It was a great honour to be invited to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) seminar on Inclusive Heritage on the 30th October at the Tate Modern, it was also a massive disappointment to get a mega-migraine halfway through the opening speeches. Sadly I had to leave during the morning’s round up Q&A session but I had already been given lots of food for thought.
Days like this one are always important for connecting up with faces you recognise, and for making contacts with new ones. These events can often consist of familiar faces, inclusion champions doing their best to make a difference, but I certainly got the sense of a lot of people who hadn’t actually met before. Bringing together these voices can only be a good thing as we look to the future 20 years after the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force.
I was greatly cheered by Sir Peter Luff, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund, when he said –
“..inclusion must remain a top priority.”
This was reiterated at the Museums Association Conference, where Sir Peter made firm his commitment to opening up history and heritage, not only to over 1,500 attending the conference, but also to those watching his speech via live streaming at home (like me!). Having a funder so directly outline what they are looking for in times of austerity can only be a good thing when those requirements hinge on inclusion. As government cuts bite and local authority budgets get squeezed, funders are having increasing importance and power in the sector, forcing applicants to reach new audiences with their plans.
I guess my concern is whether the changes are instigating a lasting permanent difference in outlook or short-termism. Changes to physical access are obviously a permanent change to a heritage building or service. But initial activity plans end and attitudes to inclusivity are just as, if not more, important. How are these sustained when grants are won and money is spent? As Esther Fox, head of Accentuate Programme, said in her speech on the day…
“…attitudes are hard to quantify, they are transient and permeable.”
Tom Shakespeare, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, gave an enlightening talk on the need to learn from our past to live better lives in the here and now. That includes bringing disabled histories to the fore. Tom mentioned the Suffragette May Billinghurst, who was confined to a wheelchair, I have written and seen a lots of photos on the Suffragettes recently but this had completely passed me by. It was listening to Esther that really brought this home to me, when she said growing up she had no awareness or connection to her own heritage. The only time she saw another disabled person was in hospital, I can only imagine the kind of sense of place that can give you.
Tom rightly highlighted the worrying cuts in Disability Living Allowance and government support for disabled people, it doesn’t matter what inclusive events you put on if your visitor can’t get out of their home to your door. Museums and heritage places have to keep looking beyond their physical walls if they want to connect with new audiences. Understanding what the barriers are is crucial and they may be outside your new well-funded HLF project.
There was lots more to think about in Tom’s speech when he talked about removing barriers to give a level playing field, where we are all the same and yet recognising and celebrating difference. I have been thinking about this a lot and to be honest I don’t believe it is an easy thing to do. I think about my daughter with autism, she has two siblings, I try to treat them the same and yet I also try to recognise the differences in them, particularly with my eldest, where she might need more help and support. Trying so hard to help them all see the strengths they have, it is so hard and I often don’t get it right. I get specialist help and support from the Burgess Autistic Trust, because although I try I don’t always know what I am doing.
I often say making small changes does not have to be expensive and does not have to be difficult, but maybe those are the changes that lack permanence. What Tom is asking for is difficult, if it were easy we would all be doing it. But that doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t try, although what we are going to need is sustained permanent commitment from all quarters, not just inclusion experts.
The most poignant part of the morning for me was Esther talking 20 years on from the DDA. She recalled going to visit a university when she was deciding where to study and being told not to bother applying because they couldn’t accommodate her needs. We have supposedly moved on from those days and yet a couple of years ago we rang up my local youth music group and asked about piano lessons they ran. Our daughter had been playing piano for a while and we thought the group tutorials they offered might be good social exposure for her. We explained about her autism purely so they might understand her anxiety and why I might need to stay. They told us they didn’t think the group would be appropriate for her, having never met her, having never heard her play, not even giving her a chance to try.
I can still feel the anger in me from that day, but also the deep sense of sadness of doors being shut in her face. So whilst many changes have happened with the DDA, attitudes still have a very long way to go. I guess that is why I am writing this blog, for days like that.
It is fantastic that the HLF are putting on events like this, it did feel a little like preaching to the converted but I believe in their commitment to putting on more events like this one and doing more to make a difference. But on the day I had a nagging feeling that I was missing the audio description of the talks that had been given at the Opening Doors Seminar by the Museums Association. I didn’t notice anyone signing, was there really no one representing the deaf community?
I am being harsh because sometimes it is too easy to say ‘wasn’t it all wonderful’ and ‘aren’t we doing well’. The lasting memory for me from the day, aside from a migraine, was Esther telling us that change has to be not only about inclusion and saying ‘we are going to let you do this’. It has to be about giving disabled people the opportunity to really participate and also lead in the changes that we are all making for the future.
You can also read a summary of the day including the afternoon sessions on the AIM (Association of Independent Museums) website – AIM blog