Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Changing Perceptions of Disability

At this moment in time, it goes without saying that museums are obligated to serve all potential visitors, whoever they may be.  Over 25 years after Museums for a New Century, the museum profession is in the process of a major paradigm shift.  Accessibility has become a modern hallmark of museum program development, not to mention a legal requirement for the physical building.

The word “changing” in the title above is meant in two ways; it is a descriptor, but also an active verb.  As museum professionals, we can observe that our culture’s attitudes toward disability are shifting, but we must also be leading agents in that change.  There are an estimated 54.4 million people with disabilities living in America today; if museums are to serve these present and future visitors, we would do well to start by listening to their voices.

The long-standing perception of disability has been solely as an individual medical condition.  In other words, disability as a concept has been relegated to the particular people who live with it every day.  Attitudes toward disabled people have ranged from pity and disgust to misunderstanding to awe and admiration.  

However, since the 1980s a new model of disability has emerged from the field of disability research as well as from advocates for disabled people.  That idea is the social model of disability, the perspective that disability is a result of culturally-constructed barriers to participation in society.  It is a frame of mind that gives all of us the responsibility for not just inclusion but universal access.

When you stop and think about it, disability as a social construct (rather than a medical setback) makes sense.  After all, everyone has their own way of going about the business of life.  The fact that some people see with a white cane, hear with a computer screen, or walk with wheels is simply an illustration of different ways to exist.  Any group of people will have broad variations in learning styles and interests, tastes in food or entertainment, and modes of communication.  The more we expand the flavors of museum programs that we offer, the more people we will reach and, most importantly, the more deeply we will reach them.

Any museum program can benefit from being translated into multiple learning channels.  Even visitors who do not identify as having a disability might be more engaged by a program that involves visuals, sound, tactile elements and discussions as opposed to just one of those methods.  If we approach the development of programs by thinking about removing barriers to any of our visitors participating, we will be on the right track.

Another thing the museum profession can learn from the disability research field is the concept of emancipatory practice.  Under the outdated perception of people with disabilities as suffering from an ailment, research about such people was very one-sided.  The researcher held most of the power, and the research subject simply became a source of experience-based information.  The research subject did not gain any benefit from the interaction, while the researcher was at liberty to select the results that served the chosen outcomes of the project.  

Conversely, the emancipatory research model turns the process into a partnership and thus a two-way exchange of information.  The people with disabilities are far more than research subjects; they direct the objectives of the project and share both power and ownership of outcomes.  With a bilateral flow of information and shared power, both parties in the partnership can learn more than they otherwise would and can adapt the research agenda to suit the needs of both sides.  Most importantly, the people with disabilities can directly benefit from the findings of the research.

Museums can use the emancipatory research model by making not just the museum’s programs but the development process more participatory.  Creating partnerships with visitors who live with disabilities is the best way to find out how to make the museum both physically and intellectually accessible and personally interesting to these people.

Throughout the museum world, the trend is already toward including more user-generated content in exhibits, programs, and websites.  The idea that museum programs should be created with audiences instead of for them is gaining universal acceptance.  These developments should be constantly brought into the planning of exhibits and programs that represent all people, with or without disabilities.

The following five posts will each focus on one disability. They will address how museums can best serve audiences who have visual impairments, hearing difficulties, mobility challenges, cognitive impairments (specifically people with Alzheimer’s Disease), and learning disabilities. Each entry will provide some background on the disability, things to consider regarding that audience, case studies of museums that are successfully addressing the issue, and an exploration of what more can be done.

Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum  Richard Sandell, Jocelyn Dodd and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.  Routledge (London/New York) 2010 (Google Books link)

Visitors With Visual Impairments


Most of us rely on our vision almost exclusively, such that it’s nearly impossible to imagine getting around our lives without it.  Yet we have so many other ways of absorbing information about our world, and museums have the unique ability to present exhibits and programs that exercise the myriad senses.

Since the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1980, museums have been fulfilling the basic requirements to provide accessibility for people with visual impairments.  However, a few museums are taking it much further and creating whole new programs for their visually-impaired patrons.  Here we will explore the needs of this particular audience and look at how some museums are serving these visitors.


First, it is important to remember that there is a range of visual impairments, and thus museums should make their content accessible to visitors with low vision as well as those who are blind.  All aspects of a museum, from the physical building to the public programs, should be developed with universal comfort and accessibility as the goal.  

The following are a few ways museums can serve the needs of their visually-impaired visitors:

Exhibits with tactile elements:
- Touchable models of objects and artworks
- The chance to touch actual artworks while wearing gloves (made of a thin material so that textures can be felt through them)
- Versions of flat artworks with added textures, layers, or raised outlines
- Touchable maps of the museum, galleries, and exhibits
- Interactive components and demonstrations with verbal instructions

Audio components:
- Spoken tours with audio enhancement devices (earpieces that connect to the tour guide’s microphone)
- Verbal descriptions of artworks, exhibits, and other objects by trained museum personnel
- Portable audio or cell phone guides and tours
- Podcasts of museum programs and information
- Sound on video elements in exhibits, with either audible speakers or headphones
- Talking computer kiosks in galleries

Other considerations:
- Printed self-guides in large type and Braille
- Exhibit text panels with large font
- Bright lighting in all walkways, aisles, stairwells and doorways
- Clear walking paths free of obstacles
- Texture changes on the floor (such as carpet to wood) to indicate different areas of an exhibit or to identify audio components for visitors to find
- Exhibit furniture (display cases, kiosks) on the floor beneath any elements that protrude from the wall, such that a cane would hit them to indicate that the person should step aside
- Service animals allowed in all areas of the museum

If all exhibits and programs at the museum are built from the ground up with multi-sensory components, then their content will be more easily accessible to all visitors and all learning styles.

It is important to keep in mind that, while there is sometimes no substitute for the assistance of another human being, the museum’s goal should be to create galleries and programs that are independently navigable whenever possible.

Case studies

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens - Jacksonville, Florida

Since its inception over 50 years ago, the Cummer Museum has been serving its community through art and education.  Right from its home page, the museum states that its “Nationally recognized education programs serve adults and children of all abilities.”

One of the best-known education programs is Art Connections, described as “hands-on, interactive exhibits designed to raise visitors' understanding of the art… In Art Connections, it is possible to walk through a painting, create patterns through dance, make a collage, listen to a sculpture, or paint with a virtual paintbrush.”  The museum is home to a chapter of Very Special Arts, an international organization for people of all abilities.  The annual Very Special Arts Festival allows children to experience art through many different channels and participate in creative projects to make their own art.  

The museum also features a Women of Vision program, which brings together adults with visual impairments to study art in the collections.   Participants create their own pieces with sculpture, origami, painting and other media, and have the opportunity to write personal memoirs inspired by the museum’s collections.  Touch tours can be arranged by appointment, in which patrons can touch reproductions and original artworks from the collection.  The museum has other programs for visitors with autism or mobility impairments.  Clearly, the Cummer Museum has devoted great energy to serving all its patrons regardless of how they make their way through life.

Tactile Museum of Lighthouse for the Blind – Athens, Greece

Designed from the ground up to serve visitors with visual impairments, the Tactile Museum in Athens has been around since 1984.  The museum features replica models of Greek artworks from the country’s long artistic history, including sculptures, pottery, models of Greek buildings, and drawings with raised lines and layers.   The collection also includes works of art created by visually-impaired artists.  

Visitors can touch the collections with their bare hands and feel the differences in texture, style, and materials.  Sighted visitors are given masks so they can experience the museum as though they were blind.  The artworks are arranged in chronological order, allowing patrons to visualize the evolution of artistic styles in Greece.  

Information about each historical period is available in Braille and large print type.  Audio tours are available in both Greek and English.  However, the museum has no permanent staff and relies heavily on volunteers.  Visits in groups must be made by appointment.  Nevertheless, this museum is serving an important purpose in allowing all Greek citizens to personally experience their country’s artistic history.

Where do we go from here?

The art museums of the world have certainly made an effort to reach their visually-impaired visitors with touch tours, verbal descriptions, touchable replica models, interactive creative workshops, and other programs.  The next challenge seems to be making other types of museums—history, science, and natural history—more accessible to people with limited vision.  Many of these museums often already have interactive elements, but without verbal directions or auditory information these exhibit components are not independently usable by visitors with visual disabilities.  

What are some ways that science and history museums can alter their existing galleries, or build new ones, that are multi-sensory and accessible to all visitors?

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Tactile Museum of Lighthouse for the Blind

Visitors Who Are Deaf or Hearing-Impaired


Almost 20% of Americans older than 11 experience some degree of hearing loss that affects their daily life.  That number is a bit staggering.  As museum professionals, we need to be aware that one fifth of our potential audience may need some help to hear the content we present to them.

It should be noted that the Deaf community (capitalization indicates a cultural identity, rather than the condition of being “deaf”) prefers using the word “deaf” over the phrase “hearing-impaired,” due to the negative implication of the latter.  Deaf culture has very specific values and a strong sense of identity; for people who were not born deaf, that culture can feel extremely exclusive and unwelcoming.  

A large part of the Deaf cultural identity, at least in America, centers around the use of American Sign Language.  While it is impossible to truthfully generalize a group of people, most of the Deaf community does not condone the use of cochlear implants or regular spoken communication, perceiving these things to be a rejection of the inborn way that deaf people experience the world.

However, because deaf and hearing-impaired people use a multitude of methods to function in society, from hearing aids to lip-reading to sign language interpretation, it is important that museums provide options that will serve the full range of hearing abilities.


The most obvious way to give deaf people access to museum exhibits and programs is the use of printed text that visitors can read.  However, people with hearing impairments often use many other visual cues, such as facial expressions and movement in space, to grasp the meaning of what is being communicated.  Many hearing-impaired visitors will not want to simply read text to get information; they will prefer a more personal and interactive way of understanding and participating in museum programs or exhibits.

With that in mind, the following is a brief list of ways that museums can make their content accessible to people with all degrees of hearing loss:
- Provide written information in guides and exhibits
- Include captioning on any video or auditory components
- Have sign language interpretation available for tours and programs
- Hold events specifically for people with hearing loss so they can connect with others like themselves and develop their sense of community
- Make use of assistive listening devices, such as headphones that connect to a docent’s microphone during gallery talks and tours
- Create programs with multi-sensory components, so that information is presented in visual and tactile ways in addition to auditory explanations and discussion
- Put videos of sign-language programs on the museum’s website
- Make sign-language video guides that visitors can download to their mobile devices or borrow from the museum and view while in a exhibit

Case studies

Jumping off from that last item on the list, Catharine McNally has made a business out of creating exactly that type of video guide.  McNally has always loved museums but, as a lifelong deaf person, she realized that written materials were often the only form of interpretation that was offered to her.

As she said in an interview with Michael Janger for Abled Body, “I was visiting a museum in Washington, D.C., and the information desk handed me a pile of paper transcripts so I could follow along with the audio guide.  I went home and video recorded a version of the commentary in cued speech [mouth movements of speech combined with hand signals, or cues] as video clips, and then went back the next day and viewed it on my iPod.  It was a transformative experience for me.”  

McNally’s company, Keen Guides, creates and distributes video museum guides that can be downloaded onto Smart Phones.  Her goal is to make museums accessible in many ways, including foreign languages and multiple forms of visual communication.  She has partnered with organizations like public television and DC By Foot to create her video guides.  Keen Guides is also developing video versions of campus tours at schools like Gallaudet University, which is a federally-chartered college devoted to the education of deaf and hearing-impaired students.

Where do we go from here?

For museums, reaching visitors with hearing impairments is not as straightforward as it might first seem.  However, by working with the people we intend to serve, we can hear their specific needs and preferences for the form that interpretive materials and services will take.  How do we contact members of the Deaf community and create partnerships with them?  How do we embrace the ways that people with hearing impairments best function?  

Hearing Loss Association of America
Accessibility for the Deaf Community in Art Museums
Abled Body: Keen Guides