Rethinking Disability Symposium

Harriet Dunn

I had the great privilege of attending the Rethinking Disability Symposium at the Museum of Liverpool on 9th March 2018. This was organised by History of Place, an organisation that has engaged in research into “the histories of eight locations associated with D/deaf and disabled people” (HOP, 2018) in collaboration with Accentuate, an arts-based organisation which claims that it “creates ground-breaking opportunities for deaf and disabled people to participate and lead in the cultural sector” (Accentuate, 2018). The purpose of the symposium was to enable participants, all of whom were either working in arts organisations, or had an interest in the arts and disability to learn more about the aspects that require change in museums and galleries to ensure access and engagement for individuals who identify as D/deaf or disabled.

It is often the case that the representations of disability in the museum/gallery are not thought about by those who are non-disabled. However, for me, as an individual who is registered blind, along with studying for a PhD in art education and Visual Impairment (VI henceforth), access to the museum/gallery space is hugely important. Unfortunately, I often find myself lowering my own expectations of the provision available to visitors with VI, since disability is not always seen as an integral part of the museum/gallery. Instead, individuals with disabilities, in this situation, are frequently relegated to the margins and are regarded as an afterthought. In essence, this exclusion of individuals with disabilities from accessing the museum/gallery can be aligned with the social model of disability. Bolt (2005, p.539) succinctly explains that, “the Social Model of Disability holds that persons are impaired for a number of reasons, but that it is only by society that they are disabled”. Therefore, a lack of training and awareness of the needs of those with disabilities, for the museum/gallery staff, may be a contributory factor to visitors’ exclusion.

The afternoon began with an introduction from Esther Fox, Director of Accentuate, who indicated that while changes have taken place within the arts to include those who identify as having a disability, there is still a long way to go until we truly gain inclusive practice. Based upon statistical data, disabled people are most represented in dance, but are least represented in music. This variation surprised me, as I had previously considered the creative aspects of performance related arts to be more liberal and open to a wide range of individuals’ needs. Fox (2018) suggested that:

In order to bring about change we have to believe that change can happen. We are in an ambitious moment when we can bring about change in our cultural organisations.

However, it can often be difficult to bring about change when the attitudes of the public remain rigid towards the acceptance of those with any form of disability. This is based upon the notion that the public often hold stereotypical views such as pity, fear or shock. It is important that we begin to embrace all people to ensure a wider reflection of people’s reality.

Jocelyn Dodd, the Director at the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, gave the first talk – “Rethinking Disability”. This was based upon her two-year action research project conducted ten years ago in 2008 with Richard Sandell. The talk began by discussing the notion that disability hate crime is on the increase – examples were provided from the media. As a result, barriers to access and participation in society continue to exist. Therefore, now more than ever, we need work such as this to take place around disability and access. Dodd (2018) explained that there is:

A scarcity of disability related narratives and representations in UK museums and galleries. While there is a wealth of material displayed in museums and galleries of/about disability, such individuals are often negatively portrayed and as a result, disabled people are often seen as ‘freaks’.

This perspective needs to be challenged so that individuals with disabilities can have access on a level playing field to their non-disabled peers. The purpose of Dodd and Sandell, et al’s (2008) research was to “challenge the ways in which museums/galleries think about disability”. This research recognises legal frameworks, specifically the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the Disability Equality Duty (2006) where there is a legal imperative to include people with disabilities in the museum/gallery. It was evident throughout this session that the legacy of this has made those working within museums/galleries bolder, confident and more experimental about ensuring those with disabilities are able to access such environments. However, while there continues to exist a medicalised view of how society portrays those with disabilities, change can never truly be implemented. It is now vital that museums/galleries tell the stories of disability that capture the interests of the public whilst also challenging debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others. This is so important if we are going to bring about change. To conclude her talk, Dodd asserted that we need to be more courageous and political in the way we think about disability in the museum and gallery. This must begin with disabled people challenging the medicalised ideas around their portrayal and demonstrating the ways in which they can be seen in a positive light.

Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association (MA), gave the next presentation – ‘Museums in an Age of Activism: Transformers – Creating a Legacy of Change’. Statistical information was provided on the demographics of the Museums Association with regards to its members. I found it unsurprising that the data revealed that by-and-large,the general population of members were females at the mid-stage of their career, without a declared disability and well-educated. Meanwhile, those that ascribe to a minority group, such as individuals with a disability, were well under-represented within the Museums Association. From a personal perspective, I feel that in order for positive change and representation to be brought about within the arts, individuals with disabilities require a greater representation within the Museums Association. This will give them a reliable platform in which to have their voices heard. Heal (2018) suggested that, “we need to understand the problem before we attempt to tackle it”. This centres around the representation and inclusion of those with disabilities in the museum/gallery setting. It is possible to use museum/gallery spaces to challenge ideas and think about what we can do differently. While museums are now becoming campaigners for change, it is necessary that:

If we need to make change, we need to be changing the governance of organisations – this can mean joining a board of a cultural organisation and becoming a trustee.

This can create a powerful constituency and movement for change, since the positive representation of individuals with disabilities within such settings can change lives. Heal (2018) then asserted that:

Society needs to rethink its siloed version of disability – it is integral to life. Museums too should not see disability as a separate strand.

Therefore, running parallel to society’s shift in attitudes towards disability is the notion that museums/galleries must also change the ways that they think about visitors with disabilities. Finally, delegates were left to think about the following perspective – creating inclusive museum experiences is not just about access: once I have access, what am I going to see? Where’s my history? Where’s my story? It is all well and good to provide access to museums/galleries for individuals with disabilities, but if there remains little or no exhibitions surrounding their lived experiences, this group of people still remains marginalised. It is now time to make the invisible visible through positive access, representation and appreciation.

Turning now to the final presentation of the afternoon, Anna Fineman, the Museums, Galleries and Heritage Programme Manager from VocalEyes gave a talk entitled, ‘Welcoming Websites? Museum Access Begins Online’. VocalEyes exists as a charity which works with museums/galleries across the UK to enable access for blind/VI visitors. They provide training, advice, support and consultancy to museums/galleries wishing to develop their access provision, as well as individuals with VI, enabling them to access such provision. VocalEyes (2018) believes that:

Blind and partially sighted people should have equality of opportunity to experience and enjoy museums, galleries and heritage sites.

To this end, they indicate that the visitors’ journey begins online through the process of advance planning, which is essential to visitors who identify as having a disability. According to Euan’s Guide Access Survey (2016, np) “93% of disabled people seek information prior to visiting a venue”. There is a whole array of questions a visitor with a disability may have when planning their visit, such as: how to get there, whether they will be able to navigate the space by themselves, whether the staff have any disability awareness and if information is available in alternative formats. According to Fineman (2018) “the museum website is the initial barrier or gateway to access”. If these queries are unable to be answered using the museum/gallery’s website, it is often the case that people with disabilities will not visit. Fineman then went on to discuss the State of Museum Access Report (SOMA henceforth) (2016). This gave an overview of the ways in which UK museums are approaching online access information. While positive steps are being taken to ensure that there is an access section available on museum/gallery websites, along with navigation information and contact details of the member of staff assigned to supporting those with disabilities, it was clear from the data provided that there is still a long way to go until access provision is properly organised. According to SOMA’s (2016) findings:

27% of UK museums provided no online access information, 43% had no online access information for blind and partially sighted people and only 30% of UK museums provided any access for blind and partially sighted visitors. (SOMA)

It shocked me that in this day and age, there continues to exist a lack of access and information within cultural organisations to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. While individuals may lack sight, this does not mean that they cannot experience and enjoy the museum/gallery via other means, such as AD tours and Braille/large print access guides. Fineman (2018) posed the question to museum/gallery visitors: “what does accessible mean to you?” The following response succinctly sums this up: not just everyone can use/access something, but that everyone feels welcome and comfortable accessing/using something. If visitors receive a friendly and warm welcome either online, or in person, when attempting to access the museum/gallery this can go a long way in ensuring that they have a positive and rewarding experience. Although access and inclusion in museums/galleries is improving for those who identify as having disabilities, there still remains issues surrounding the necessary funding to enable participation. However, it would appear that when access arrangements are available, they are welcomed by visitors. It is now vitally important that those working in the arts need to continually rethink by using opportunities such as the symposium to discuss, challenge and learn how to do things better.


Accentuate (2018) About us.

[Accessed: 18th May 2018]

Bolt, David. “From Blindness to Visual Impairment: Terminological Typology and the Social Model of Disability”. Disability & Society. vol.20, no.5, 2005, pp.539-552.

Dodd, Jocelyn. “Rethinking Disability”. Rethinking Disability Symposium, 9th March 2018, Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool. Symposium Presentation.

Dodd, Jocelyn., Richard Sandell., Debbie Jolley and Ceri Jones. Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries. RCMG: Leicester. 2008. Print.

Euan’s Guide. “The Access Survey 2016”

[Accessed: 22nd September 2018]

Fineman, Anna. “Welcoming Websites? Museum Access Begins Online”. Rethinking Disability Symposium, 9th March 2018, Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool. Symposium Presentation.

Fox, Esther. “Opening Remarks and Framing the Afternoon”. Rethinking Disability Symposium, 9th March 2018, Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool. Keynote Speech.

Heal, Sharon. “Museums in an Age of Activism: transformers – Creating a Legacy of Change”. Rethinking Disability Symposium, 9th March 2018, Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool. Symposium Presentation.

History of Place – Home (2018).

[Accessed: 18th May 2018]

VocalEyes. “State of Museum Access 2016: A Survey of UK Museum Website Access Information for Blind and Partially Sighted Visitors”.

[Accessed: 11th March 2018]

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