Boy playing with waterfall

Five things I’ve learnt about accessible events

Disabled Access Day takes place tomorrow. It’s a day about getting out there and trying something new! The Science Museum in London was recently named as one of the most accessible tourist attractions in Britain so we asked one of their Special Event Developers, Claire Hazell, to share their advice on how they do it.

Being a Special Events Developer means that my team and I write, develop and present a large programme of events aimed at families during holidays and weekends. We also run a variety of events aimed at making the Science Museum accessible to everyone. During my time I have learnt a lot about museums and their role in accessibility, here are my top five things:

1) There is a big difference between accessible and inclusive

Presenter signs
Presenter signs “Galaxy”. Everyone who attends the show learns a few science related signs.

Our deaf-led SIGNtific programme is a great example of an accessible and inclusive event. The science shows, storytelling sessions and workshops are all presented in British Sign Language and are suitable for both deaf and hearing visitors. They are on during the day and advertised to everyone that comes into the museum. It’s a great way to increase deaf awareness in hearing children and to include deaf children and adults in museum activities.

Our Early Birds early morning Autism event is different. The museum opens early five times a year for families with children on the autistic spectrum. The museum is quieter and there are tailored events and activities for the families. This event is accessible but does not include everyone. This is because it can’t include everyone; the reason we open it up to families early and make the spaces limited is so that the museum is quieter and has less going on. Families asked us to run the event this way and our research has shown us that this is the right environment for their needs.

2) Accessible means different things to different people

Gallery at the Science Museum
(photo credit)

Every visitor that comes to the museum wants to get something different out of their visit. From finding their favourite object, or enjoying a new gallery to just finding a toilet!

Making the museum accessible can mean different things for everyone. It could just mean giving someone a map so they can find their way around but it could also mean coming to an event which has provision for their needs. We try to make the museum accessible for as many people as possible and we are always willing to take suggestions and listen to what our visitors want from us.

3) Don’t make assumptions

Interactive gallery
Launch pad (photo credit Heather Cowper)

While planning for a recent Early Birds session we did some research and found out that sensitivity to loud noises was common among children on the Autistic spectrum. We decided that we should turn off all loud noises and try and keep the museum as quiet as possible. We had planned to turn on one of our large engines and as such included this in our visual story. Families were able to avoid the engine as it was only turned on late in the session. What we found was that lots of families loved seeing and listening to the engine and talking to our engineers about the engine. We assumed that this wouldn’t be the case because of some research we had carried out.

We soon realised that we should never assume and we use this attitude in all our new developments and make sure we look at developments from every angle and assume nothing!

4) You can’t do it alone

Where do you start when trying to run an event when you don’t know much about what the event would need?

You start with people that would know. When we developed our new audio described event we spoke to local councils, charities, specialist organisations, schools, other museums, and of course families themselves. The information from these groups was invaluable and will help the team provide a new event that opens up the museum and its collection to even more people.

5) Taking the first step is hard but the rewards are worth it

Convo 800x392All our events had to start somewhere. A brainstorm, a query from a visitor or an idea you have just before you go to sleep. But turning that first idea into an event can be daunting and sometimes scary.

All our events have amazing teams that run them and supportive managers to coordinate them. It is always an amazing accomplishment to open the door for an event for the first time. I loved seeing the smiles on the faces of the families when they came into the museum for our first Early Birds session, and I still find it amazing to see children communicating with our deaf presenters in sign language. I’ll end with a quote from one of them:

“SIGNtific is fantastic at encouraging children to learn about science without realising they are learning, a brilliant opportunity for deaf and hearing children and their parents to talk and share their experiences after the events. It is always a thrill to be a role model to all children at the events!”

Find out more about accessibility at the Science Museum.

Get involved with Disabled Access Day.