As dramatised last night on BBC2 in ‘The Best of Men’, the Paralympic Games were created by Dr. Ludwig Guttman in Stoke Mandeville Hospital just over 50 years ago. With record numbers of Paralympic tickets sold this year, and with the Games starting in less than two weeks, it seemed like a good time to reflect on how the cultural sector is matching up to the sporting world.
The Paralympics is doing much for raising public awareness about disability and promoting positive role models. The public are buying tickets to the Paralympic Games because they have been swept up in the excitement of watching quality games; they want to see sportsmen and women at the top of their game regardless of discipline, nationality or disability. The disabilities of the athletes are secondary to the competition itself; building year on year, the Paralympics are beginning to gain equal popularity to the Olympics.
Disabled people, historically, have often either been portrayed as helpless victims or as heroes overcoming their disability; achieving something despite their disability, and so in effect this tries to ‘normalise’ them. Exhibitions tying into the Paralympics, such as the travelling ‘Passion for Paralympics’ are creating positive disabled narratives based around real ordinary individuals, showing how far the cultural sector has progressed since 2004, when The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) in the University of Leicester’s Department of Museum Studies published a report entitled ‘Buried in the Footnotes: The Representation of Disabled People in Museum and Gallery Collections’ which demonstrates merely through its title how representation of disabled people has often been avoided by museum curators because of the fear of getting it wrong; the fear of causing offence was identified as outweighing the positive effects that could be gained from displaying disabled narratives.
In terms of access, a considerable amount of research has taken place in relation to physically disabled visitors, and many institutions have responded to these growing demands. Many museums have developed their sites to make them wheelchair friendly, provided Braille and large print interpretation for sight-impaired visitors, and supplied resources for hearing-impaired visitors.
This is the first year since 2000 that athletes with a learning disability may compete in the Paralympics, and is a hugely positive step forward for the sporting world. So, how does the cultural sector compare? In 2008, I wrote my MA dissertation entitled ‘How successfully are museums meeting the demands of government legislation in their attempts to engage visitors with learning disabilities?’
In 2002 the MLA (then Resource) published a survey stating that ‘The focus on physical disability, says Resource, tends to exclude 95 per cent of the estimated 8.7 million disabled people in the UK who are not wheelchair users.’ I went on to argue in my dissertation how significantly less research had concentrated on how museums can benefit and increase access for visitors with mental impairments or learning disabilities. Although precise figures are difficult to obtain, about 985,000 people in England have learning difficulties. It is predicted that the number of adults with learning disabilities will increase by eleven per cent between 2001 and 2021. According to the government White Paper entitled ‘Valuing People: A new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century’, people with learning disabilities are 'amongst the most vulnerable and socially excluded in our society'. A large percentage of the United Kingdom’s population has learning disabilities and they ‘are significantly under-represented among museum users and in cultural life in general.’
A number of museums and galleries are trying to engage visitors with learning disabilities. The problem, however, is how small an impact they have on museum practice nationally. These occasions appeared to be discrete, poorly publicised, evaluated and documented. The only way for museums and galleries to progress and improve services for this audience is to thoroughly record projects and to gather extensive feedback on them. Communication is the key to achieving a well networked and well developed programme of events and exhibitions that include visitors with learning disabilities. Communication is needed not just between museums and schools, but perhaps more importantly between museums and galleries themselves. What must also be remembered is that these provisions cannot simply be aimed at SEN schools - adults with learning disabilities must also be included.
An exhibition will never achieve a goal of being truly accessible to all even when only considering disabled people. Different people have different needs and requirements, and one exhibition cannot hope to meet them all, especially when some of them are conflicting. Indeed sometimes a specific target audience which may exclude others will have to be chosen, but this does not need to be the same audience every time, and additional provisions can be made. Modifying exhibitions and workshops for different needs and different levels of support is integral for museums to successfully engage visitors with learning disabilities.
I concluded my dissertation by saying that the challenge for the future is to make sure that the barriers to inclusion are not merely ‘temporarily dismantled’. These barriers need to be permanently destroyed: through instigating change in museums and public attitudes; through better communication so that institutions can learn from each other; through more critical approaches to evaluation; through attempting to change how people with learning disabilities are represented in an exhibition; through ensuring disabled people are equally represented in the employee workforce of the sector, through finding ways that they can engage in an exhibition space; and through finding ways that they can be engaged through flexible targeted sessions.
With prolific cuts to funding across the sector since 2008, I am not sure we are any further along the road to destroying these barriers. Although there have been many positive projects tying into the Cultural Olympiad such as ‘Stories of the World’, aimed at increasing diverse participation across society, it will remain to be seen whether we can build a lasting legacy from this work. Indeed the only thing that has significantly changed in these four years is the legislation, in which the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Disability Equality Duty 2006 are now encompassed into the Equality Act 2010. We need to look to the increasing success of the Paralympics to build year on year on the positive projects we have created.
Now is the time to embrace the momentum and to start integrating these changes so that we can provide a cultural offer equal to all.
 Jocelyn Dodd and others, Buried in the Footnotes: the Representation of Disabled People in Museum and Gallery collections: Phase 1 Report, (Research Centre for Museums and Galleries in the Univesity of Leicester’s Department for Museum Studies, 2004) <https://lra.le.ac.uk/handle/2381/33> [accessed 1 May 2008] p. 13.
 Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, Statistics about People with Learning Disabilities, <">http://www.learningdisabilities.org.uk/information/learning-disabilities-statistics/>; [accessed 1 May 2008].
 Department of Health, Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century <http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm50/5086/5086.pdf> [accessed 17 August 2012] p9
 Jan Walmsley, ‘Including People with Learning Difficulties: Theory and Practice’ in Disability Studies: Past Present and Future, ed. by Len Barton and Mike Oliver (Leeds: Disability Press, 1997) pp. 62-77 (p. 69) <">http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/walmsley/chapter4.pdf>; [accessed 22 May 2008].