disabled Access Day activities a regular feature

A first time experience for Imperial War Museum (IWM); Visitor and Customer Engagement Team Leader, Will Fowlis, shares this behind the scenes blog about having fun and learning new things on Disabled Access Day. Reflecting on the event, Will tells us how some Disabled Access Day activities may also become a more regular feature at IWM!

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12 March, 2016 was the first time IWM got involved in Disabled Access Day. As soon as I heard about it at the end of 2015, I immediately flagged-up DAD 2016 to my colleagues at IWM North in Manchester, IWM Duxford, Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast. We all thought it would provide a great opportunity to reach out and welcome visitors who might otherwise not come to our museums.

IWM North has a well-established accessibility offer and IWM London was looking to re-establish our offer after our transformation in 2012-14, so we decided to focus our efforts on these branches. At our other branches, we looked to promote the existing accessibility offer, via our website and social media.

When IWM London reopened in July 2014, we introduced free Live-Audio Described tours as part of our visitor engagement offer. In addition, we have doubled the number of lifts; have universal access to all exhibitions and displays and more new accessible toilets.

In preparation for the day, we added all of our museums to Euan’s Guide, and used this as an opportunity to review our existing facilities and offer, and update relevant staff training (I now know more about the health and safety implications of having dog bowls on site than I care to admit). All the teams across the five museums pitched in; Digital, Marketing, Press, Facilities Management, Visitor Services, Retail and Admissions, and Volunteers.

Lauren from Disabled Access Day put us in touch with Whizz-Kidz, the charity for young wheelchair users, who were looking for a venue for that afternoon in London, and we accommodated additional equipment as we looked forward to welcoming them.

On the day, IWM North and IWM London both offered Live Audio Described tours, quiet rooms, object handling and – a first for IWM London – BSL interpreters for our on-gallery talks. IWM North also presented their International Women’s Day Talk with BSL interpretation. We gave about 40 young people and their families from Whizz-Kidz a tour of our large exhibits at IWM London, which sparked some interesting discussions (particularly the V weapons).­­­

The feedback from visitors on the day at all branches was fantastic, both in person and on Twitter, but to be honest, I was disappointed with the overall turn out; perhaps I was guilty of Field of Dreams syndrome: ‘Build it and they will come’? In reviewing the day for next year, we will look at how we can better publicise our offer, focusing on local community groups and websites, rather than general social media. We will also look to offer special events at our other branches, where the historic nature of the branches will demand some creative thinking.

The value of participating in Disabled Access Day is twofold; clearly the offer on the day, the fun (for staff as well as visitors – I had terrific fun working that day) and the heightened publicity and awareness encourages people to visit who might otherwise not experience a great museum or venue. But from our point of view, it asked us to think through assumptions and practices which we might have taken for granted, and improve or change them. And not just for that one day; for example, the success of the BSL interpretation at IWM London will hopefully become a regular feature.

My advice to other venues would be to plan early, don’t neglect the small stuff (e.g. dog bowls!) and follow the advice on the Disabled Access Day website; they know what they’re talking about, unsurprisingly. Oh, and have fun!

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