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Inclusive Tourism: Palaces for the People – all the people

Inclusivity is "integral to the missions" of the team that runs some of the country's most famous palaces.

Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that manages six regal residences - including Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace and the Tower of London - is working hard to dispel the common misconception that heritage sites struggle to cater for disabled visitors.

Kim Klug, Community Learning Producer for the charity, says: "Being inclusive is integral to our mission of helping everyone explore the stories of the palaces and feel that the palaces are for them. We want to help to overcome any barriers - physical, financial or social - so that people can connect with the palaces in a meaningful way."

Sue Whittaker, Visitor Relations Manager at Hampton Court Palace, once the home of Henry VIII, says people do sometimes make assumptions about disabled access to old buildings. "At Hampton Court, a lift was installed some time ago to take people up to the first floor so accessibility at the palace is much better than visitors might originally anticipate.” Wheelchairs and mobility scooters are also available at the palace.

Meeting everyone's needs

Hampton Court Palace is a Grade I listed building, so there is a limit to the physical changes that can be made to such precious architecture. Sue's focus has been on improving information and making "sensory changes" to the visitor experience. "We want to make everyone feel welcome and that their needs are being met as far as we can."

Those changes include popular British Sign Language (BSL) tours of the palace. Sue says: "We now have a group of deaf people who are Historic Royal Palaces members and come regularly. I know some local clubs for deaf people have closed and it's lovely to think that they are visiting Hampton Court Palace in order to meet other deaf people."

Kim is passionate about making the palaces accessible for people living with dementia: "Older people - a core visitor group for the heritage sector - are more likely to, but not exclusively, experience dementia. As we look to meet the needs and expectations of our visitors, it is essential that we consider how we can make our palaces more welcoming for people living with dementia. In response to this, we have worked in partnership with care providers, people living with dementia and carers to develop our Sensory Palaces programme at Hampton Court Palace and Kew Palace."

Sensory Palaces helps participants connect with the palaces by using their senses to explore stories in the historic spaces. The experiences are designed to take into account the challenges faced by people living with dementia, which can include mobility, navigation and memory problems, difficulty reading maps, guidebooks and exhibitions text, and impaired visual or spatial awareness.

Working in partnership with over 40 organisations, Historic Royal Palaces produced a guide called Rethinking Heritage: A Guide to help make your site more dementia-friendly, to promote awareness and understanding of dementia, outline a business case for dementia-friendly heritage and offer practical guidance for making a heritage site dementia-friendly.

Visitors driving change

Sue and Kim say that inclusivity changes made at Hampton Court and the other palaces are often visitor-led. As Sue says: "When we opened our children's playground, the Magic Garden, we had a lot of children using it who were on the autism spectrum. Now we have a number of sessions each season when we open the doors one hour earlier than the usual opening time so those youngsters can come when it's quieter."

And last year, the palace created an autism family-friendly trail that was inspired by a chat Sue had with a Hampton Court volunteer whose son is autistic.

Kim wants visitors to keep on asking for more: "It's all about listening to your visitors. We want to know how we can do better." She adds "It's important to remember that when we improve our access, we're often improving it for everyone. So, what becomes wheelchair accessible is also accessible for a family with a buggy.

"We're also creating loyal visitors, which translates into ticket, retail and hospitality sales. If people know your site is a safe space for dementia, for example, they're more likely to bring the whole family."

Hampton Court's inclusivity efforts haven't gone unnoticed. It won a 2010 Jodi Award for videos hosted on its website aimed at its deaf visitors and in 2016 picked up a VisitEngland Access For All bronze award. The palace's research in partnership with heritage sites in Norway and France, led to a white paper on deaf access that has been influential within the tourism industry.

It's all experience and expertise that Historic Royal Palaces is happy to share. Kim's advice to other tourist sites trying to be more inclusive is not to feel overwhelmed by the challenge. "It can feel like there's so much to do, but small changes can make a big difference. Sharing solutions to those challenges is key, so feel free to get in touch with us - we're always happy to help."

Hampton Court Palace logo

Kim Klug
Sue Whittaker

Historic Royal Palaces

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