Accessibility and inclusion are such broad topics that it’s difficult to know where to start, especially when you want to improve not only your organisation but also your 800+ members that are spread across the UK. Our Programme Manager, Beverley Gormley, talks about our journey so far.
Where to start?
As a disabled woman, limb-different from birth, I’m acutely aware of how inaccessible the world and much of society are. I’m part of the 24% of the UK population that is considered disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions so I’ve always had a passion for improving the situation. Thankfully, finding the starting point for Heritage Trust Network was made easier in February 2020 when we received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to deliver our Unlocking the Power of Communities project. ‘Unlocking’ was a major development and capacity building project, the likes of which the core Network staff team hadn’t previously delivered, with one element being the introduction of online training sessions. The unprecedented Covid19 pandemic galvanised the team into action and brought about our first forays into the online Networking space in the form of ‘Network Natters’. These informal peer support sessions were soon followed by the introduction of training sessions and webinars which brought people together from around the UK so there were no geographical barriers and no travel and accommodation costs. It soon became clear that members had varying needs with regard to accessing webinars, and we started to ask them if they had any access requirements during the booking process.
At this point, I felt that I would benefit from digital accessibility training with the Disability Collaborative Network which was a huge eye-opener for me. This training was rapidly followed by attending a Diversity in the Workplace conference. Both events had a profound effect on my thought process when planning the rest of the project.
During the digital accessibility training I’d become very aware that our current website wasn’t very accessible and, as we didn’t have specific funding to improve this aspect of the website, we included an overlay widget called Userway. Overlay widgets aren’t the be all and end all as they can sometimes make interactive websites less accessible – you really don’t want that to happen, however this one was a small improvement as it enabled people visiting the website to have it read to them, have the contrast increased and have the text enlarged. It was a small step in the right direction! Following this, it became clear that we would need a digital accessibility audit undertaken by an expert and we commissioned Embed to do this work for us while we made some improvements to our online training offer.
A small change made a huge difference
We’d been using the Gotowebinar platform which wasn’t particularly accessible or intuitive, so we undertook some research and compared some of the most popular platforms. Zoom seem to be a clear winner and we made the switch as it was more interactive, better for networking and enabled the addition of accessibility apps. One such app was Otter.ai which is a live speech to text transcript that can be accessed by Zoom participants during a meeting or event. It’s also very useful for staff members who might need to take minutes.
Back to the accessibility audit… This ended up being a piece of work that has underpinned everything we’ve done online, including our communications, and I can’t stress how important it’s been. It brought home exactly how inaccessible our website was, from images that did not have alt text so couldn’t be understood by people using screen reading technology, to text with low contrast which couldn’t be identified by people with visual impairments, to badly formatted webpages that were difficult to access by people who do not use a mouse to navigate the Internet and videos with no captions. At the time it seemed like an insurmountable task to put things right, but at this point we’ve fixed as much as we can possibly fix before we start on the development of new website in 2024.
The Disability Collaborative Network became an important sounding board for us, and after they’d spoken at one of our Network Natters we met with them to discuss how we could make our annual conference more accessible. The conference was going to be held in Caernarfon North Wales and we knew from the outset that there would be live Welsh to English translation, a quiet space and a prayer room, but we wanted to go much further. Alongside the more obvious accessibility questions to ask when considering potential venues, the DCN’s advice included lots of things we hadn’t thought about such as asking workshop leaders to provide advance information about what they will be expecting delegates to do, what sort of materials lifts are made from, whether there is seating and free water available during tours, where the nearest Changing Places toilet is and if venues accept card, cash or other methods of payment so that people could be prepared. All of this information led to us producing our first ever accessibility guide for a conference and we’ve built on this ever since, now supplying accessibility information for all of our in-person events.
From small acorns…
We’re now three years on but still have much to do, however in that three years our membership has grown by around 220% and has become more diverse. The development of a thriving Youth Forum has greatly helped us to include and engage young people who are in the early stages of their career, are students, or simply have an interest in heritage. We have big plans for the Youth Forum! Back in 2020 we only had six student members and now we have 178, thanks in part to the introduction of free student membership, our Digital Heroes project and closer ties with universities and national heritage bodies (who now call on our young people to help with their events and research).
We’ve done so much in three years that this blog post risks becoming a novel, so I’ll include some of our other achievements along the road to inclusion and accessibility here:
- We now send out accessibility guidelines for speakers that are preparing presentations for our events and we check those presentations in advance
- After discussions about the lack of Board diversity we successfully recruited 3 young people to our Board, two of whom were trainee trustees (now full trustees)
- Two students joined the Unlocking the Power of Communities steering group, enabling them to gain valuable experience
- We included our members in our journey by delivering events that covered Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (Addressing Racism in Heritage, Rendered Invisible and Easy Access to Historic Buildings)
- We joined the Disability Confident Employer scheme and now run inclusive recruitment campaigns
- Our Caernarfon conference was delivered ‘Welsh first’ with Welsh-speaking presenters and live translation
- Disability Collaborative Network presented on accessibility at our Newcastle conference
- We added an accessibility statement to our website
A few tips
- ‘Nothing about us without us’ – if you want to engage with wider, more diverse groups of people don’t make assumptions. Involve them right from the start in planning your activities, and ask for their views on your communications and digital platforms
- Add accessibility improvements into your funding bids, whether they’re in a digital or physical space
- Listen to what a screen reader sounds like when the content isn’t accessible
- Stop using ‘click here’ and use descriptive hyperlinks!
- Start the conversation about how diverse your Board really is
- Don’t just expect young people to volunteer for you – make it a meaningful experience for them that they can use to enhance their CV, learn new skills and make connections
- Have accessibility and inclusion running through everything you do. It will make your organisation a much more attractive one to fund, work for and volunteer for
- Familiarise yourself with web accessibility fundamentals
- Embrace ‘co-design’. Everyone will have a more meaningful experience and your project/activities will have a greater impact
- There is no ‘one size fits all’. The road to accessibility and inclusion may seem long, but each step is an important one and you’re improving things for people that might not have engaged with you before your journey began
We’re certainly not perfect and we still have a long way to go but at least the journey has been started and we’ve just stopped at the first refuelling point. Why don’t you come on the journey with us?
Being born with a limb difference has given Beverley a passion for helping to make the world a more accessible and inclusive place for disabled people. Alongside being our Programme Manager she is a trustee of The Open Bionics Foundation, a young charity that helps people access funding for Hero Arm ‘bionic’ technology to improve their lives.
If you’d like to chat to Beverley about our journey so far you can email her at email@example.com and look out for a webinar early in 2024!