Out of the starting blocks – recruiting for change

What are the forces in play that mean D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people are far less represented across the museum sector than in the UK workforce?

When we first started planning the Curating for Change project, we asked focus groups of those already working in museums – and those who would like to, about their experiences of recruitment.

We also wanted to think about how to get our own recruitment processes right across our 16 Fellow and trainee posts –  creating a model that others can use as a guide.

Understanding the barriers: Disability Evasive?

What we learned is that there are plenty of ways of to give a veneer of inclusion, without ever in practice recruiting anyone from the one in five of the working population with a disability.

For example, many in our focus groups told us that they felt cynical about the Disability Confident scheme, which in theory encourages employers to recruit disabled colleagues, but which appears to have minimal external regulation or verification. Though some employers undoubtedly use it to reflect a real commitment to change, disabled people we spoke to who had been invited to interview felt they had been invited as a box ticking exercise – wasting time, energy and often travel expenses.

Pre-pandemic others were also told that it was out of the question to be interviewed for a post remotely – only to find that ‘necessity’ swept away when the non-disabled majority of people could not attend interviews in person.

There is also undoubtedly a level of hidden prejudice. One workshop participant told us:

Because I started telling employers in applications that I have got a disability, I’m suddenly not getting anything. I’ve been rejected from 41 jobs already! Only had three interviews. Whereas, before I started saying I have got a disability, I used to get the first job I applied to… It’s really very frustrating because nothing for me has changed, except the fact that now I want to have that safeguard by saying I have a disability.”

What does better practice look like?

The better news is that our 20+ museum partners for the Curating for Change project are keen to improve their practice, which includes finding out in some cases why disabled people don’t apply, and how to develop a more representative staff.

The heart of our approach has been to design recruitment that actively goes looking for d/Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent staff, and offers them multiple options to play to their strengths. Here are some of the strands of what we did:

The application process

  • We offered lots of practical information upfront, including introductory films showing museum teams and sites. In this way we aimed to break down barriers and give an idea of what working for an organisation would be like.
  • We didn’t include the physical requirements often listed – such as driving, lifting and climbing ladders. Often museums aren’t aware that Access to Work funding, taxis or personal assistants can help where this is essential to a role.
  • We advertised beyond the usual museum networks, including community sites and social media.
  • We did not ask for significant paid or voluntary experience. Museums often require extensive experience, or study, even for an entry level role. With competition for paid roles so high, volunteering can sometimes by the only route in, disadvantaging anyone who doesn’t have private means to work for free, which disproportionately affects disabled people.
  • The application material itself came in Easy Read and British Sign Language as well as standard formats, and invited people to respond either with writing, film or a visual collage – giving applicants an opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

At interview

For the interview process itself, we offered to interview remotely, knowing that travel and fatigue can be a significant barrier. We also offered travel expenses for those coming in person. We provided questions one week in advance so people could prepare, think around the issues and reduce nerves, rather than only testing a capacity of react on the spot.

We offered to meet access requirements, ranging from a BSL interpreter to live captioning. Crucially, we had also provided Disability Equality Training for the host museums. We provided feedback to all unsuccessful applicants.

What were the results?

We received a very high number of applications – 54 for the initial four Fellowship roles, and 77 for eight traineeships and 35 for the final 4 Fellowships. This was a positive change in itself, given that so many organisations tell us that they never receive applications from disabled people. Our applicants used the full range of application methods, and were recruited both through  online and in person interviews.

Our applicants represented people with a broad range of impairments – including those who identify as D/deaf, visually impaired, mobility impairments, long term health and mental health conditions, plus a particularly high number of applications from people identifying as neurodivergent.

The feedback has been positive:

Choosing from such well qualified candidates was hard – but our hope is that we will find ways of both involving unsuccessful applicants and creating more options as museum practice shifts. We will also be publishing more detailed toolkits for this and other aspects of Curating for Change as the project develops.

“I have gone through several applications beforehand which claimed to be accessible or even that the whole point was to be accessible to autistic people and they all fell short or seemed to be pandering in a way that felt infantilising. This is the first application that I have found to be truly accessible in a genuine way where you have thought out everything.”