Parents of children with special needs report feeling unwelcome

Damning survey shows heritage sites must do more to be inclusive

Yosola Olorunshola, 30.10.2019
Parents of children with special needs report feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable
British heritage sites are not doing enough for families of children with special needs, according to a recent survey.

More than 40% of parents of children with special needs reported that staff or other visitors had been unfriendly or made them feel uncomfortable while visiting museums, art galleries, theatres, stately homes or castles with their children.

Only 22% of parents whose children do not have special needs reported the same.

The figures were published in a survey conducted by Censuswide on behalf of specialist heritage insurer Ecclesiastical. The survey was completed by 2,000 parents with children under the age of 16 – 11% of whom said they had a child with special needs.

The survey also included recommendations on how to improve support for people with additional needs. Almost half (46%) of parents called for specific quiet or loud times and designated areas to cater to children with special needs. More than a third (36%) believed the ability to queue jump would improve their experience, while 33% said accessible toilets and quality changing facilities would better support their children’s needs.

“At times it is challenging to go out as a family. It can be very stressful as not every venue understands how they can support families with invisible disabilities,” said Vicki Buchalik, founder of Hard Days Out – Made Easy, an online community that reviews days out for those with additional needs.

As a parent of a child with autism, she has firsthand experience of barriers to enjoying heritage sites as a family.

“Simple things can make or break our day, such as a warm welcome, trained and approachable staff, together with an environment which has considered potential pitfalls and is supportive of our needs,” said Buchalik.

Becki Morris, director of the Disability Collaborative Network (DCN) CIC, acknowledged the value of the survey. 

“It’s always important to recognise barriers in relation to visits, taking the current day-to-day experiences of neurodivergent and disabled people into account.“

The DCN works to support organisations to develop inclusive, intersectional practice that covers the full scale of protected characteristics and neurodivergent experiences. It has recently partnered with Embed, a consortium of professional consultants dedicated to equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, which launched in October to help transform organisations through inclusive practice.  

“To progress as a sector, we need to enable the voices of disabled and neurodivergent people to come through. We need to profile the good work being done and find solutions more quickly,” said Morris. 

“And fundamentally, we need to make sure funding streams are inclusive from procurement through planning, right from the beginning.”

The Ecclesiastical survey highlighted organisations that have taken positive steps to improving their support for people with additional needs. London Transport Museum opens outside of regular hours on certain days to enable those with autism to enjoy the museum at a quieter time, free from the general public and with many of the gallery sounds turned off. In a similar vein, the National Children’s Museum in Yorkshire enables those with sensory impairments to enjoy interactive exhibits which they can smell, touch, press and pull.

“While most heritage organisations are inclusive and have done a fantastic job diversifying their offering to attract families with a range of needs, clearly more needs to be done to encourage parents and their children to visit these incredible places across Britain,” said Faith Kitchen, heritage director at Ecclesiastical.

“By offering specific quiet or loud times or designated areas and the ability to queue jump, heritage organisations can better cater for children with special needs and their families.”


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31.10.2019, 20:22
The report makes interesting reading but where's the context. 40% of parents report unfriendly staff or visitors - how many are other visitors perhaps reacting/over-reacting to families affecting their visit rather than the staff trying to balance the needs of many different users. We have all witnessed inconsiderate behaviour and not everyone just tolerates it, some people intervene.
The idea of special times has been tried where organizations have the funding to be open for additional hours. However, it works both ways, how many other groups would prefer to visit when other people are excluded. Going out and rubbing along with other people is what we all have to do.
The ability to queue jump might mean that staff have to rank all visitors by some kind of needs basis which would be discriminatory and inevitably subjective. Who is to decide? If you want to be at the front of the queue - get there early.
There is a lot of expectation on front of house staff to recognize invisible disabilities. How feasible is this without lots of training.
Everyone would like a warm welcome from trained and approachable staff. Families usually visit at half terms, weekends and school holidays when heritage sites are busier, staff are stretched and many staff wish to be with their families as well. It is a big challenge.
All free to enter sites would have more money to back up these initiatives if they weren't paying out so much in insurance fees to companies like Ecclesiastical. Clearly more needs to be done but the sector needs more than advice from insurance companies. How about lobbying the Government to redirect some of the 12.5% IPT they gather to put towards helping heritage sites.
31.10.2019, 14:01
There are some really great initiatives happening around the country, but obviously not enough and perhaps not widely known outside of the sector itself.
CAE can help museums, galleries and heritage sites look at their accessibility across the board and make greater provision. Simply contact us -!
Centralised funding should also be made available to ensure that provision is always accessible (and properly maintained!).