By Alison Bowyer
At Kids in Museums, our vision is that all families will be welcomed, involved and belong in museums, so every child and young person is part of the experiences and opportunities that a museum offers. Until I started working for Kids in Museums, I hadn’t given much thought to what all families really meant and if I’m being honest, I probably often fell back on stereotypes.
Over the past three years, I’ve thought a lot about who is included, or potentially excluded, by the word family. Let’s start with the data. I researched UK families and found a few surprises. Ask yourself whether you genuinely knew any of the following?
- a) 8% of children in the UK have SEND. Based on 2020 population estimates, that’s over 1 million children (UK Family Resources Survey).
- b) 16% of single parent households have a child with a disability compared to 9% of two parent households. (Gingerbread). About half of one parent families live in poverty (CPAG).
- c) Nearly 90% parents of a SEND child aged 0-5 had felt judged when they took them out in public (Scope).
Once you have taken the numbers in, then you start thinking about the ripple effects. For example, the experience of being part of a family with a child with a disability affects siblings, grandparents, aunties and uncles, not just the child and their parents. Scope estimate that having a child with a disability costs families over £500 more per month than caring for a non-disabled child. Consider the impact of that and how it might affect a single parent family already living in poverty.
Families with a child with a disability face many barriers to participation in activities others take for granted and this definitely includes museum visits. In the aftermath of the first COVID lockdown, Kids in Museums, Autism in Museums and SEND in Museums surveyed SEND families about how they felt about visiting museums. We found that nearly half only visited once a year or less and of those who never visited at all, about one third said it was because their access needs weren’t being met.
If the museum sector is being honest with itself, families with additional needs still have a hard time when they visit many museums. We all need to work harder to make the case for access for all. Kids in Museums aims to make the case robustly and offer the best training and resources for museum staff to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and support to include all families, children and young people in their organisation’s work.
There are many reasons why museums need to be more inclusive. The benefits of visiting museums for learning, wellbeing and even civic participation are established in robust research. The UN has enshrined access to culture as a human right. But what I want people to think most about is a more immediate sense of kindness and empathy towards others, something that was repeatedly discussed during the first COVID lockdowns and that museums should be well placed to foster.
In 2019, Ecclesiastical Insurance published the results of a survey of museum visitors. 42% of parents with a SEND child said they had been made to feel unwelcome by staff members or other visitors. Hearing that made me feel ashamed. Imagine how it feels to be that uncomfortable. It also says to me that what SEND families want is to be able to go into a museum and feel comfortable and able to be themselves. Including these families, and all others who feel excluded, is part of building a kinder museum sector and a kinder society more widely.
Talking to Sam as we worked on the excellent SEND resource she wrote for Kids in Museums last year gave me more insight into what museums need to do to create that comfort and welcome for families with additional needs. When you think about it, none of what needs to be done is surprising, but it takes time, care and thoughtfulness. Some changes are expensive – not every museum will be in a position to install a Changing Places toilet – but there are other things that every museum can easily do.
There are basic considerate acts like providing full information about your building and facilities on your website. Euan’s Guide says 95% of people with a disability check an organisation’s website to plan their visit in advance and yet on many museum website access information is hidden or not there at all.
As the Ecclesiastical survey shows, the attitude of your staff has a huge impact. Investing in training so all staff are disability confident is important. Moreover, museums must help staff to develop their skills in a working environment where they feel valued.
Alongside thinking about your welcome, creating a comfortable, inclusive museum means taking a fresh look at your collections and seeing where disabled people are marginalised or hidden in the stories you tell. It is also essential to reach out to your local community and have honest conversations with SEND schools and families about your organisation.
Much of this work will be slow and iterative. At times it will seem frustrating. Being open to change and the missteps that come along the way can be tiring, which is why taking the time to build a supportive team culture is so important. However the rewards are huge, not only for the SEND families who will feel welcomed and valued by your museum, but by all of your staff and visitors. Everyone benefits from kindness in the end.