There's no stopping us now!

case studies, 2016, relaxed performance, Tyne and Wear, England

There's no stopping us now!

Seven Stories in Newcastle took part in Disabled Access Day earlier this year, not only did they use it as an opportunity to promote what they already do, but also to try out some new activities including their first early bird opening and the launch of their online social story. We caught up with Beth Coverdale, Learning and Participation Officer, about their involvement to find out what they got up to what advice she’d give to other venues considering taking part.

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When Seven Stories heard about Disabled Access Day, we leapt at the chance to be involved. We are already on a journey towards making our venue and resources fully accessible, and an official event like this gave us an opportunity to reflect on our achievements so far, as well as set ourselves some realistic (but ambitious!) targets for the future.

In the run-up to Disabled Access Day, we highlighted a number of existing and brand new features to enhance visitors’ experience with us. Of the things already in place, we were especially keen to shout about our Sensory Backpacks (designed to help families explore our exhibitions using touch and sound as well as sight) and ear defenders – as we know that they are particularly useful for children with sensory disorders. In fact, to make everyone aware of what is available in the building, we also launched our first ever Social Story (sometimes called a visual story). This was available to download before the day, so that children with autism (or any other reason to be apprehensive about a new place!) would know what to expect.

On the day itself, we trialled our first ‘Early Bird’ opening for visitors with autism, and delivered special Super Sensory Jungle sessions which were tailored to specific needs – an autism-friendly session, a session aimed at children with Profound & Multiple Learning Disabilities and an open session. We were over the moon to welcome five new families to the autism-friendly session, who had never felt able to visit us before, and loved chatting to them about their experiences. It was also especially lovely to see some of our regular non-disabled visitors attending the open session to find out what it was all about. These sessions are already part of our learning programme, but since delivering them on Disabled Access Day we’re now looking at how to make them part of our regular public programme. We also created a display of gorgeous books in our bookshop, containing positive representations of disability, and made an activity about the senses available in the café.

The feedback we received on and after the day was fantastic & extremely useful. Some visitors confirmed what we already suspected - that our location and current parking arrangements can be a barrier for visitors with disabilities, but this also galvanised us to do what we can to improve things where possible and keep communicating with families so that they can make well-informed choices about how and when to visit. We gained some fabulous first reviews on Euan’s Guide, including one who said “Me and my autistic son came for the 9am early session and it was our first time at Seven Stories. We love it, [he] had an amazing time. The staff are amazing so helpful with everything, including if your little one needs some time out they can provide that space for you. The story session was out of this world”.

Marketing our activities for the day helped us to think about how we make ourselves appealing & accessible to a whole new potential audience. We wanted to make everything sound fun rather than functional, but at the same time ensure we provided clear signposting and information so that families could relax and enjoy themselves without worrying. We loved the Disabled Access Day balloons, as they let everyone arriving at Reception know that something special was happening! By taking part in the day we’ve made lots of new connections, and we’ll have even more people to invite next time we run an event like this.

Seven Stories has learned a huge amount from taking part in the day. We were already committed to access & inclusion, but Disabled Access Day has really helped us shift up a gear. There’s no stopping us now!

My biggest piece of advice to other venues thinking of taking part in the day is to review what’s on your website and take the time to make sure your accessibility information, and details about the suitability of your activities, is really clear so that visitors know what to expect. The other thing that’s hugely helpful is appropriate training – in the run-up to the event, our whole staff team completed disability awareness training and afterwards many of our staff said that they felt more confident to approach families now that they could imagine their experiences and potential questions a bit better. As part of our training we also learned some basic Makaton signs, and although we aren’t anywhere near fluent, it was fantastic to be able to communicate with some basic messages on the day. One girl with PMLD lit up when we signed ‘Hello, welcome to Seven Stories’, because she recognised that we were extending a hand of friendship: after all, access isn’t only about removing barriers – it’s also about saying that everyone is welcome to be a part of what we offer.