Exploring the Experiences of Disabled Heritage Professionals
Disabled heritage professionals explain what it is like to work in the sector.
The Equality Act (2010) and the United Nations Convention on disability rights help to enforce and promote the rights of disabled people and protect from discrimination.
Historic England’s own Equality and Diversity policy outlines principles to actively support everyone at work, ensuring that no one received less favourable treatment because of disability. It is our policy to make reasonable adjustments to enable everyone to have a fair opportunity for employment, promotion, training or any other benefits on an equal basis. Our Historic England Behaviours which describe how we expect our employees behave at work make very clear that enabling everyone’s progress, learning from mistakes and actively seeking new perspectives with respect and appreciation are key to our success.
Historic England has also set out its commitment to making the organisation a more inclusive and accessible place to work in its 2020-2023 Inclusion, Diversity and Equality Strategy. This aims to help encourage greater levels of inclusion in the sector through an assessment of diversity in its workforce. In order to support these aims, Historic England commissioned some research into the experiences of disabled professionals within the heritage sector to begin to surface some of the issues being faced.
Cath Poucher unpacks the experiences of heritage professionals with disabilities working in the sector.
For UK Disability History Month, I spoke to three disabled people working across the heritage industry, from museums to commercial archaeology. We wanted to find out about their experiences of being a disabled person working in different aspects of the heritage industry, and find out what they think organisations, leaders and stakeholders can do to make the industry a better place for disabled people to work in.
Sarahjayne Clements works as a Community Heritage Officer, while also undertaking a doctorate at the University of Hertfordshire researching disability inclusion. She has Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) which is also called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is a condition that causes extreme tiredness along with a range of other symptoms. She also has Fibromyalgia (a condition that causes widespread pain) and sclerosis of the iliac bone (the upper hip bone), known as Condensans Ilii.
Caroline spent the first part of her career in Museums, working behind the scenes in collections. She then moved to the archaeology industry. She has worked with some leading national archaeology organisations, in non-field based roles, undertaking Desk Based Assessments. Caroline has mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and panic attacks. She also has ME, has recently developed arthritis in her knees and is currently awaiting a diagnosis of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
We also spoke to Rory, who knew they wanted to be an archaeologist from an early age, eventually going to university but finding the physicality of digging challenging. Since graduating they have worked in public, commercial and museum archaeology. Their emphasis is on what the past means to people today. Rory developed ME during their teenage years, and was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), with fatigue, balance, intermittent cognitive issues, and headaches being the main symptoms that affect their daily life.
A Positive and Supportive Community
We wanted to find out if Sarahjayne, Caroline and Rory had any positive experiences of working in their various heritage and archaeology roles throughout their career.
Sarahjayne said she is encouraged by the support of larger organisations, such as the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists and the Council for British Archaeology, as well as the Enabled Archaeology Foundation (EAF), which aims to empower, enable and combat negative attitudes to disabled involvement in heritage. Sarahjayne said these organisations have shared goals of making the sector more inclusive for disabled people. She has had positive experiences with people who attended training sessions she provided as part of the Enabled Archaeology Foundation. These sessions raised awareness of disability for organisations and their staff, progressing the goals of the Enabled Archaeology Foundation in making the sector more inclusive for disabled people.
Caroline agreed, saying she also found support from the Enabled Archaeology Foundation, which made her feel that she wasn’t alone in being a disabled archaeologist. She also found a lot of support from her union (Prospect Union), which advised her throughout her career.
Sarahjayne praised her employer:
Reasonable adjustments were made at interview, where I was provided the questions shortly beforehand
The employer also has a flexible working environment, and the team work collaboratively and supportively. Sarahjayne has praised their response to her work on disability in the sector:
They have embraced my work and have encouraged me to provide advice and training to the community groups I work with.
She said they have also been encouraging about her career progression and supportive of training opportunities.
Rory has found that their time working in museums was the most positive. They found that because the museum sector focused on community and engagement, they also took good care of their staff. They also found that confiding in individual colleagues have made times of ill health much easier to deal with.
Caroline also praised some of her recent employers, who have engaged in flexible working, particularly during the pandemic:
Working from home is a bonus, as that flexibility allowed me to do the role in a way that was flexible and allowed me to manage my disabilities and mental health conditions.
Challenges and negative experiences
While those we spoke to have some good experiences, they all spoke of negative situations they have experienced. Particularly common is a general lack of understanding for challenges faced by disabled people.
Rory said that there is usually a “general look of disdain on colleagues’ faces” if they mentioned how tired they were on a particular day.
There is generally a look of distain on colleagues' faces when I mention how tired I am on a particular day.
Caroline agreed, stating that the nature of her conditions mean that sometimes she has good days and sometimes bad days. She said there is often a lack of flexibility and understanding, with people often making judgements. She also mentioned that previously the working environment was challenging. A lack of flexible working limited her ability to work to the best of her abilities due to her physical and mental health.
Everyone agreed that current working practices have created barriers and negative experiences to disabled people working in the industry. Sarahjayne said low pay and lack of opportunities meant she was unable to progress in the archaeology sector. Due to her disability, she can only work part-time and many high-level positions were only offered on a full-time basis.
Offering job shares is not adequate provision as it put pressure on the disabled person to find another person to job share with.
When we asked if they thought the industry was a good place to work if you are disabled, everyone we spoke to said no.
Rory said that in their 20 years of experience, archaeology is still a physical role, and even ‘desk-based’ roles involve a lot of physical action and mental agility. Their experiences showed that archaeology is still set up for non-disabled people, and things which could make it easier for disabled people are ignored.
Sarahjayne elaborated on this, saying it is not an easy profession to work in if you’re disabled:
The short term, temporary contracts, away-work, low wages, high staff turnover and time/cost centred nature are not conducive with disability.
Caroline summarised that companies and organisations have policies in place and often pride themselves on inclusivity, which is great. However in practice, middle and senior managers are not on board with these principles or what directors are trying to implement. She said that a lack of understanding for personal circumstances in practice differed from the company policies and procedures.
What could the profession do?
We asked Caroline, Rory and Sarahjayne what they thought leading industry organisations, companies and stakeholders need to do in order to make the industry a better place for disabled people.
Caroline said that honesty and communication about what allowances you’re entitled to and how you can get help from your employer is vital:
I didn’t know who I could get support from and often felt alone
Rory agreed, saying that:
[leaders need to]...truly listen to people who need some extra help with their activities. Accept that it may take a bit of time or money to help them in their role (e.g. a new desk chair, decent computer set up, decent lighting) but this can lead someone to truly flourish in their work and benefit the whole organisation
Caroline said that further training and development for managers would really help disabled employees, to make sure that they can see the value of diversity and employing disabled people.
Sarahjayne agreed, saying that:
Employers should provide training in disability awareness for all their staff.
Sarahjayne also said that:
we need to get better as an industry at offering support, particularly to young disabled archaeologists. We must have disabled staff so that young, disabled people have role models and see disabled people represented.
She went further, suggesting the industry needs to think more flexibly:
We must make part time roles available, with the opportunity for career advancement.
About the author
- Name and role
- Title and organisation
- Tourism and Marketing professional
- With a background in archaeology and heritage, Cath is now a tourism, events and marketing professional. She is also the Deputy Editor of 'The Unwritten', an online magazine that tells the stories of disabled people, written by disabled people.
Postscript: disability inclusion at Historic England
Over the last few years Historic England has taken a number of actions to improve the diversity of its workforce and create an inclusive organisational culture, including developing support policies relating to Disability at Work.
4.8% of Historic England’s workforce (47 employees) declared a disability in 2020/21, up from 4.4% and 40 employees in 2019/20. It aims to increase participation by disabled people and is proud to be a Disability Confident Employer, recently achieving Disability Confident Level 2 accreditation. Historic England has disability partnerships with Evenbreak and Enham Trust who promote its job opportunities to an inclusive audience and provide consultation on its policy and practices around disability. If an employee develops a disability during their employment, then Historic England makes extensive efforts to maintain employment, training and career development, and operates a Disability at Work policy that describes this.
Historic England acknowledges that part of tackling the barriers and issues discussed in this article relates to all organisations, ourselves included, providing training to staff. Therefore training is another key area of focus. In 2022 it partnered with disability awareness consultants, Celebrating Disability, to deliver disability awareness training to 265 employees, and 177 heritage sector professionals. It is continuing to develop training for managers and awareness raising activities to support the future of its disabled workforce.
Historic England has a disability network group, which provides expert feedback and advice to Historic England on disability-related matters.
Further information about how Historic England promotes equality and diversity can be found on their website in their Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Strategy.