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)

1 comment:

  1. I like your call to action! Another thing to think about is that museum visitors with disabilities often come with another person- family, friends, caregivers. A diversity in the experiences available at the museums could serve to engage both parties simultaneously!