Across the UK, 11 million, or one in six, people are affected by hearing loss. As the population ages, more of us will be affected. In the UK today, 900,000 people have severe or profound hearing loss meaning they hear very little, or nothing at all.
Around 90% of deaf children are born to hearing families and over 75% attend mainstream schools with little or no specialist provision. Lack of support often means that they encounter communication barriers every day of their lives at school and in their social and home lives. As a result, deaf children commonly experience social isolation, poor mental health, low self-esteem and poor educational outcomes.
Making a museum accessible to visitors who are D/deaf or hard of hearing is about creating an equal experience for these visitors. It’s important to understand that every deaf person is different – with different levels of deafness, hearing aids or cochlear implants, technology and communication preferences. Some of the suggestions in this resource include making relatively small tweaks to the existing programme to be deaf friendly, whereas others will involve deeper cultural change and understanding across the organisation.
Definition of D/deaf:
“Big D” Deaf people identify themselves as culturally deaf and have a strong deaf identity, they primarily communicate using sign language. Lower-case “d” usually applies to someone who has hearing loss, who uses spoken English as their first language, but they may also lip read and/or use hearing aids.
First things first – make a plan
Decide on what first steps you want to achieve and how you might build on this.
Here’s how to get started:
Go out and experience what other venues have to offer.
There are some examples from other heritage venues at the end of this document.
Involve families and young people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing and ask for their feedback.
Use existing networks to get in touch with people – ask a local Deaf school, a Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) School, or charities mentioned at the bottom of this resource. For example, Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children organises an annual Family Day in partnership with the British Library, which is accessible to all.
Create an Access Advisory Panel, bringing these families and young people together with other people with lived experience of disability. The Disability Cooperative Network gives guidance on setting up a disability advisory group. The Horniman Museum & Gardens has a well-established Access Advisory Panel that meets four times a year.
Consider how to promote your offer to people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing both on site and online.
Facebook is a good way to organise and promote accessible events for deaf people, with its balance of visual and text communication. It also means that you can share your event directly in deaf community groups to let people know.
Remember to make it clear that your event is accessible for deaf people! Unless you promote it as such, many deaf people will not see it as something they can participate in.
Make sure that wherever you provide a telephone number, an email address is provided alongside it. Try to offer as wide a range of means of contact as possible – minicom or textphone, SMS, a text relay service such as NGT (Next Generation Text). If you have the resources, a live chat option or contact through Facebook messenger or Twitter is useful. All these different methods of communication increase accessibility for deaf people.
Where possible use clear, plain English, free of jargon and complicated phrasing.
Include all staff in your plans.
Book deaf awareness training for staff to make sure everyone has the confidence to participate. The following organisations all provide a range of training courses: Action on Hearing Loss, National Deaf Children’s Society and Royal Association for Deaf people.
Top tips for communication
One of the main challenges for deaf people is missing information or instructions. Take a look at our general communication advice below.
- Ask what method of communication is preferred. Maybe it is lip-reading, talking, writing, signing or all of the above!
- Make sure you have the person’s attention before you begin speaking to them.
- Try to avoid positioning yourself with your back to a bright light or window – this can make lip-reading and watching facial expressions difficult.
- Seating positions are also important. If it is a small group a circle is best and if it is a larger group then ensure seating is staggered. Make sure those that need to sit at the front so they can see the speaker or interpreter.
- If someone is lip-reading what you are saying, try to speak the same way that you always do. Don’t slow down or emphasise the words more – this changes your lip pattern and can make you look angry!
- Don’t cover your mouth when you are speaking, as this makes it even harder to lip read.
- Don’t shout – shouting to try and make yourself heard changes your facial expression.
- Try to learn a little bit of sign language if possible. Action on Hearing Loss issue a leaflet, Learning British Sign Language, which includes basic signs and the fingerspelling alphabet.
- Use visual cues as much as possible and point to what or where you are talking about.
- Don’t speak directly to the sign language interpreter – look at the person that you are involved in conversation with.
- Don’t pretend to understand if you have not.
- Turn off music or eliminate background noise.
- Remember that even if someone is wearing hearing aids, they might not be able to hear you clearly.
Improve physical access to your museum
Start by working with people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing to understand what constitutes a physical barrier. Alternatively you can commission an access auditor to provide an action plan.
Here are some key ways to improve physical access to your museum:
Include a BSL introduction
Consider including a BSL introduction (with subtitles) on your website which gives a brief overview of your museum. You might want to include BSL videos of the top ten objects or a highlights tour. Examples from other heritage venues are at the end of this document.
Consider video and audio description
If you are showing a video with audio in your museum, make sure the video is subtitled, or with a transcript if subtitles are not possible. If you are showing an audio-only piece, provide a transcript and make sure there’s a sign somewhere stating that transcripts are available.
Think about acoustics and lighting
Create good listening conditions. For example, think about using a soundproof or quieter room for a workshop instead of an echoey hall or a room with a high ceiling. A space with carpets and soft furnishings will be quieter, as these absorb sound and help to reduce echo.
Lighting in the space is important and whoever is facilitating the talk or workshop should avoid positioning themselves with their back to a bright light or window.
Induction hearing loops
Induction hearing loops are a special type of sound system for use by people with hearing aids to communicate more easily during close-range conversations (up to 1m away) in public places, including ticket office counters and reception desks. There should be clear signage to indicate where points are. A whole room can have a loop system. Portable induction loops can also be used in a space where a workshop is being delivered. It is important that daily checks are in place to make sure they are working.
Offer accessible ticketing and assistance
For example, concessionary rates apply for disabled visitors and carers are entitled to free admission. Staff at the information desk should signpost visitors to any resources available to support their visit.
Ensure signage is clear and concise.
Introduce tailored resources
Combining different types of resources will have the most impact and means the visitor can choose what suits them best. Remember to speak to families after they have visited to get their feedback on what worked best for them.
Here are a few suggestions for tailored resources and programmes:
Audio guides available with subtitles or BSL interpretation.
The Association of Sign Language Interpreters has a list of approved interpreters.
BSL talks and tours
Offer a variety of BSL led activities with a Deaf BSL user, Deaf Art facilitator or book an Interpreter. Consider also having simplified transcripts and texts available for visitors who want them. Organise tours at quieter times so those that do not sign are not having to contend with lots of background noise. If you have radio aids, advertise that you have these available to help communication. Radio aids are systems that wirelessly send the sound from a microphone transmitter to a receiver, worn by the person with hearing loss. The receiver will then send the sound to the user’s hearing aids or cochlear implant processors.
If you’re organising a talk, workshop or performance, you need to provide opportunities for attendees to let you know if they have any access requirements when they’re RSVPing, buying tickets or just when you are advertising or promoting the event. You might consider using the following wording, “If you have any access requirements, please email … and let us know”.
Consider booking communication support and advertising when this will be offered e.g. on a monthly basis. If it’s an activity for families or young people and a bookable event consider adding a line in your marketing material – “Communication support available on request” this way you can respond to demand and also book the best form of communication support e.g. BSL Interpreter, someone who provides SSE (Sign Supported English), a note taker etc.
For families who use both BSL and spoken English having an interpreter means they can participate on an equal footing.
Use images in the workshop as visual cues and a variety of mixed media.
Provide sensory backpacks with materials or objects related to the collection on display. This gives visitors an alternative way of exploring objects.
Some top tips:
- Don’t reinvent the wheel – seek advice and use existing resources.
- Adapt to your heritage focus and work with local partners, staff, volunteers and audiences.
- Access and inclusion need to be supported with adequate money and staffing – to support training or improve physical access.
- Improving access for people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing also improves access for other audiences and enhances the overall visitor experience.
- Embed your learning and plan for legacy.
- Programme events to coincide with national campaigns, such as Deaf Awareness Week or Sign Language Week.
- Just try out your ideas – they don’t have to be perfect, but you will have started something.
Some of the things museums and heritage sites offer:
- Science Museum: SIGNific
Inclusive events for families with members who are D/deaf, hard of hearing or who use cochlear implants. Presenters use BSL and are accompanied by voiceover interpreters and live subtitles so SIGNtific is as accessible as possible.
- National Portrait Gallery: BSL tour iPhone app
Free from the App Store but also on devices in Gallery. The app uses both subtitles and BSL with highlights of the Collection by theme.
- National Gallery: BSL Introduction to the Gallery
A multimedia tour featuring 23 highlight paintings from the collection and video clips with BSL commentary.
- Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter: BSL videos
Videos with BSL, audio and subtitles introduce RAMM, its services and key objects on display.
- Exeter Deaf Academy: Takeover Day video
Students from Exeter’s Deaf Academy showcase their favourite objects on display at RAMM. This film was made as part of Takeover Day 2014. It has BSL, subtitles and sound.
- House of Illustration: Family programme
Events delivered in BSL and spoken English for both hearing and non-hearing families on the last Sunday of the month.
- Manchester Art Gallery: Monthly tours
BSL led tours in the Gallery every month. There is a video in BSL on the website by one of the Deaf Guides giving an introduction to the programme. You can book a BSL interpreter for any of the Gallery events providing you call in advance.
- Heritage Ability
With funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Heritage Ability is helping at least 20 South West heritage destinations become more accessible. It is being delivered by a team at Living Options Devon, a small disability charity in the South West. For Deaf people who use BSL, they will be working with the community to create BSL videos.
- Derby Signfest
A new festival happening across Derby, celebrating and raising awareness of British Sign Language, and the fact that Derby has the second largest Deaf community outside of London.
- The Deaf Museum and Art Gallery, Warrington (The British Deaf History Society)
The Museum is usually open by appointment only but they host family fun days.
- The Deaf Visual Archive
Online archive with the aim of making Deaf heritage accessible.
- See and Create
A go-to place for Deaf Families to find out about Deaf-accessible creative events in Medway, Kent. They provide a listings website where you can search for fun BSL-friendly activities and workshops, but also co-ordinate their own events.
- V&A: Tonotopia
In 2018, an artist and composer created Tonotopia, a temporary audiovisual display at the V&A exploring people’s experiences hearing different sounds and music through their cochlear implants (CI). Today V&A Families regularly put on British Sign Language and deaf friendly activities and events.
Organisations that can provide more information and advice:
- Advice from the National Deaf Children’s Society:
Communicating with a Deaf child
How to be Deaf friendly
Tips for Deaf friendly arts
- Action on Hearing Loss
Provides BSL awareness training, auditing service and advice on technology.
- British Deaf Association (BDA)
The BDA is the UK’s leading membership organisation and registered charity run by Deaf people for Deaf people. The BDA delivers a range of services to achieve its aims of empowering Deaf people to overcome difficulties that they face on a daily basis.
- BSL vocabulary poster creator
A tool to create signs and sheets of key words in BSL.
- Twinkl teaching resources
Useful website to download posters, flash cards and materials for teaching, as well as other helpful resources for events, such as Deaf Awareness Week and Sign Language Week.
- Disability Cooperative Network (DCN)
DCN works to promote and embed inclusive practice in the heritage and cultural sector.
- Engaging deaf and disabled young people heritage toolkit
This toolkit from the History of Place project is a ‘how to’ for organisations wanting to engage deaf and disabled young people.
Access Support Directory
- Association of Sign Language Interpreters
- Speech to Text (Palantypist)
- Electronic Notetakers
- Association of Lipspeakers