ArchaeoSoup (an excellent video series on YouTube) raises an interesting question close to my own heart: Disabled Access at Archaeological sites and Museums. Now I’ll state up front that there has been many a time when I’ve had to leave my better half in the car whilst I trundled off across fields, or up stoney lanes to visit some of our sites – it’s not easy pushing a wheelchair in such conditions! But there again, there have been several pleasant museum visits that we’ve enjoyed together.

Museums are often situated in older buildings, not designed for the modern requirements of wheelchair access. Steps and narrow doorways abound, though it has to be said that many have done as much as they can to enable access. Sadly though, we’ve visited several where upper floors have been unavailable due to the lack of a lift.  Even the venerated British Museum can be difficult to navigate with a wheelchair – we wasted a lot of time, and covered a lot of ground  looking for suitable lifts on our visit there last year. Even the volunteer guides weren’t always aware of the location of the nearest lift, or the shortest route to get to a particular gallery.

The legislation covering ‘disabled access’ seems to be a minefield. An internet search found lots of information, but very little that a lay person may easily understand. The following seems to be a summary of the main legislative points though (taken from the Disabled Access UK web site)

Disability Discrimination Act 1995

Together with related Codes of Practice, it introduces measures aimed at ending discrimination and gives rights to the disabled.

  • Since December 1996 – it has been unlawful for service providers to treat disabled people less favourably for a reason related to their disability
  • Since October 1999 – providers have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people such as providing extra help or making changes to the way they provide their services
  • From October 2004 – requires service providers to assess obstacles and make reasonable adjustments to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access.

Disability Discrimination Act 2005

Designed to extend rights for disabled people, and clarify and extend provisions of the DDA 1995. It extends the definition of disability, and gives protection against discrimination for people in public service, such as councillors.

There are strong new disability equality duties for the public sector in delivering its services.

It also removes the grey area of private members club exemption from DDA responsibilities, and extends and details Part 5 DDA Transport.

Amendments on housing adaptations are also introduced.

On a visit to Flag Fen last year, we were pleased to be offered free use of a powered wheelchair, which was suitable for most of the terrain there, allowing entry into the reproduction roundhouses, a real experience! But more recently, West Stow could only offer access to the display buildings, and the pathway only went so far into the actual ‘village’, leaving the reproduction houses off-limits. This, we were told, was due to ‘soft ground’ but the question remains: if Flag Fen (build on a fen!) could overcome such obstacles, why not West Stow?

Of course, not every site is suitable for disabled access, particularly when you start to look at some of the ancient heritage sites that we love so much here at the Heritage Journal. The requirements of agriculture and stock control, and the sheer remoteness of some of the sites means they will be forever out of reach of disabled visitors (or indeed, those with young children in pushchairs).

So how does this all sit with the CBA stance of ‘Archaeology For All’? Archaeology for Some? Why not tell us about your experiences of access at sites? Were staff, where available, helpful and understanding? Or have you had a nightmare visit to a heritage site?