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How museums are rethinking disability representation

As society strives for better inclusivity and accessibility across all areas of life, the museum sector can rightly claim to be working as hard as any industry to welcome, encourage and support those with disabilities and learning difficulties in the workforce.

Representation matters. And where better to celebrate society’s differences in all their wonderful forms than in cultural and creative spaces. So, let’s take a closer look at the importance of disability representation within the museum community and how institutions are approaching their recruitment drive with inclusivity in mind.

The importance of disability representation

Let’s first acknowledge that disability representation is a broad term that can encompass people from all backgrounds and with many forms of impairment – from those in wheelchairs to the neurodiverse, the visually impaired to those with mental health struggles.

As such, not all disabilities are as easy to diagnose and we must recognise that museums cannot accommodate disability representation with a one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, we should acknowledge that an institution may work incredibly hard to promote accessibility for those with movement impairments through the implementation of ramps, lifts and other facilities but this doesn’t mean their work also caters adequately for an employee with autism or hearing impairments.

Appreciating the diversity within disability and accepting that representation requires a variety of improvements rather than a broad brush approach is perhaps the first step towards implementing meaningful and impactful change.

Closely aligned to this, we should state that any commitment to initiating change should also reflect the importance of improving disability dignity and rights. Making those with impairments feel valued, respected and equal of any other team member is every bit as important as implementing physical changes or adapting processes and procedures.

Accessibility for disabled talent

A diverse, inclusive, equal culture starts with identifying the most immediate and urgent areas for change. That may be updating documentation to incorporate braille translations, it may be adapting amenities and facilities to improve the workplace environment, or it could mean accommodating employees through remote working opportunities and the promotion of digital tools to support accessibility.

These improvements should also be supported with training for inclusion – something that many museums are already doing well. The latest disability training includes supporting managers to effectively interview disabled candidates without fear of asking inappropriate questions or saying the wrong thing. More broadly, training should extend to the entire workforce in order to make all employees more comfortable with and able to contribute to an inclusive working environment.

Perhaps the most important message that experts in disability provision often convey is that there is no start or end to disability provision and ultimately disability representation. More accurately, institutions should look to continuously strive to ensure that they are reinforcing and improving their approaches to training, recruitment and accessibility, so that ultimately representation becomes a desirable by-product of their equal opportunities initiatives.

Disability representation: show don’t tell

Of course, any efforts to make improvements to the workplace should involve action over words. Paying lip service to inclusivity initiatives will never have as far-reaching benefits as making clear and obvious improvements that people can see for themselves.

For those with disabilities seeking employment opportunities, being welcomed at reception, interviewed in the boardroom and served in the gift shop by somebody with disabilities tells them far more about the institution’s approach to accessibility than the policies that can be found in print on the official website.

Of course, disability representation doesn’t stop at employment opportunities: a proven track record for disability representation in exhibitions and programming also speaks volumes about how a museum or gallery is seeking to play an active role in progressing disability rights and leading conversations within the community.

The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) looked into this theme several years ago when it launched its own project to tackle disabilism head on. The institution developed and ran the Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries (RDR) initiative to cultivate change in how disability is interpreted and represented in museums and galleries throughout the UK.

During the project, they collaborated with nine museums to question and challenge how disability is perceived by society. The RCMG’s work paved the way for several exhibitions, displays, and workshops. These included the ‘Life Beyond the Label’ exhibit at the Colchester Castle Museum, which dissected the individuality of people with disabilities, and the touring exhibition ‘One in Four’, which explored the experiences and attitudes that surround disability.

Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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