Friday, 2 September 2016

An Open Letter to the Brontë Parsonage Museum

To Whom it May Concern,

On Monday the 29th of August I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum with my partner and friends. We had been for a picnic at Brontë Falls so a visit to the museum was a nice way to round out the day. Unfortunately the visit was not without problem, largely related to accessibility.

First I should be clear that the Parsonage, museum and exhibits were enjoyable and interesting. The exhibits were beautiful and presented with real care and attention to detail that I appreciated. The setting is, of course, delightful. However, the accessibility issues spoiled my enjoyment and meant that I couldn't fully enjoy the museum.

The Parsonage being on top of a hill was always going to be a difficult approach for me as I have issues with chronic pain and fatigue. This is one of those things you just accept, there's nothing to be done with location. However, I was frustrated to find that the ticket desk was up another slope and in the opposite direction to the Museum entrance. This short extra distance may not seem much to an able bodied person but to somebody with mobility issues, be them from injury, illness or disability, it can be extremely difficult and limit their access to the museum. Simply moving the ticket desk to the entrance or creating an entrance near the ticket desk would make a huge difference.

A written version of this letter has been sent to the Brontë Society

At the ticket desk I noted that the sign showing prices also had a note stating that due to the nature of the museum not all exhibits may be accessible to people with disabilities. Again, though frustrating I could understand this, as the museum is confined and guided by the Parsonage itself. However a concessionary ticket price was listed.
I was surprised then to find that I was not eligible for a concession rate. The way this was conveyed is another issue I will cover later. This was frustrating and actually hurtful. To be told that you may not access parts of the museum but that you will have to accept this and pay full price anyway. It places fault and responsibility on the disabled person and not on the organisation or venue. As it was I paid the full price as I wanted to see as much of the museum as I could.

At this point I asked where the toilets were. I was told that they were in a different building, on the other side of the car park, back the way we had come in. This meant a significant walk (for somebody with mobility issues) across a car park and back up the slop and steps to the parsonage. Again I understand that there are some limitations to the site itself however to not include even a single accessible toilet during the refurbishment of the extension that the shop is located in is a great disservice. In its current state the toilet accessibility is poorly signposted: there was no obvious sign to say that the toilet in the car park served the museum; no note on the signs pointing to the museum and no sign within the museum.
Not being signposted means that people like me are unable to plan our movement and route and instead have to expend additional energy and endure further pain and fatigue simply to use a toilet. It is worth keeping in mind that while my issues are pain and fatigue, toilet accessibility is also a big concern for people with issues ranging from Crohn's to IBS to ileostomy. I hadn't even got in to the museum yet and I was literally shaking with fatigue and had started to experience severe pain and neurological problems. All this could have been prevented with better accessibility at the approach to and within the ticket office.

The website for the Parsonage states that there are numerous entrances for those with mobility issues. Though I was visibly struggling, walk with a cane and had asked for a disability concession ticket, I received no information about accessibility accommodations, entrance variation or assistance. And thus, I entered the museum, up the main entrance which as the website describes is a steep set of steps.

The museum was beautiful and I enjoyed the ground floor displays a great deal. I then came to the decision of whether I could go up stairs to the rest of the museum or not. I ultimately decided that I had gone through so much to get in to the museum that I was determined to see the upstairs exhibits. The decision was cemented when I realised I had seen nowhere to sit down downstairs, without first making the walk back to the ticket office and shop. Hardly restful and certainly not accessible.
Once upstairs I was glad to find that there was a seat in the maids room were I could rest.

I slowly made my way through three other rooms (enjoying the artefacts and fibre art displays in particular), none of which had seats in, and made my way in to the gallery space of the extension. Though I briefly looked at some of the exhibits in here, I was by this point unable to move around the space unaided as I was extremely fatigued and in increasing pain. I am glad that in this room at least, you provided seats.

In all I was extremely disappointed with the accessibility on offer and believe that whilst you have made some assessment of accessibility you could have gone further. The accessibility issues I encountered suggest a lack of understanding of why people need accessibility and accommodations and how they are used. Additionally, though you have some accommodations listed on your website these do not reflect what was on offer on the day either due to changes in availability or staff ignorance of the subject.

Regarding staff, I understand that the vast majority of staff are volunteers, however I, and other members of my group, were very unhappy with the conduct of the staff member who we met in the ticket office. [Name redacted] was brusque to the point of rudeness. Her response to my request for a concession ticket (which did not have the limitations explained on the board) was "Concessions aren't for you." which came across as both rude and dismissive. She went on to explain that I could get a concession if I was elderly or a student, but I am neither.
[Name Redacted] perhaps made an attempt at helping when she told us that "your carer can go free if you have a full time carer who has to stay with you." I believe she was referring to my partner. Whilst this may have been an attempt to help it again came off as rude. Disability and the need for carers is a sensitive subject and to assert that somebody needs a carer or that their partner may be a carer is impolite and intrusive. As I was already distressed, I was quite upset at this and did not know how to respond. Thankfully all other staff encountered in the museum where friendly and polite.

I know that sometimes I will have difficulty visiting museums and galleries. I know that sometimes the very thing I want to see, in this case a historic house, is going to cause problems related to my disability. However I do not expect or welcome extra difficulties to be created by the people who run these attractions. If anything I would appreciate help and access so that I can see these curated collections and enjoy them as much as my able bodied friends.

The Parsonage Museum is a wonderful piece of literary and social history and that it is not accessible to as many visitors as possible is a shame. When those barriers are not just of circumstance but due to human decisions it sends the message that disabled people are being excluded from this lovely thing. It implies that for some people at the Brontë Society is is incomprehensible that disabled and chronically ill people may want access to these literary treasures. And that is a a terrible let down and insult.

To revisit my earlier point, it is clear that you are aware of the need for accessibility and have made some accommodations. However, in practice your accessibility isn't working. An accommodation that doesn't help a disabled person isn't an accommodation at all. I urge you to rethink you accessibility and accommodations at the Parsonage Museum and to work with all your staff so that disabled visitors can truly enjoy the Museum along side your able bodied visitors.

Yours faithfully

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