Working to make museums accessible to a bigger, broader and more varied audience is something that we can all agree on. But as we are regularly reminded, not every disability or learning difficulty is visible and it isn’t always easy to cater for everyone’s needs in a single, easy-to-implement way.
Yet despite the obvious challenges, ensuring accessibility for neurodiverse audiences has to be a priority for museums and galleries. If institutions are serious about inclusivity and diversity they must build on the good work that has already been done in this space.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways that neurodiverse audiences are being accommodated, engaged and made to feel valued.
Neurodiversity – looking beyond the label
Neurodiversity is a term used to describe people with autism, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), dyslexia or other neurological or developmental conditions that causes the brain to work in a different way to the vast majority of people (classed as ‘neurotypical’). In the UK alone, over 1 million people are diagnosed as ‘neurodiverse’, which tells us everything we need about the importance of inclusivity for this audience.
As Judy Singer – the autistic sociologist who first coined the term ‘neurodiversity’ – puts it: “Neurodiversity is a state of nature to be respected, an analytical tool for examining social issues, and an argument for the conservation and facilitation of human diversity”.
Despite the many challenges that can be faced by members of the neurodiverse community, as human beings, we should remember that many of the traits of neurodivergence include creativity, imagination, innovation, artistic flair and all that the arts and culture sector holds dear. Giving neurodiverse audiences the access they need to nurture these qualities and skills is fundamental within the arts, heritage and culture sectors.
Art and artefacts speak to individuals from all walks of life and can inspire those of any neurological status or cognitive function. By embracing the concept of neurodiversity within institutions, talents can be enabled and encouraged. Neurodiversity after all isn’t about finding a cure, it’s about helping and accommodating neurodiverse individuals to unlock opportunities.
The neurodiverse-friendly museum experience
Open plan settings can be stressful for neurodiverse people. This means that incorporating flexible spaces, quiet areas, individualised arrangements and sensory experiences can play an important role in making museums and galleries more accessible to this particular audience.
While there are undoubtedly times when programming teams would wish to implement intricate and arresting installations using an array of lights or visual effects, it is important to note that for some neurodivergent people, like those with autism, bright lights and intricate displays can be triggering or cause a sensory overload.
The key to supporting neurodivergent individuals to enjoy a safe and engaging museum visit is often to help remove surprises and enable comprehensive planning in advance. This can be as simple as making downloadable maps of a museum space available to families so that routes can be prepared and congested areas can be avoided during busy periods. Similarly, knowing where amenities such as cafes, toilets and exits are can provide valuable peace of mind to neurodivergent individuals and their families in equal measure.
The usual text-based exhibit information can be overhauled to include interactive, easy to read, audio and visual displays. Removing timed slots can also be beneficial to neurodiverse visitors, who often like to process the experience at their own pace.
The use of audio guides and coloured lens is another museum upgrade that will be appreciated by neurodiverse people with sensory processing difficulties, such as autism, dyspraxia and ADHD.
In some instances, museums have had success in offering extended opening hours or “relaxed openings” for those looking to avoid crowds and enjoy a calmer, more relaxed experience. At Cornwall’s Regimental Museum, for example, simple adaptations were made to encourage visits for people with sensory processing disorders. This involved the provision of ear defenders to reduce the volume of bugle and drum noises within exhibitions; turning off hand-dryers within the toilets; adjustments to lighting throughout the museum; and clearing the reception desk of all but essential information.
Removing barriers to entry is critical for any museum, gallery or cultural institution looking to encourage inclusivity and accessibility. As we have discussed in this article, often the smallest and simplest changes can make a profound difference – helping to accommodate the planning of a visit and the easing of any challenges that might occur.