Accessibility; more than just wheelchair accessible paths
Accessibility has been on our radar as a sector for many years not least because of the requirements of the Equalities Act. But how can accessibility be a tool for creating a truly compelling visitor experience?
Too important to ignore
Looking at UK disability stats is a real wake up call to the enormity of potential audience with additional access requirements. Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability (Papworth Trust, 2016). Can you afford to ignore almost 20% of your potential visitors.
The 2.7 million domestic visitors with disabilities that regularly travel (South West Tourism Alliance) are an extremely loyal market with huge spending potential. Disabled people tend not to travel alone and are often accompanied by carers, family or friends. So steps to become more accessible immediately have a wider impact beyond disabled and Deaf communities.
It turns out that thinking about access in the widest possible sense and threading it through everything we do can make the visitor experience better for many of our visitors. Think about easy access paths with stopping or ‘perch’ points being good for visitors with young children and pushchairs; think about the growing audience of older visitors who might benefit from non-reflective interpretation materials or larger print; think about visitors who want a snappy introduction to your site using an easy-read version of your map and welcome information. They are just a few examples.
Develop a deeper audience understanding
So how do we go about developing this new model of visitor experience at our outdoor sites? Thankfully it’s not rocket science; we can employ the principles of great masterplanning and getting to know your visitors and potential audiences is a great first step.
We’re all strapped for time and cash but an investment in developing a better understanding of your audience will pay dividends. It’s an amazing professional learning journey and will help to remove guess work from where to direct resources to gain the most benefit for visitors. Start by writing down a list of what you would like to find out (once you start thinking you will no doubt have loads!) – use post-it notes so you can order and prioritise your questions and decide which ones to start on first. For example, you might want to get a better idea of what influences disabled people to visit or the barriers that they face in accessing your site.
At this point consultation, evaluation and research become great tools. There is a wealth of secondary sources of data you can access for free that can give you local population information. But talking to your target audience will add the colour and help build-up a rich picture of their particular needs and motivations.
Living Options Devon’s Heritage Ability project aims to improve the access at 20 heritage sites including countryside and outdoor sites. The range of consultation undertaken during project planning by this user-led organisation (80% of the Board and 53% of employees are disabled or Deaf) has included training a team of volunteers (members of the local disabled and Deaf communities) to undertake 26 mystery visits to 19 heritage sites. This was vital in gaining a high level picture of the current levels of regional accessibility and identifying key barriers for the project to address.
Create a brilliant welcome and mobilise your people
Being welcoming is paramount to a more accessible visitor experience (and it’s actually a key building block of any inspiring visitor experience). Audience research shows us that just being able to find out what’s going to be accessible for them at a site can be a frustrating experience for disabled or Deaf visitors.
The RSPB Minsmere Discover Nature project found that training staff and volunteers was a really powerful tool to developing a more inclusive welcome for visitors with disabilities. A raft of accessibility improvements have enabled disabled people and their families to come face-to-face with nature in a wild environment. Positively engaging staff and volunteers was key and the RSPB have worked hard to develop an open culture of learning internally. Staff and volunteers were trained to provide disabled visitors with an informed welcome; helping them to plan their visit and get the most from their day as well as inputting into developing an accessibility statement.
Motivations to visit for many visitors are social and disabled and Deaf people are no different. Therefore, providing interpretation and services separately for those with particular access needs just doesn’t make sense if we have an option to mainstream accessibility.
Shakespeare’s New Place is a new interpretative garden and visitor centre developed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. From the start the Trust have been thinking about how to plan accessibility throughout their visitor experience, for example, icons and visual imagery in interpretation help visitors with learning disabilities as well as those for whom English is a second language and pre-literate children.
We can also learn from our colleagues in museums. The Information Age project dramatically transformed the second floor of the Science Museum into a vibrant and accessible space. There was a clear plan not to ghettoise access and to place accessible interpretation and resources equally alongside other gallery elements. For example, central in the gallery space is the accessible lift and disabled visitors said they felt this means people now don’t think it is only for ‘special people’; contributing towards changing attitudes towards disability.
Taking steps to be more accessible makes good business sense and shows that as an organisation you really get the importance of being open to everyone. What’s stopping you from starting tomorrow?
Written by Kate Measures
Founder of Heritage Insider and Chair of bgen; inspiring people through plants