By Rachel Brodie
There is a definite need for heritage organisations to address issues of exclusion, with findings from a survey in 2019 revealing that more than a quarter of parents of children with special needs (29%) have felt unwelcome at a museum, gallery, theatre, stately home or castle. Hence, over the past few months we have been working on re-developing our Sensory Explorer Backpacks and introducing a social guide to Wordsworth Grasmere to improve access.
Our original Sensory Explorer Backpacks (launched in 2021) were put together for children with sensory processing needs, with the items inside specifically chosen to help reduce sensory overload and focus children on the key themes of the site, such as poetry and nature. They are freely available for visitors to borrow if they have a child in their group, regardless of whether they have additional needs. Though they have proven popular amongst families, we felt it was time to re-evaluate our current offer. Researching examples of sensory backpacks from other museums and galleries highlighted how our current offer lacked variety in terms of the sensory support materials available. We also deduced that our backpacks lacked a strong theme, which can often be useful in aiding families to navigate the site.
The backpacks now include a variety of sensory support materials. There is a mini torch and magnifying glass to support those with visual impairments, as well as sunglasses to aid with visual stimuli and bright lights. We have also introduced ear defenders for all visitors to reduce noise stimuli in loud environments. Each backpack has a small sensory sack, filled with fidget-toys for children who require extra tactile materials for concentration purposes. In addition to this, we updated our PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) resource to help families better plan the sequence of their visit to the site. We have since introduced the use of communication books with standardised symbols (as opposed to the symbols on our site map). This decision was based on feedback from a teacher currently working in specialist provision who reviewed the original PECS books and suggested that site-specific symbols could prove difficult for children to interpret. Having input from someone working closely with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) was extremely useful in highlighting the most relevant ways to make our resources as inclusive as possible. We sourced these directly from Pyramid Education Consultants.
As previously mentioned, the backpacks needed to have a recognisable theme that told a story. Based on research, we felt this could be achieved through the introduction of a group of mascots that are representative of the different areas on site and linked to the Wordsworths’ writing. For this, we met with Alexandra Heaton (Sales and Marketing Coordinator) to discuss a design brief for four new characters that would feature as another dimension of our family offer. This led to the creation of the ‘Curious Creatures of Wordsworth Grasmere,’ consisting of the Dove Cottage Mouse, Garden-Orchard Butterfly, Museum Owl and Woodland Robin. They feature in the backpacks as small soft toys and on a small handout that highlights their link to a relevant quote from either William or Dorothy Wordsworth. With the mascots now readily available at our disposal, we have introduced them to our family-related trails and signage, as well as in our new social guide to increase cohesion across the site.
Social guides (also referred to as social stories/narratives) typically take the form of a booklet with text and images that aim to provide families with an understanding of what to expect prior to and during their visit. These guides enable families to adequately prepare their children for a new environment to reduce the chances of encountering uncomfortable and unexpected experiences. According to Museum Arts Culture Access Consortium, social guides are commonly used by visitors with ASD but can also serve wider audiences including school groups and general visits. As with the backpacks, we decided to develop our social guide for use by families and children.
To begin, we researched existing examples of social guides from other heritage organisations. We were particularly inspired by Nashville Zoo at Grassmere’s collection of social stories that were created in collaboration with The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) who provide autism-specialised resources and services to families and professionals. While Nashville Zoo at Grassmere’s site differs from ours, we realised that we could adopt a similar design for our social guide. The next stage involved planning the structure, content and layout. We started collating images to match with the relevant text on each page and reached out to Beth Driscoll (Digital Engagement Trainee) for support with taking additional photos. Once we had the necessary images and text for each page, we used Microsoft Publisher to put it all together. We converted the definitive version to a PDF so that it could be published on our website and sent a request for multiple physical copies to be printed, which are now available in our museum. By supplying a social guide, we are actively supporting families wanting to prepare their child for their visit before arrival to reduce any anxiety surrounding changes to a routine and environments, such as visiting Dove Cottage for the first time.
The aim of this project was to increase accessibility to Wordsworth Grasmere for children with additional needs, particularly those with hidden disabilities such as ASD and ADD. While we acknowledge that improving access and inclusion is a process of continuous improvement, we are actively working towards this by making the proper reasonable adjustments. These resources support all visitors to effectively communicate their needs on site and we have recently invited some families to formally trial them. We’re looking forward to hearing their feedback so we can continue to develop our provision and nurture a welcoming and inspirational experience for all.