Access All Areas?

Article excerpt

* Last year saw the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act, deeply flawed legislation whose stated aim is to eliminate `unjustified discrimination' against people on the grounds of disability. What effect this will have on sites or buildings of historic interest is as yet unclear, though the Act has raised some important points for those concerned with visiting and managing historic properties.

The Act makes clear that the present system of listing buildings, and the procedures to gain consent to make alterations to them will remain. For the purpose of this discussion, it is necessary to distinguish between buildings which are listed in order that people might visit them and look at them (on which I shall focus here), and the more difficult problem of buildings which have been listed with the intention that they remain in use.

The scope and nature of historic sites is bewildering. On the one hand there are very extensive buildings such as Hampton Court Palace, and on the other, many modest structures such as Anne Hathaway's cottage. Then there are the non-building sites: everything from hill forts and ruins, to preserved railways.

The Act requires providers of goods and services to make `reasonable adjustments' to these facilities to enable people with disabilities to use them. This is the central difficulty. When faced with a medieval castle, what should be regarded as a `reasonable' adjustment? Will the same standards be applied to ruined abbeys as to preserved railways? Should these questions best be left, as the Act intends, for the courts to adjudicate, or would it not be better to use the time before these provisions are fully implemented to begin to debate the wide-ranging questions the Act raises?

Many historic sites are exploring these issues already. Their doing so has arisen from a desire not to exclude a child from experiencing a ride on a real steam train, say, simply because the child happens to be in a wheelchair. Secondly, managers of historic buildings trying to generate needy revenue for these properties have come to realise that elderly and disabled visitors, the groups most likely to have difficulties with access, represent substantial market potential.

Within the United Kingdom, according to Government figures, over 14 per cent of adults have at least one disability. The European Union estimates that disabled and elderly people, taken together, account for between 20 and 25 per cent of the Union's population. These numbers under-estimate the impact of inaccessibility: if a site is inaccessible it will not be the disabled person alone who does not visit, usually the entire family group will seek an alternative destination for their day out.

The figures also point to a social policy dilemma. Is it right to spend public money preserving buildings which so high a proportion of society cannot enjoy? In other words, whose heritage is it and who are we preserving it for? Additionally, as the numbers of people with disabilities increase due to the `greying' of society, will it not be more difficult to justify spending large sums on heritage as opposed to social care -- particularly if access to the heritage sites is poor? Perhaps one element to be considered in this line of argument is the growing practice of `Reminiscence Therapy'. This stems from the realisation that it is psychologically beneficial for older people to remember and talk about their past and is also a method of gleaning valuable oral history documentation. Obviously historic houses, museums, preserved railways and the rest are great focuses for this work, provided that elderly people with disabilities can gain access to them.

A number of tasks face each site before progress can be made. The first of these is simply the need to consider what opportunities and limitations are presented to people with disabilities. Taking a hard look at available facilities will at least allow sites to offer families with a disabled member information enabling them to make a choice about the extent to which the visit would be worth their while. …