Kids in Museums promotes inclusive engagement and believes museums are for everyone. Families with children who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) may need some extra support, adaptation or flexibility in order to feel welcome in a museum.
The good news is much of this work is intuitive, practical and within the budget of even the smallest museum. The even better news is making your museum SEND friendly will invariably make it more accessible for other special needs groups, such as visitors with dementia, and will upskill staff in engaging creatively and holistically with all visitors.
Join the conversation using #SENDinMuseums and follow Sam on Twitter at @makedoandSEND.
SEN or SEND? What’s in a name? Good question!
- SEN stands for Special Educational Needs.
- SEND stands for Special Educational Needs and Disabled (or Disability).
For our purposes these mean the same in terms of audience needs and inclusivity. SEN however is a legally recognised term used in legislation like the Equality Act 2010 and Children and Families Act 2014. As we want to address physical barriers to access in this resource, we will use the term SEND throughout.
At the time of writing 8% of all children in the UK are SEND, according to the Family Resources Survey 2018/19 Department for Work and Pensions. This covers a huge range of needs and a broad scale of learning styles. The proportion of children diagnosed with complex needs, a higher level of learning disability and combination of medical and physical needs, is growing. Among school aged children, there are now 1.3 million with SEND – 14.9 per cent of all pupils – as recorded by the Department for Education 2019, so this is a large group of children to consider and their families.
The variety of family make ups means some may visit with more than one SEND child and most will have non-SEND or ‘neurotypical’ siblings. If a museum does not cater for the needs of the SEND child, the whole family is unlikely to visit.
We know that visiting a museum as a family has longer lasting emotional benefits than visiting with a school. So welcoming the whole family by supporting the needs of a SEND child within the group is essential not only for inclusion, but for family engagement for many children.
Start by fully understanding what you already do. Then you’ll quickly find the gaps and areas for improvement. Dedicate some time – an afternoon should be enough – to doing an honest SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) review of your organisation’s SEND friendliness.
Think of the whole visitor journey:
- Is your website accessible? Will a SEND family easily be able to find the access information to plan a visit?
- Are there physical barriers to access? These could include steps and not having a car park or an accessible toilet.
- Is your interpretation accessible? Are your display cases at a wheelchair accessible height. Do you provide any additional resources such as sensory backpacks?
- If you have a café, does it cater for a range of dietary requirements and is there somewhere for families to eat their own food?
- Does your shop stock pocket money sensory items, ideally linked to your collection themes?
As part of your SWOT, it’s essential to review soft barriers to inclusion such as:
- staff confidence in welcoming visitors with special needs.
A study by SCOPE in 2018 found, 87% of parents of disabled children aged 0 to 5 have felt judged by members of the public when they go out with their disabled child.
It’s frequently these areas that cause the most upset when they go wrong. Visitors can often accept a step in an old building, but negative or unwelcoming comments from staff or other visitors will ruin a visit even in the most physically accessible venue.
Assessing the strengths and weaknesses around SEND inclusion in your organisation will be relatively easy. The opportunities should become clear but sometimes the threats are the areas we need to dig deeper to find.
Threats to becoming SEND friendly might be external. Your location is beyond your control, but outreach to family groups can get around this.
More difficult to identify and tackle is any unconscious bias around SEND from within your organisation. To truly become SEND friendly, the ethos of inclusivity must run through every element of your work. As a result, it’s important to involve all staff in your initial review and share the results as widely as you can, including Trustees and key decision makers.
Ask who on your staff has SEND experience in or out of work. With 20% of the UK population being disabled and 8% of the child population being SEND it is very likely that at least one member of your staff will have direct personal experience. They may not want to become the organisation’s disability champion, but their personal experience is extremely valuable.
Contact SEND family support groups in your area. Be prepared to hear things you haven’t thought of in your initial SWOT review. Some ideas may seem impossible to deliver at first, but park these and you may find they are achievable later with the right partner or funding.
Your local social services disabled children’s team will have details of Portage groups and local charities who provide services for SEND families. Another good contact is special needs schools.
There are lots of great ideas to borrow from museums around the world working with SEND audiences and people are usually only too happy to share ideas. Join networks, follow groups and SEND advocates on social media, and get up to date knowledge about the types of things that are impacting on this group of families. There are some ideas about where to start at the end of the resource.
Once you’ve completed your SWOT review, research, and consultation, you will be well on the way to becoming more welcoming to SEND families. Come up with an initial list of aims. They could include:
- improving your website
- offering disability confidence training to all your staff
- making existing family activities more flexible and inclusive for SEND children
- offering more SEND friendly signage and interpretation.
After you have made changes, test them, refine them and promote them through the local networks you’ve established. Tell other museums so they understand the importance of being SEND friendly. This is a journey that the sector is going on as a whole and needs best practice examples.
Next are some key areas to think about that help make a great visitor experience for a SEND families.
Your website is key to whether a SEND family decides to visit your museum. According to the Euan’s Guide 2017 access survey, 95% of disabled people in the UK check an organisation’s website for access information before visiting.
An accessible layout is essential. VocalEyes has some great guidance on this. Equally important is clear information about visiting including:
- where you are and how to get to you
Is there parking and drop off information for adapted vehicles and blue badge holders? Are there any access issues getting into the building? Even if you don’t have public parking at your site, is there scope for pre-booking?
- a visual story
Show photos of key spaces visitors will encounter inside and outside the museum – this should be updated to include additional COVID-19 safety measures. Here’s a great example from BALTIC.
- a sensory map
This can highlight sensory triggers that can be downloaded in advance to allow families to plan their visit and avoid sensory overload. This should also include information about the location of facilities such as toilets and seating. See the Sensory Spectacle website to find out more.
- clear information about the toilets
Include photos of the toilet areas, clear information about where they are and how many there are, particularly if there is restricted access because of social distancing. If you don’t have a Changing Places toilet, then signpost to the nearest one and make sure you have negotiated with that organisation who has one on site that your visitors can access it too. Detail what entry arrangements these have, for example Radar Key (get one for the museum to lend) or other access pass.
- information about quiet spaces and quiet hours
This should include photographs and information about how to access them.
- a sample menu online if you have a café
Include information about allergy advice. Specify that it is okay for families with additional needs to eat food they have brought with them if needed. Some SEND children have specific or very limited food tolerances and you may not stock what they can or will eat.
- details of the main point of contact
Let them know who to contact if anything goes wrong during the visit or a family requires assistance. Can families pre-book a spare pair of hands to facilitate their visit? Eureka! has this service and it can make all the difference to getting the most out of a visit.
COVID-19 means that some SEND families are likely to remain virtual visitors for a while. It’s important to have accessible content and SEND friendly activities as part of your online learning offer to include them. Are there other ways they can engage, for instance online competitions or opportunities to share photos of artwork their kids have made to your Facebook page?
Disability confident staff
A study carried out by Ecclesiastical in 2019 showed 42% of parents with special needs children reported that staff or visitors were unfriendly or made them feel uncomfortable during visits to museums or heritage sites.
Trained staff who are confident in welcoming SEND families can make or break a museum visit. Make sure that everyone in your organisation feels able to be friendly and supportive to these visitors.
Consider taking up the Sunflower Lanyard scheme or creating one for the museum where visitors with additional needs (particularly invisible disabilities) can self -identify, helping staff to know they may require extra support during a visit.
Accessible information and signage
SEND families may need different support in accessing information to guide them through the museum and learn more about the displays. Get support and advice from organisations that support Blind and D/deaf people for communication methods that work for their needs.
In addition to large print text, hearing induction loops and BSL signing tours, are your museum staff trained in Makaton signing?
The use of symbols (sometimes referred to as PECs: Picture Exchange Communication symbols) is useful for sign giving instructions like touch or don’t touch, as well as facilities such as food, shop, or toilet.
Symbols can also be an effective way to guide families through the museum on theme trails. For instance, rather than focusing on dates, encourage families to explore the galleries on the themes of colour, materials or shape. There are different companies offering symbols and to use them commercially the museum will need a licence. If this is beyond the museum’s means, then photographs with the word underneath are good alternative.
Quiet spaces and Quiet Hours
If you have space, offer a ‘chill out’ or quiet room. Ideally this will have low sensory input and comfortable seating, as well as a mat to lay on if needed. Such rooms may be used to ‘chill out’, reset and calm sensory overload, or equally be a private space to give medicines or tube feeding. Eureka! has a great example of a large space put aside for this.
Quiet hours or relaxed opening will be beneficial to a wide range of needs not just those with Autism. At the moment, they could help a range of people who could be severely affected by COVID-19. Whilst a ‘relaxed’ hour is good for some, inclusion should be present every hour you are open.
Accessible resources such as trails, sensory backpacks and activities are not just for the child with SEND, they enable a more fluid visit for the whole family. They create focus and structure, enabling the experience of the museum to be holistic and much more relaxed.
Consider themed trails focused on colour or object use, such as things that you wear or animals. When you’re planning your trails, don’t forget to build in rest points.
Sensory backpacks are becoming more common in museums. They were originally aimed at slowing down or keeping a child entertained with sensory or ‘fiddle’ toys so that the family could extend their visit. However, they now form an accessible form of interpretation for that child and a support system for the whole family engaging with the museum displays.
At the same time, be open to a family using the space and gallery as just an opportunity to be in a different environment even if they don’t notice your lovely displays or use your trails or backpacks. If the visit works well, they will come back and delve deeper into the exhibitions next time.
There are a growing number of museums that have developed SEND family group sessions and even clubs. These are a great way to engage with local SEND families and should always be designed in conjunction with them.
Whilst special SEND friendly sessions are the gold standard, the reality is smaller museums may not be equipped with staff to support these. Also, some families with non-SEND children may not want to bring them all to a SEND specific session. Therefore, it’s essential that you build flexibility into all the activities you offer so any family can join in.
Any craft activity can be adapted to be inclusive. Think about the end result as a happy consequence and the goal of the sessions being the experience. Handing materials and experiencing them with all the senses will mean much more to some children than creating the most realistic looking rendition of an animal or artwork.
Other activities that work well with SEND audiences are:
- handling collections
- multi-sensory experiences
- film and audio
- involve the children, welcome them and show them round.
Help children experience something new and different and bring their own interpretation to the activity.
This is a great SEND inclusive activity. Here are some tips:
- Base it on a great museum object or story.
- Think about taking the children on a trail through the galleries to the storytelling area.
- Choose an appropriate space in the museum and set it up.
- Use sound, texture, colour, props, objects, role play, music. Have multiple objects!
- Include gesture, rhythm, rhyme and repetition, a few Makaton signs and lots of audience participation.
- Provide storytelling training for staff/volunteers such as Live Inclusive Storytelling.
- Know your audience and think of ways to involve them.
- Include space for wheelchairs near the front.
- Keep it short and flexible.
Using a museum shop can be an important part of a family visit and a great opportunity for learning social and independence skills. Consider stocking sensory friendly items (you can even get sensory toys that link to almost any collection theme!) and also offer a package deal of pre-pay for and collect bag from the shop for those who feel unable to access it.
Once you have stepped into the world of SEND and worked with young people and their families, the change will benefit other areas of your organisation and staff wellbeing. Much of what is SEND friendly also makes a site more accessible to adults with learning disability, as well as conditions such as dementia. Any physical access improvements automatically make a space more accessible to families with babies in buggies. The impact is global and economical in this respect.
Once you start working with SEND children and their families, a wonderful thing happens, you start to learn new ways of engaging and appreciating things, including your work and collections. It can be a liberating and at the same time, grounding experience.
Helpful links and resources
- VocalEyes website accessibility
- State of Museum Access 2018: does your museum website welcome and inform disabled visitors?
- EMBED Digital access audit guide
Online access guides
Filmed access guides and tours
Museum sensory guides
- Eureka! sensory guide
- Royal Academy Sensory Map
- Royal Academy Sensory Map for Picasso and Paper exhibition
- Royal Museums Greenwich Sensory Map
- Sensory Spectacle training on how to create sensory guides
SEND Family Activities
- Autograph blog about creating a UK-wide programme of SEND workshops
- Discover Children’s Story Centre free clubs for disabled children and their families and carers
- Hepworth Wakefield SEND Friendly Sessions
- Hepworth Wakefield Explore and Draw Stations
SEND museum backpacks or handling collection
Chill out and sensory rooms
- Eureka! chill out room
- Leeds City Museum multi-sensory room for under 5s
- RAF Museum London quiet rooms