Taking a break from our Graduate Schools series, today we have an important post about accessibility. I’ve put this under our “Making Meaning” category, for one main reason: EMPs talk a lot about being inclusive and how we want to change the way museums approach their audiences. I strongly believe that change starts with awareness, and accessibility is a topic that every museum professional should know about. Collectively, we have the power to make accessibility just a natural accomplishment of our field, if we’re dedicated to it. Our writer today, Kristina Johnson, agrees. She’s a second year grad student at IUPUI, and her focus is on accessibility, specifically for Deaf and blind visitors. She has a strong interest in Museum Education and Administration, and Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning are the foundations for her views on accessibility. In addition to working on her Master’s degree, Kristina is enrolled in an ADA Coordinator training program. Currently, she is an intern at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, a volunteer staff member at the Indiana Deaf History Museum, and a volunteer for VSA, Indiana. She also provides periodic accessibility consultation to the Indiana Historical Society. Thanks for contributing, Kristina!
Why is accessibility an important topic EMPs need to discuss? I know statistics are boring, but I’ll give you a couple of numbers to mull over as “food for thought.” The US Census Bureau issued a report in July stating that the 2010 Census data tells us that almost 57 million Americans live with disability. One in five families, or 20% of families in the US, has a member with a disability. Those figures aren’t insignificant. Is your museum meeting their needs?
When I showed up at IUPUI last fall to begin my Master’s degree in Museum Studies, I knew one thing for sure: I want to make museums accessible for visitors with disabilities. That decision to dedicate my work to improving access and inclusion was motivated by my personal experience with hearing loss. Long story short, I went deaf at 30 years of age, and I have a lot of miscellaneous neurological “inconveniences” that affect my ability to enjoy a lot of things that used to be easy. After a full year of classes, projects, internships, conferences and networking, I now know two things for sure: 1) there is no one specific way to achieve high standards of accessibility and 2) don’t be afraid to ask for help.
How do issues of accessibility affect you in your specific job? That obviously depends on which job you have, but also on the size of your museum. In a large museum, with many departments, you may work in exhibits, education, IT, marketing, security, etc. Here are some examples of how accessibility may relate to your duties in your museum:
- Exhibit Development and Design staff must be aware of how people with mobility impairments will enter and maneuver in the exhibit space, as well as the placement of labels within reading height and interactive components within reach from a seated position in a wheelchair.
- Planning public programs typically is problematic for ensuring effective communication and access to participation for visitors with hearing or vision impairments. Do you incorporate methods, such as Universal Design for Learning, to maximize multimodal and multisensory opportunities for visitors to become engaged in activities?
- Webmasters should ensure that text and graphics are compatible with the screen readers used by people who are blind or have low vision. Videos should be captioned. Also, information about parking, ramps, assistive listening devices, etc., should be posted on the website.
- Community outreach/development staff should include representatives from the disability community, who are very knowledgeable about access issues and can offer so much insight.
These are just a few examples of key points for specific jobs within the museum field, and of course, if you work in a small museum, you’ll be responsible for most, or all, accessibility policy and procedures. In a small museum, with only a couple of staff members, you’ll have to wear many hats, and the idea of trying to find scarce resources of time and money may be daunting. The good news is that, for the most part, you can get creative with how you make changes to improve access. The government isn’t going to show up and issue penalties for not doing it “the right way.” You just have to provide equal opportunity for visitors with disabilities to benefit from the experience your museum offers.
Maybe you work in an historic home that doesn’t have an elevator to the second floor. Perhaps you can shoot a video of the tour and make it available for viewing on the first floor for visitors with mobility impairments, or perhaps you can assemble a photo scrapbook with images and information about exhibits on the second floor. Maybe you run a science lab in a children’s museum, but don’t have a way to communicate program content to visitors who are Deaf or hard of hearing. If you have a projector available, you can use Power Point slides with text and images that show the main ideas of the science topic, and you can have printed hand-outs that describe the activity that goes along with the program.
Another key concept to include in your efforts to improve accessibility is to think of access planning in terms of identifying and locating assets. Count yourself as an asset, too, because the first and most important thing you need to plan for accessibility is the right attitude. If you’ve made a decision to make changes, that’s the first big step in the right direction. Next, take the time to identify strengths and weaknesses in your museum’s current accessibility. Can you apply what is already working for you to other areas of the museum? Are there some ‘quick fixes’ you can do that aren’t very expensive or labor intensive? Your biggest asset will be cooperation from the disability community. They are the true accessibility experts. They live with disability all day, and every day. Reach out to them and ask for their expertise to help you make your museum a place where they don’t have to face barriers.
The big point of all this is that we all play a role in making our museums places where every visitor can create a meaningful experience. If every visitor had the same needs and interests, our jobs would be way too easy, and also pretty boring, in my opinion. Being flexible in designing exhibits and programs is necessary to delivering positive experiences to our audiences. If access is difficult, visitors with disabilities may choose not to visit, and their friends and family may choose not to visit either. At the most basic level of analysis, good accessibility is good customer service. Happy customers come again. Unhappy customers usually don’t.