The National Trust: involving disabled users in designing access features can be transformative

The National Trust is a charity caring for the historic environment across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It manages some 320 historic houses with collections which are open to visitors, many of which are registered museums. The National Trust’s Equality Specialist, Heather Smith details the journey it has been on to improve accessibility to its sites for disabled visitors.

Tanya Raabe Webber and David Hoyle
Tanya Raabe-Webber and David Hoyle during a live sitting as part of the ‘Portraits Untold’ project at Beningbrough Hall, Gallery and Gardens, North Yorkshire © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey.

As Equality Specialist, the primary focus of my role is advising across the organisation in how we become more accessible and welcoming for disabled people, particularly as visitors to our places. My wider role also encompasses developing and shaping policy and guidance in the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 (which followed on from the Disability Discrimination Act), supporting all our departments to become more inclusive in their practice.

The National Trust looks after a diverse portfolio of places, from built structures to outdoor spaces, holiday cottages to villages, and much more. Our motto is ‘for ever, for everyone’ and the balance of conservation and access is a daily debate as we move our practice of inclusion forward and create solutions for accessibility which are creative and sensitive to our surroundings.

When improving access for disabled people, there are a range of methodologies which can be used. The National Trust created a post to focus on improving access for disabled people in the early 1990s. This was prior to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the legislation was not the driver for the decision, more the increasing awareness that our provision at that time was insufficient to meet the needs of this audience. Developing a post to provide a focus for activity like this is not an unusual approach. Such a role provides leadership to nurture organisation-wide commitment, to clarify the requirements of legislation, and to develop strong and clear processes for progress, amongst other things, but it is important that the work is not done in a silo with the expectation of sole responsibility. Integrating the practice and accountability leads to organisational change.

Within the Trust, we have introduced a programme of access auditing as another methodology to improve accessibility. As a component part of managing this process, my role involves developing skills and knowledge in my colleagues to understand how to put the recommendations into practice, why it is important, and the difference it makes to the quality and possibility of a visit for a disabled person. My own skill and knowledge development comes in significant part from working directly with disabled people and introducing this practice into our work has been crucial. Building relationships at a national and local level with disability charities, user-led organisations, and individual disabled people has become a key part of our process.

Having all relevant voices in dialogue together from the start, rather than delivering an outcome and then asking for feedback is more likely to create a positive experience and create greater cultural equality. A co-productive methodology increases the capacity and opportunity for trying new ideas. Understanding the perspective of disability from a lived experience is more effective in illustrating why creating the balance of conservation and access is so important than solely relying on legislative and regulatory drivers.

Tanya Raabe Webber looking at a participant's digital painting
A member of the audience showing her digital drawing to artist Tanya Raabe-Webber during the ‘Portraits Untold’ event at Beningbrough Hall, Gallery and Gardens, North Yorkshire © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey.

Societal assumptions often ignore the wealth of talent and skill amongst disabled people. Developing dialogue enables this talent to be utilised, breaks down barriers and builds common ground. Sometimes it is hard for voices of disabled people to be heard because of the difficulty of getting to places where those voices need to be. Equally, if you perceive that your voice is always ignored, or that you will be taken as representative of disabled people as a whole, the will to engage again can feel onerous. Starting with smaller scale engagement can build confidence to move to a genuine co-productive model but the clarity of process should remain the same so that everyone understands the expectations and responsibilities.

Examples of things to consider include: what is the aim of working together, a clear brief should be developed; when will the work take place, be clear on the length of the commitment; how will the opportunities for input be organised, will it be on site or remotely, by face-to-face meeting or a blend of methods; where will the activity take place, is the meeting space accessible with car parking and accessible toilet facilities; who will be involved, how many people and what range of experiences will they have; why is this conversation important right now, what could it lead to in the future.

When starting a new way of working, there are likely to be bumps in the road. Debates about improving access can be challenging for a range of reasons. It is easy to be put off from opening up questions about processes which seem hard to change, structures which are complicated to adapt and require a range of permissions before agreement can be reached, as can often the case in the historic environment. It is possible that some comments might be strongly worded if someone has felt that their views have been ignored previously. Being prepared to manage these comments by taking an open and welcoming approach, as well as demonstrating that you are keen to learn from the comments will help to build a more concordant approach as the discussions continue. Providing feedback on any comments and opinions given, which might be taken away for further consideration is key to building trust and confidence in the process and driving forward a positive and accessible outcome.

Our practice began with engaging disabled people in specific programmes and projects, using the principles above to shape the debates. We are improving our practice by ‘learning by doing’, moving from inviting disabled people to a small number of meetings to building an access group of local disabled people, staff and volunteers working together to discuss the continuing development of a site to be more accessible, inclusive, and relevant and developing a sustained relationship.

Although co-production shouldn’t be limited to short-term projects or programmes, these can be a useful place to test the methodology. Our virtual tour project was a test of developing a blended project team of staff and volunteers from a range of relevant roles and disabled people, working together to create an accessible product which in itself improved the accessibility of the visitor experience. The quality of the solution was award-winning but more importantly received positive feedback from disabled visitors, and influenced the thinking about engaging disabled people from the concept of an idea to the final realisation of the solution and beyond.

Some of our places have now moved to the model of a long-standing group of disabled people, staff, and volunteers building a narrative about becoming more accessible in all that they do. Croome Park in Worcestershire, is an example of this where commitment to co-productive practice has grown to enabling disabled people to take the lead in developments, such as the ‘Potter and Ponder’ sensory experience of the parkland, designed and produced by disabled people. At Beningbrough Hall in York, disabled artist, Tanya Raabe-Webber, is co-creating the concept and content of ‘Portraits Untold’, a series of portraits, including disabled people, which had co-production at its heart, including the artwork of members of the audience observing Tanya’s work into the final artworks themselves.

The growth in co-productive practice is noticeable across the sector. My role as Chair of the voluntary committee which organises the Jodi Awards – recognising excellence in accessible digital media – brings me into contact with a range of organisations who are working with disabled people to improve their use of and accessibility of, technology. Indeed, it is a key criterion in the application process. In the most recent awards, organisations such as Manchester Museum and Liverpool Museums were able to demonstrate the engagement of disabled people across their practice, influencing many aspects of their work, and sustaining these relationships as business as usual.

Establishing honest dialogue and exploring the potential of co-productive practice can potentially transform an organisation – and the experiences it offers to all visitors. Partnership and collaboration is the way to achieve change and create greater cultural equality for disabled people as well as richer experiences for everyone.

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