Last week proved momentous for campaigners who have fought and struggled for many years in the name of accessibility. It was decreed from central government that as of 2021 all new public buildings – around 150 of which are built each year – must be equipped with a Changing Places toilet facility.
The landmark policy will open previously inaccessible sites and experiences to more than a quarter of a million Britons. While there is a £30 million fund in place to help new venues realise the ambition, a forerunner is nevertheless helpful to envisage what this will look like for a business. Here enters Winchester Science Centre.
The Hampshire-based STEM visitor attraction has been striving to provide industry-leading accessibility for several years. Guided by a mission statement of ‘no decision made about me, without me’, the venue has approached accessibility and inclusivity with unparalleled vigour.
A dedicated advisory panel was established in 2018 to inform the decision-making process on all accessibility improvements. Representatives on the panel include individuals who live with a wide range of disabilities and impairments.
“We are extremely grateful for the advice we have received so far and must continue to gain the perspectives of people from all walks of life if we want to reach our goal of becoming a world leader in accessible science centres and planetaria,” explains Ben Ward, CEO of Winchester Science Centre.
“The long-term strategy is to become a beacon for accessibility,” he tells Advisor. “We set out on this journey to ensure everybody could genuinely engage with STEM and our charitable purpose. We didn’t ever want disability or impairment to be a barrier to that.”
This approach has by no means been dictated from on high. “From the trustees right the way through to all the staff here on-site, everyone has really engaged with what we’re trying to do. That’s been one of the reasons why funding could be secured and the delivery has been of the very high standard we sought,” the venue’s CEO notes.
Programming is only one element of what Ward describes as the Centre’s accessibility journey, with architecture and design also of paramount significance.
Perhaps the most important alteration to date was last autumn’s installation of a registered Changing Places toilet. The facility, which is open 24/7 for visitors and any member of the public with an NKS radar key, instantly made the Centre a much more attractive destination for more than 250,000 people across the country.
“It’s been really successful to bring in entirely new audiences – many who have never engaged with the subject matter before,” Ward notes. “The most exciting thing about the Changing Places facility, however, is that we put in an external door so that the public can use the facility even when we’re closed.
“To start with it was a strange feeling to know people were in the building when we are shut. One of the difficulties was actually with the insurance company, but now it’s up and running it’s being used at all times and that’s a great thing. It’s been a real feather in our cap as we aim to become not just a science centre but also a community hub.”
The installation equipped the Centre with only the third registered Changing Places facility in the entire Winchester district. Given the site’s location near the arterial A31, A34 and M3 routes and its specially designed car park, it’s no surprise what a great success it has proven.
Ward also has good news for sites that may look to follow Winchester Science Centre’s example in offering access out of hours. “The difference between a Changing Places facility for our visitors versus one with 24-hour access was quite minimal in the context of the whole project. It’s so worthwhile when we consider it can prove invaluable for the people who use it.”
Access all areas
A plethora of changes have been implemented since the Centre secured more than £1 million in funding from a Biffa Award grant and other support provided by Enterprise M3 LEP, Garfield Weston Foundation, Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council.
The Science Centre reimagined its planetarium, enabling the space to deliver subtitled shows, personalised audio tracks and 3D printed tactile resources – all designed to support visitors with hearing and visual impairments to maximise their experience.
Introducing quiet hours, relaxed shows, bookable sensory backpacks and training sessions to provide a disability-confident staff team have all contributed to the site’s growing reputation as a must-visit accessible attraction.
The Centre has also collaborated with local acoustics consultancy Sustainable Acoustics to reduce noise which had previously been exacerbated by the building’s unique pyramid shape. In addition, a Recombobulation Room – providing a quiet space for visitors who need time away from the hustle and bustle of a busy day at the venue – is also a result of this working relationship.
Winchester Science Centre’s plans began with changing its own offering, but now its horizons have grown. “We’ve set out to become a leader at providing an accessible, inclusive offer to our visitors. We’ve ended up with one of the most accessible planetariums in the world,” says Ward.
“STEM is nowhere near as diverse as it should be – although that isn’t the case everywhere in the world, but it is worse here in the UK,” he concludes. “Science centres across the country are trying to break down barriers, whether that’s socioeconomic, ethnic, gender or in this case accessibility. Even with all the significant progress to date, we must try harder.”