Re-imagine: Improving access to the arts, galleries and museums for people with learning disabilities – New report

Royal Academy Family SEN session. Copyright Royal Academy

Royal Academy Family SEN session. Copyright Royal Academy

A few weeks ago ‘Kids in Museums’ drew my attention to a report produced by Lemos and Crane for the City Bridge Trust on improving access for people with learning disabilities, it was a fascinating read and I highly recommend that you take a look. The report looked at art organisations, museums and galleries across London and learning disability specialists from London and across the UK. They sent out an email questionnaire from which they got 81 responses, 47 with projects to share and 34 with nothing to share but who were keen to be kept updated with the results.

Some points I found of most interest from the report are listed below, I have commented after each point (this is just a summary I found of interest, please read the report for the full picture) –

1 – First off, there is not enough being offered for people with learning disabilities. There are more regular and continuing projects for children, often as part of a learning education programme, but when you get to adults the support is short-term and sporadic. There are islands of excellence but no consistent widespread offer.

For me this is unsurprising and it is certainly mirrored in the real world, where support for autistic individuals faces a massive fall when they pass from childhood into adulthood. There are islands of excellence which is great to hear, but is that enough? 

2 – The report surmises that there is perhaps an underlying uncertainty about the nature of learning disability and how people with learning disabilities might best interact with museums and galleries. They found that the uncertainty and anxiety came from the fact staff often had little personal or professional experience of learning disability.

I have found this in relation to autism with museum professionals often contacting me for advice as they are unsure how to go about welcoming autism into their museums. Breaking down those fears and anxieties about the unknown is a great first step for staff. When I write about autism it is always popular because there is a real demand to know more and to understand more. 

3 – Evaluation is a concern. How do you measure the impact of events and projects if participants have limited communication skills? This was seen as crucial to support applications for funding.

It is a shame in the world we live in but evaluation often seems to feel like – value for money. The intangibles – happiness, contentment, feeling safe, having fun are often hard to evaluate. 

4 – There is no clear framework for best practice on improving access for people with learning disabilities.

Who should provide this framework? Where should the support come from? Is this a framework that should be internal to the organisation in question, or a broader external framework that can be adhered to. 

5 – Sometimes it is the small practicalities that cause the most problems: getting in touch with new participants; staying in touch; transport to and from venue; and advertising events. Marketing often needs to be through trusted intermediaries.

I always advocate building relationships with local autism groups, I find this is so important. They already have a network of users, they can offer advice and help you tailor events. Make it a two-way street and build on those relationships, it will make events more sustainable if the demand is there. 

6 – Funders need to do more. Most events and programmes are funded outside of the normal funding structure. The report mentions the work of Dr Bernadette Lynch, I have included the quote they used –

“despite presenting numerous examples of ground-breaking, innovative practice, the funding invested in public engagement and participation in the UK’s museums and galleries has not significantly succeeded in shifting the work from the margins to the core of many of these organisations. In fact […] it has curiously done the opposite. By providing funding streams outside of core budgets, it appears to have helped to keep the work on the organisations’ peripheries.”1

There is also more funding for kids but arguably adults are the more vulnerable as support networks decline as children grow and school/family links disappear.

I found this very interesting as a few of the autism mornings I have visited are funded by individuals outside of the museum’s main education budget. I think this is a crucial point, if you want it to be about the everyday, it needs to be in the everyday of funding streams. Not an add-on. 

7 – Support for people with learning difficulties is about being a participant and contributor not just a passive observer.

I find this point perhaps in its own way the most important. It is vital to not have limited expectations of what an individual can achieve whether they have learning difficulties or not. The most inspired I felt was watching children at a SEN event creating art with their families at the Royal Academy. They were a part of that day and that event, not just passive bystanders. 

8 – Often events and programmes are reliant on 1 or 2 highly motivated individuals in the organisation making it happen.

This means there is no embedded legacy but just a transient service. I have felt this at some places I have visited where there are individuals with such passion and commitment that they make these events happen. With cuts to museums and jobs at threat it often only takes a few months for expertise and enthusiasm to be lost. That is why I find the Science Museum Early Birds so important, as staff across the whole organisation work these events. Spreading awareness and understanding far past the education team. Embedding events in this way can help move toward sustainability. 


But, I am confident this will change – Why? 

Because the report found enthusiasm and interest on both sides. Museums, galleries and art organisations want to do more and learning disabilities groups want to get more involved. Surely with such intent on both side we can make this happen.

3 things I feel we need. After reading the report and visiting lots of museums this is what it boils down to for me.

1 – We need more connections/networks/partnerships, we need more talking and more information.

2 – We need access across the board!! Online booking, publicity, marketing, way finding, signage, websites. This is not just about individual events. All staff trained, not just learning staff. Access to all events. Don’t quote money, “we can’t afford it” at me. At the very least you can do an ‘easy read guide‘. One single step that begins to make your venue more accessible. From the report –

“…the need to ensure accessibility is championed throughout the whole organisation and across the breadth its activities – its projects and programmes, staffing and employment and ordinary day-to-day working.”

3 – We need funders to step up and say we want you to put on accessible events/programmes/galleries/training. Show us your plans and we will fund those. Make it explicit. No accessible events, no money.

Why is this important?

– This is not just about access, this is also an opportunity to challenge preconceptions about learning disabilities, the result becomes much bigger than the intended aim. Museums changing lives but also museums changing society perceptions.

– The report simply says it is about giving people with learning disabilities “Access to meaningful social life and choice”. It is empowering and protective – when it boils down to something as simple as this it really is not a lot to ask, is it?

– Finally I will leave you with a paragraph from the report. Please don’t quote anything I have said, look at the report yourself, make your own conclusions. But please read it. We need to start communicating and talking and this is a good first step.

“As well as empowering people against vulnerability to loneliness and cruelty, engagement with the arts, museums and galleries creates opportunities to enjoy new experiences, develop positive social networks, express yourself in a new and meaningful way, broaden experience and ignite imagination. These are formative and important experiences for many people – from which people with learning disabilities should not be excluded.”


Re-imagine: Improving access to the arts, galleries and museums for people with learning disabilities (2014) -By Lemos & Crane

1- Dr Bernadette Lynch – Whose Cake is it Anyway? Paul Hamlyn Foundation 2011 p.5

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