Woman in a mobility scooter

Kristy Cooper for Heritage Ability, Devon

Finalist for the Best Heritage Research, Interpretation or Recording award at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

The South West of England is brimming with cultural and natural heritage, from castles to country manors, but enjoyment of many of them has often been limited for the Deaf and disabled. As part of her tireless efforts to bridge the gap between the Deaf and hearing worlds, Kristy Cooper delivers British Sign Language (BSL) videos for Deaf people all over the region.

The videos form part of the three-year Heritage Ability project to make it easier for people with diverse disabilities to engage meaningfully with their heritage across the region. Heritage Ability is a project by Living Options Devon, a local user-led charity in which 80% of volunteers and Trustees and over 50% of staff, have lived experience of disability and Deafness.

Open to all

Deaf people (who use British Sign Language) have their own culture around story-telling and reading interpretation at heritage sites is often simply not enough. Each of Heritage Ability’s BSL videos is scripted by Kristy to make it more BSL -friendly version, for use by a Deaf person who then appears in the film. Kristy works closely with the volunteers to ensure the BSL is being delivered to a high standard, to inform Deaf people, at a range of heritage sites.

Working with the local disability charity Living Options Devon, Kristy Cooper personally recruits more than 20 volunteers to deliver the videos and accompanies them across the region to facilitate discussions about heritage. As part of her wider advocacy work for the Deaf, she also single-handedly delivers Deaf Awareness Training and initiates Deaf groups in areas where none exist.

Kristy Cooper’s work reflects the core principles of the Heritage Ability project, which creates and delivers services designed by and for people with disabilities and Deaf people with BSL. In addition to providing and bespoke products for the Deaf, Heritage Ability is assisting those with learning disabilities, limited mobility, as well as those who on the autistic spectrum or who have visual impairments, to engage meaningfully with their heritage. Its products will be rolled out at more than 20 flagship venues across Gloucester, Somerset, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset between 2017-2020.

All products aim to break down the barriers that prevent full access and enjoyment of heritage sites, whether these are physical or because of poor communication or the attitudes of staff. People with complex needs and learning disabilities can find out more about their surroundings through Easy Read booklets with carefully scripted plain English, that make the information more accessible to them. This doesn’t just benefit people with learning disabilities, but is also good for children, and great for international visits.

Other products include Visual Stories for people on the autistic spectrum, which are posted on the websites of heritage sites so visitors can better plan their day by making their own choices about how to enjoy a site.

The BSL videos can be downloaded by visitors before they go to the site or are available onsite on tablets.

Natural heritage

Imagine knowing you can still explore all corners of your favourite heritage site, despite the fact that it is remote and you have mobility problems. On Lundy Island, 12 miles off the Devon coast in the Bristol Channel, disabled visitors now make use of an all-terrain “Tramper” scooter that lets users access difficult footpaths and tracks. Lundy is just the latest location where Heritage Ability is making changes to improve access for those with disabilities, including access to some of the region’s renowned natural beauty spots.

Other sites include the Killerton House, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Cockington Country Park. Earlier this year, the National Trust sites Botallack, Levant Mine and Godolphin in Cornwall created Visual Stories to reduce stress for people with autism and their families by giving them advance information about the site. As at every site, Heritage Ability worked with a local disability charity to deliver the change.

Why this category?

The Heritage Ability project instigates changes at heritage venues that have a lasting effect. All the products are delivered in tandem with Deaf Awareness and Disability Awareness training that gives staff and volunteers the confidence to deal with those with diverse disabilities and Deaf people language.

In addition to helping visitors, the project has a knock-on effect by attracting more people to heritage venues across the region and providing a model of what can be done to create a more inclusive approach, as well as catalyse a wider cultural shift.

Kristy Cooper’s advocacy for Deaf people exemplifies the far-reaching impact of the Heritage Ability project and has won widespread praise. In the words of Rebecca McHale at Castle Drago, Devon, one of the flagship heritage projects: “Kristy’s training should be part of the core induction for 100% of staff. It was so useful, so empowering and can fundamentally change our ways of working.”

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