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Tour guides and training are the keys to improving access to heritage

Tour guides and training are the keys to improving access to heritage
29th November 2019 Ian Streets

The findings of research commissioned by specialist heritage insurer Ecclesiastical into the experience of parents of children with special needs raises some interesting points for operators of historic and cultural properties.

It also resonates with our own extensive work in this sector and has prompted us to broaden the discussion to include accessibility generally.

We have considerable experience of assessing the accessibility of sites including museums, art galleries, theatres, stately homes and castles, taking an inclusive approach to a sector which is growing in popularity and significance.

Some venue operators see it as good for business and others just recognise that it’s the right thing to do.

Of our recent activities, one which is particularly relevant to the findings published by Ecclesiastical, was a consultation session to bring together representatives of a number of groups which support people who have a wide range of impairments, particularly sight, hearing and special needs.

Ecclesiastical reported that more than two in five parents who have children with special needs said staff or visitors were unfriendly or had made them feel uncomfortable while visiting a museum, art gallery, theatre, stately home or castle.

More than a quarter said they felt unwelcome or were asked to leave and nearly half said  heritage organisations should offer specific quiet or loud times in designated areas to better cater for children with special needs.

Our contributors noted that the operators of historic and cultural attractions often overlook the need to provide assistance with interpreting – and even viewing – the actual exhibits.

People should be able to enjoy and understand the displays – the very things that attract them there in the first place – but in all the examples we saw during our recent work, the interpretation failed to a greater or lesser degree.

Some text displays are positioned too high, too low or in an area where they cannot be viewed by people in a fixed position, such as a wheelchair-user.

Signage is another factor which can present different types of problems for anyone who has an impairment. The location and position of signs isn’t always convenient for wheelchair-users and the words can create problems. Are they overly complex? Are the sentences too long? It is important to make the written language accessible.

Our panel liked the idea of doing more with apps on smartphones, but they also pointed out that many people who would benefit might not be comfortable with the technology. By extension they acknowledged that an adjustment which makes life easier for someone with a particular type of impairment might at the same time add to the inconvenience for someone who has a different disability.

The solution which was generally acceptable to all was to use tour guides, who should be knowledgeable about the exhibits and displays and trained to meet the needs of visitors who might have a variety of impairments.

It has become clear to us that there is a need for more staff to undergo disability confidence training, perhaps with a specific focus on certain types of impairment. The plus is that more museum and gallery operators seem to be consulting with disabled people and their representatives. The next step is for them to make more people aware of that, and to generate more feedback as a result.

To read the report on the Ecclesiastical and Heritage website please visit


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