How Historical Buildings and the Heritage Sector Have Failed Disabled People
This was originally published on Medium, but am putting it here as well for posterity/for me to keep track. If you can, please go and look at the version on Medium and give it some claps (whatever that means).
Also this week the post I wrote about the Mineral Hospital in Bath was published on the Disability History Association blog so sure, go look at that too!
I really miss old, historical buildings.
The old castles that are freezing cold even in July because all the stone walls needed to do was withstand the cannon fire of whoever was trying to invade them that time.
The museums that sneak up on you in a regular terraced street, memorialising the exceptional person who lived there, maybe only for 4 months when they were 10 but lived there all the same.
Even the National Trust type manors which are now little more than a glorified tea shop with some posters about the early 20th century.
They’ve been shut for months now, but I’ve been missing them for much longer than that.
It’s become not just easy, but highly encouraged, to dismiss access issues for historical buildings, sites and museums as the noble thing to do to protect our heritage.
Disabled people have heard all the excuses, the explanations and the justifications in every walk of life while trying to access our basic needs, and, particularly in the UK, they are often defenses based on heritage.
“It’s a very old building”
“It’s Grade 2 listed”
“We’re not allowed to alter the look”
“We just don’t have the money”
Using the background of conservation to deny access has been very successful as a method to stop unwanted criticism for complete and fundamental inaccessibility in everyday life, since to argue against it requires an amount of knowledge of history and heritage that many disabled people just don’t have.
Because we cannot access our shared history and heritage.
Are you starting to see the problem here?
We have reached a point where history is being used to deny disabled people their rights, and we are being forced into disability vs history, the showdown. This is not only a completely inaccurate summation of the debate, but a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of heritage in the first place.
Heritage will only continue to exist if it can adapt to the times, whether that’s the internet, a pandemic or the changing needs of the population. There’s a reason why we build new buildings, and it isn’t because we got bored of looking at the old ones, it was because they no longer met our needs. This isn’t to say that I believe access is more important than a building, but I sure as hell think human beings and education are more important than a building and for some reason in historical circles that is considered a controversial statement.
Nevertheless, history has got itself a reputation for sticking its nose up at amateurs and hobbyists. It is seen as being elitist, a subject for posh middle aged white blokes many of whom then think the history they’ve read backs up their “critical” racist thinking.
People want to access this world and you’re not letting them.
The whole purpose of this website, my research and writing is to try and make disability history accessible to my friends and peers.
These are people who often have no other way of knowing how people like them lived all through time, because it’s not as obvious as you think.
Why would you expect the upcoming generation to do the work to preserve all of this meaningful heritage if they’re not allowed to see it? Out of guilt? Obligation?
We want people to engage with and love history, but after a period of 10 or so years where the number of young people choosing to study History at GCSE and A Level was going down, it’s only now starting to increase again. There’s still a lot of people studying at university, but the demographics are not representative by a long shot. They are overwhelmingly white and abled.
Maybe part of me had given up on the hope that this would ever be any different, that historians are too hard a nut to crack and I would always be working from the outside.
I’d committed myself to being one of those people that academics hear about and go “oh god not her again”.
Being criticised for trying to talk about history without a PhD or *even* a masters.
Then I found something on Youtube from a few years ago which could just be the run-up to my future goal of leapfrogging these arguments: a 3D view guided tour of the Tower of London with Dan Snow.
It wasn’t perfect, I had to physically stand up and move my phone to see that there were people there, but it featured not only the well known historian, but one of the Ravenkeepers with expert knowledge of the tower, at the same time as being able to see it in all its glory.
This might be something taken for granted by interested parties, and people who have been dragged on guided tours by their families on rainy holidays.
Being able to learn about the place while seeing it is frequently off limits to disabled people.
This is now a direct call to the heritage sector.
This guided Youtube tour isn’t the whole solution, of course, but crucially, it’s the closest we’ve ever had.
This is a reasonable adjustment.
And you’ll be surprised how many non-disabled people use them too.
Shrugging your shoulders while you sit in your office, probably wearing those white gloves, waiting for the Heritage Lottery fund to turn up with a big novelty cheque for accessibility renovations does not cut it.
It never has but you have become complacent and have been allowed to get away with it.
And that is not because writing in the accessibility section of your website that you have 6 flights of stairs was sufficient according to the 2010 Equality Act.
It’s because no-one had ever put any effort into ensuring our rights.
And if we try ourselves, we get shamed for taking legal action.
And then you defend yourself that you don’t get disabled visitors anyway.
You need to raise the bar for yourselves higher than the spy movie trip wire an inch off the ground.
Of course you don’t have the funding right now, it’s expensive to renovate a historical building for disabled access, with all the conservationists and niche architects and builders, but it can be done. See the Roman Baths, they’ve done a pretty great job.
You need to be actively seeking funding for accessibility.
Hire disabled people to do an accessibility consultation so you know what you’re actually needing.
And until then, make guided video tours, increase your online presence, have virtual talks and digitise your collections.
Or you’re just actively participating in the destruction of our history and heritage.