Accessibility as an afterthought is less inclusive.
Cassie Herschel-Shorland set up Access and Museum Design as an independent expert in inclusive exhibition design and interpretation. She works directly for museums, galleries, exhibition designers, architects and with consultants in complementary fields.
Q.– How do you relate your work to inclusive design and accessibility?
A.–I’m a freelance consultant providing inclusive design advice, having worked previously at galleries and museums. As an exhibition designer, I needed to know how to make exhibitions work better for people. I found an effective solution working on projects with deaf and disabled people.
Q.–What might spur institutions towards a more inclusive focus and how can this be implemented?
A.–Inclusion often responds to audience and visitor expectations combined with the requirements of equality law. This proved as true for a major national gallery (Tate Britain) as a small museum service (Guildford Heritage Services). Both listened to visitors but also had to address legal obligations. Both employed a part-time Access Officer to work at policy level, creating cross-organisational access strategies, action plans and programme delivery supported by staff awareness-raising and funded access-improvement projects, e.g. the Tate’s recorded audio description for blind and partially sighted visitors, and Guildford’s project for people with mental illness, using art practice to help them engage with local heritage.
As inclusive design consultants, meeting the Building Regulations is a minimum. The goal is best practice: people-focussed solutions offering choices and adaptability. The best way to judge performance is involving deaf and disabled people in the inclusive design process, including site visits after completion.
Q.–How would you quantify the results achieved?
A.–Quantification is difficult, but combinable with qualitative feedback. Providing audio descriptions leads to a quantitative increase in visually impaired visitors: the relative numbers involved mean this increase is not huge. But remarkable qualitative value is held in user testimonials, with their improved experiences making a huge difference.
Q.–What obstacles have you faced in the inclusive design process?
A.–One major challenge is preconceived ideas about how people use buildings, or access displays. There is still an inherited tradition of design as visual aesthetics. Inflexible attitudes towards design for all result in a lack of inclusive options for engaging with art and heritage at galleries, museums and heritage sites.
Some people deem multi-sensory design more inclusive, but this is only true if the entire experience is carefully scrutinised considering users of alternative communication (audio description, object handling, tactile labels, diagrams, visual information, sign language, easy-read text, etc.) Otherwise, multi-sensory and immersive exhibitions can prove overwhelming or stressful, creating more barriers than solutions.
Q.–Should exhibition projects or communication campaigns be developed inclusively from the outset? Or completed first, then made accessible using additional resources?
A.–It’s best to be involved from the setting out of the project, interpretation strategy and budget commitment. Contributing project-specific inclusive design criteria is most effective before concept design starts. Continuing throughout design concept, development, detailing, mock-up testing, site installation and post-completion review is essential. Accessibility as an afterthought is less inclusive.
Q.–Is it easy to find design and marketing experts specialising in inclusive design?
A.–No. Previously, Access Officers worked closely with marketing staff, but the role rarely exists nowadays; responsibility for access is spread across each organisation, so this is an important point.
Q.–Is enough importance attached to inclusion and accessibility in cultural, leisure and tourism sectors?
A.–It started to be when discrimination law split equality types. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) focussed specifically on duties to not discriminate against people on account of disability. When superseded by the Equality Act 2010, the focus broadened and momentum was lost. Meanwhile the recession made access and outreach initiatives vulnerable to cuts, despite evidence of inclusion’s economic and social benefits for these sectors.
Another shift saw ‘reasonable adjustment to buildings’ requirements being addressed by many institutions, whereas sensory and intellectual access are less clearly regulated, making it harder for organisations to implement measures.
Q.–Can you give an example of good practice that impressed you?
A.–The Natural History Museum’s Treasures and Images of Nature.
Q.–What is the role played by users in developing inclusive products or services projects?
A.–It’s essential. The best advisers are deaf and disabled people. We need more good practice examples involving them as core design-team members, as paid professionals and as voluntary visitor-access group members.
Q.–What else could be done to progress towards a social model of diversity?
A.–Best practice guidelines to support organisations’ in meeting legal duties should including more comprehensive details on solutions for sensory and intellectual access.
Q.–Who holds most responsibility for an inclusive design project?
A.–Responsibility sits mainly with clients or organisations offering services, but they need others’ support. They hold around 25% of the responsibility, with the remaining 75% shared equally between designers, design schools, design institutions, government and society.
Q.–What points do you consider key for encouraging integration of inclusive design and accessibility across an institution’s communication?
A.–Firstly, choice benefits society overall, because people communicate and learn in different ways. Secondly, programmes and events can be more creative and enjoyable for more people through inclusive design, targeting an audience with a broader profile. Finally, economic arguments remain powerful: deaf and disabled people form part of our income-earning/generating society. They visit or use services with family and friends who all spend money. Improving access to goods and services improves cash flow. Without access, the opposite occurs.
Image: Louvre, Paris 1942. Interior view during World War II showing empty picture frames (the art treasures of the Louvre had been evacuated).
Paul Almasy, Louvre, Paris 1942 © Paul Almasy | AKG images.
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