Barry Ginley. Disability and Access Officer at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

“If you remove a section of society, you are limiting your offer and underperforming”

The incorporation of an inclusive focus and cooperation with other organisations that are committed to and proactive in the accessibility sphere are two distinctive traits of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s largest decorative arts museum. Apart from the percentage of visitors who state they have some kind of disability, the museum’s head of social inclusion appeals to the most fundamental commercial logic: “If you remove a section of society, you are limiting your offer and underperforming”.

Q.- How is the museum situated in relation to accessibility and inclusive design? How do you rate the results obtained?

A.- The V&A implemented its first Disability Action Plan in 2004. It set out everything that the museum had to apply to comply with the law and be proactive in making services accessible to visitors. The museum averages an audience of 6% who declare a disability, however there are some people who do not consider themselves disabled; I would think the percentage would be higher.

Q.- When you develop an exhibition project, at what point do you incorporate inclusivity into it?

A.- We try to integrate accessibility into all areas of our work at stage 1, to favour a high quality of interpretation and to reduce planning and implementation costs. When this does not happen, we make the necessary adjustments.

Q.- Is it easy to find experts in inclusive design and marketing?

A.- It’s possible to find consultants. There’s a National Register of Access Consultants, who are accredited and guarantee compliance with the British law and standards.

Q.- Do the tourism, leisure and culture sectors attach enough importance to the concepts of inclusion and accessibility?

A.- Cultural sector organisations know what is required, but do not always know how to comply, and I’m often asked for advice on interpretation or service delivery. In the sports sector, things have improved over the last ten years, the London Paralympic Games raised the accessibility bar by using inclusive design at all venues and services, but more work needs to be done. The tourism sector is slowly making progress.

Q.- What is the role of the user in the development of inclusive products or services?

A.- There is a place for users in testing products, however the person leading the testing must have a good grounding in disability. We have found that, with user testing, you can get a range of different opinions from the same user group, and if the specialist doesn’t know how to pull out the common strands, then accessibility becomes diminished.

Q.- How could we move towards a social model of diversity?

A.- There is probably too much information in the public domain, which can end up confusing individuals and organisations. Guidance has been published on how to provide access to museums and galleries as well as codes of practice for the Disability Discrimination Act. These contradict each other on some issues. Even so, standards being established elsewhere are twenty years behind the United Kingdom, the United States and some parts of Europe.

Q.- Is the legislation effective? Should more be done?

A.- Legislation works up to a point. In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act is ambitious, but little has really been achieved. In the UK, the law was poor, but we did enact it and disability rights have improved over the last twenty years.

Q.- How would you divide responsibility between the different agents involved in accessibility?

A.- They are all important: designers, design schools, design institutes, companies, government and society. Everyone should be working towards the same aims. If you remove any section of society, you are limiting your offer and underperforming.

Q.- What arguments do you consider key to encouraging inclusive design?

A.- What works for people with disability will work for everyone. Inclusive design is what architects and designers should have done from the start. Function – i.e. how people use an environment – is just as important as the aesthetics of an environment.

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‘A Captive Audience?’ by David Reekie, Victoria and Albert Museum

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