Accessibility and Accommodations

Image of disability statistics for the United States.
https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability.html

Museums are experiences and visited by people of all walks of life and from varying places around the world– including those in need of accommodations. Per the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability, which equates to 1 in 4 adults. To create an inclusive space and experience that welcomes all visitors and their personnel, museums must be committed to accessibility efforts. Making your museum more accessible will expand your impact and reach to include people with disabilities and their families. The resources below contain many simple, low- or no-cost ways your institutions can create accessible museum spaces and equitable immersive experiences.

Definitions

There are a myriad of definitions that are beneficial to understanding accessibility and accommodations. For a more detailed and expansive list of definitions as well as vital information on legally required public accommodations, please refer to the Title III Regulations from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This document is current as of 2017. 

  • Disability: Per the ADA, disability means, with respect to an individual: 
    • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual 
    • The definition of ‘disability’ shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by terms of the ADA

Personnel & Admin

Art Beyond Sight offers a host of information on a range of staff should be involved in creating an inclusive and accessible museum. The site details docents, volunteers, and visitor services, educators, conservators, and other important museum practitioners who help run the institution. Everyone plays a vital role in creating equitable visitor experiences for those needing accommodations. Art Beyond Sight believes that “an accessible museum is a museum that welcomes people with all types of disabilities in its galleries, exhibitions, and programs. The accommodations made for these audiences increase a museum’s appeal for all those who visit and thus enhance the museum’s inclusiveness.” 

The Americans with Disabilities Act website describes all of the titles and regulations that all museum institutions and staff should familiarize themselves with, as creating an inclusive museum space is not only ethical but a legal issue. To make sure your institution meets ADA regulations, it is good to keep up with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division document on Maintaining Accessibility in Museums.  Additionally, ADA Resources for Museums, Arts and Cultural Institutions is another great document that provides sector-specific training and information to meet ADA requirements and create experiences that best serve people with disabilities.

Exhibitions & Programming 

Art Beyond Sight indicates that “it is also becoming clear that curators must be a part of a museum’s effort to create full accessibility to its resources and serve all audiences by doing the following: 

  • Developing exhibition narratives that include disability as a subject
  • Collaborating with disabled people in shaping projects 
  • Assessing the institution’s collections to see how they relate to issues related to people with disabilities
  • Addressing gaps in the museum’s collections through proactive collecting”

Inclusion of touch tours is one way museums are creating accessible programming and exhibitions. The video above is provided by the British Council Arts and uses the Tate Museum and Attenborough Arts Centre to detail how to create accessible programming and exhibitions to engage with “intellectual access” which the video defines as thinking about how visitors are able to engage with collections. 

Universal Design 

Universal design refers to the construction of spaces that are conscious of the visitors’ range of abilities and motilities. The Museums Association of Saskatchewan lists a number of ways museums can make their exhibits accessible to individuals in wheelchairs, along with those who are visually impaired. 

The National Museum of Asian Art also provides an accessibility tool kit, which outlines their process and best practices throughout the development of more accessible programs and exhibits. This outline also provides tips for developing an accessibility taskforce, along with additional resources, to ensure sustained action. 

Visitor Experience 

Pyramid featuring several colors and descriptions of museum visitor needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applied to museum visitor experience by cultural sector strategist Sabine Doolin.

Visitor experience begins as a visitor is about to enter the museum. Per the ADA, the museum building should feature: 

  • Accessible Entrances 
    • These entrances should be free of debris, leaves, or snow. They should also remain unblocked. 
    • Alternate entrances should be available if the main entrance is not accessible or available. 
    • Signage should indicate where accessible entrances and exits are. 
  • Accessible Routes Throughout the Museum 
    • Make sure not to block accessible routes and if need be, have alternate accessible routes in the event that the original routes are not available. 
    • Make sure that signs or directions are mounted and remain in place with the correct directional information, especially in regard to special events hosted at the museum.
    • Elevators must be maintained and remain operational. In the event that they are “out of service and provide the only accessible route to an area, temporary alternate access to exhibitions may be provided using photographic, video, or computer presentations.” 
  • Accessibility in Museum Programs 
    • Signage and brochure information about accessibility and accommodations must be kept current and readily available for visitors upon request.
    • Alternate formats for print brochures and program materials must be kept current, in stock, and readily available to the public. They must also be easily accessible. Alternate formats include, but are not limited to: braille, CD-Rom, and large print. Additionally, “they should be available to visitors the same day that the standard print versions are available, including materials associated with traveling and other temporary exhibitions.”
    • Auxiliary aids and services include, but are not limited to: assistive listening devices, audio description tours, closed captioning controls in exhibitions. These auxiliary aids and services “must remain operable except for maintenance or repair. Regular testing of equipment is essential to keep them in working order.” 

The Tenement Museum takes us through their accessible features within their institution and exhibitions– specifically one in particular, Shop Life. This video is a great example of how to center inclusivity in your museum for those needing accommodations. 

Inclusivity Maker provides a video and vital information on how to make your museum more accessible for people with disabilities. 

For institutions looking for ways to accommodate their visually impaired visitors, MuseumNext’s Social Impact Series offers a useful guide with information on multi-sensory museum experiences, raising light levels, technology, and a whole host of other beneficial topics that enhance the visitor experience for those who are visually impaired.  

Additional Resources

ADA Accessibility Standards (enhanced single file version)

What Historic Sites Have Learned After 25 Years with ADA | Engaging Places

Accessibility Resources for Museums and Libraries