Sensory Accessibility: How it affects health and wellbeing

Millions of people in the UK can have significant difficulty in accessing museums and other cultural venues
Morgan Salisbury, Meltdown Tracker

A blog by Morgan Salisbury

You’re walking round a museum, and the noise in the entrance area echoes and makes you feel like you’re in a swimming pool of random noises, pain jutting at your ears. You turn your collar up and think about getting out the ear defenders buried at the bottom of your rucksack, then realise there’s no room to put your bag down to rummage. The crowds are endless, you pick up strong smells of sweat, perfume, and a faint aroma of onions from the cafe 200 yards away. Entering a new room, you notice the lights are much brighter and flickering manically.  You squint, trying to avoid the splitting headache you know may come after being under such lights. Your whole system is overwhelmed and you just want to… find your way out.

Thanks for reading this far – you have just experienced sensory overload, and it is estimated that 11 million people in the UK alone may be affected by Sensory Processing Challenges. Put simply, this means that senses can be turned up, causing pain and discomfort. These challenges are invisible and can make visiting cultural spaces extremely challenging. This could be cafes, museums, theatres, libraries, cinemas, galleries, and more. The UK estimated figure of 11 million includes those with Epilepsy, Dementia, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Down Syndrome. This figure doesn’t include the carers and family members who may also be cut off from accessing cultural and heritage sites. It is worth mentioning though, that not everyone with these diagnoses will have sensory overload, so this can only remain an estimate.

I am a qualified teacher and librarian, and received my adult Autism diagnosis last year, aged 38. I  am also an Autism parent, and I know first hand the difficulties that feeling excluded from cultural centres can cause. I am passionate to help others feel included and involved. Inclusion leads to to richer and rewarding experiences, feelings of involvement, cultural engagement and wellbeing. I strongly believe that feeling included and engaged in society is a huge marker for wellbeing.

We have so many people working hard in the cultural sector to make inclusion and accessibility a reality. There are huge advancements in understanding about neurological differences, and ‘Dementia friendly’ and ‘Autism Friendly’ sessions are a huge step forward. Yet, I started thinking about all the millions of people with Sensory Processing Challenges that are under-represented.

For example, where do those with Down Syndrome, Epilepsy, or Anxiety fit in? And that’s just for starters... Progress is being made, yet by working solely with one diagnosis, we can miss an opportunity to help other individuals. I use the term Sensory Processing Challenges as an umbrella term that covers a wider range of people.

There is also fantastic progress being made with sensory maps, quieter opening hours and ear defenders for hire. Staff are working harder than ever to work towards accessibility provision. Yet, in our experience, accessibility provision is uneven, and many websites for museums, libraries and other services make no reference to quieter opening times, sensory equipment to hire or staff training.

When you have difficulty accessing cultural spaces such as these, feelings of isolation and cultural exclusion can soon follow. One challenging and overstimulating experience can then affect access to other heritage sites, as the memory of a traumatic meltdown or shutdown can lead to increased anxiety and further isolation.

I have developed staff training, which is free to download on my website I designed this to help staff in museums, libraries and other cultural spaces, open up their services to those with Sensory Processing Challenges. Millions of people in the UK alone are potentially falling through the gaps of accessibility provision, and I wanted to address this. I designed my staff training through years’ of experience struggling to access cultural sites, working in thriving educational environments, and using my teaching background to produce an accessible and informative free resource. My emphasis on visual learning is key too, as in my experience as a teacher and parent, visuals lead to more embedded learning and research points to better memory recall in visual information processing.*1 I wanted to ensure that staff training time would be fully utilised, as time is precious.

Everyone is an individual, and that is why it is so important to listen to people who feel they are on the outside looking in, irrespective of diagnosis. Many cultural spaces are now utilising Access Forums, surveys and more to directly involve members of the public. I was recently fortunate enough to take part in an Autism survey and Access Forum at The British Museum, to discuss ways in which we thought the Museum could open up their services to more people. This direct involvement is a huge step in the right direction and opens up a thoroughly engaging and rewarding two-way conversation.

I feel so passionately about developing my staff training because I feel that there is a real desire to open up cultural centres to those who may struggle to access them. In my conversations with people working in the cultural sector, such as libraries and museums, I have experienced a real desire to find out how they can help support under represented groups. With only 4% of English, 3% of Welsh and 2% of Scottish arts professionals declaring a ‘disability’, there is a gap in having direct experience influence the way forward for inclusion and accessibility.*2  I have added inverted commas around ‘disability’ as I would prefer the term challenges, as often disabilities and abilities are inseparable and go hand in hand. I have found a real desire to improve Equality Act 2010 compliance and forge new paths in inclusion. It is my opinion that 100% of staff working in cultural and heritage centres want to work towards finding new and innovative ways to become more accessible. There are hurdles to overcome, such as funding and time/ staffing constraints, and that is why my staff training is free for all to use, to reach the widest possible audience.

I would welcome any feedback on my staff training, as I want my resources to evolve and grow with feedback from those working in the cultural sector. I would also love to hear how you are already creating accessibility, with photos if possible. I am planning to make a visual resource with best practice from staff in a variety of cultural centres, so that this resource can be a hub of ideas to download and share. Please get in touch via my website or my email address: meltdowntracker @


Kids in Museums (a Strategic Member of the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance) have worked with Autism in Museums to create a resource to support museums to be more welcoming to families and young people with autism and are also running a training day at the Jewish Museum on 22 October. You may also wish to look at the websites of Autism in Museums and the Disabled Cooperative Network (DCN) for further resources.

The Kids in Museums resource is linked here




(*1) Modern Psychological Studies Vol 15, number 1, 2009 Visual versus auditory learning and memory recall performance on short-term versus long-term tests, K. Linder et al.

(*2) GEM Journal of Education in Museums, issue 39, pp43

Miss Morgan Salisbury, Sensory Accessibility Advisor