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Easy Access: Making Museum Education Accessible
by Abigail Diaz
Where do I even start? That’s what I kept thinking when I considered the inaccessibility of our museum education programs. Accessibility is such a vast topic, and so important, that it can feel overwhelming. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know who to ask. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Over the course of a year, I led a transformation of our field trip programming at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI) alongside two other incredible educators. MSI’s mission is to “inspire the inventive genius in everyone.” While we had always been committed to quality science engagement for our students, we finally began putting an emphasis on everyone — including learners of all abilities.
Throughout the year, we learned important lessons about what it takes to create institution-wide change in a large museum. Here are 10 ways that you too can start (or continue!) making meaningful changes to your education programs to better engage all visitors.
1. “Nothing for us without us.”
This powerful saying is used within the disabled community to show the absolute essentialness of including people with disabilities in your mission to create accessible spaces, programs and content. My role as an ally and advocate is to magnify the voices of marginalized groups, not speak for them. At every step, from planning to execution, include these voices. Make community connections by reaching out to local organizations. Your programs will be better for having their knowledge and life experiences. You’ll build partnerships with community groups that you wouldn’t have previously. You’ll create stakeholders in your mission and programs.
This is an essential step to creating inclusive programming, but it should be noted that people with disabilities do not owe your institution their life experiences or knowledge and especially not for free. Be clear on your budget up front. If you’re utilizing user experts, pay them as you would any consultant. If consultant pay isn’t an option, find a way to make this partnership symbiotic.
2. Make allies and find support
When we first began thinking more critically about access, we didn’t know where to begin. But we knew some great work was being done in Chicago. We reached out to groups and individuals on Facebook, we cold called and we emailed contacts around Chicago in order to audit what was offered in cultural institutions for people with disabilities. I created a standardized data collection form that we filled out at every stop on what we later called our Mission Accessible Road Trip. We visited 22 cultural and education institutions across the Chicagoland area and gained not only knowledge, but also connections with professionals working in education and access.
3. The long game
As we completed projects at MSI, we played the long game. We wouldn’t force anyone to take what we had made or implement ideas we had. But we made compelling cases, logically and financially. One in six Americans has a disability. They are an intersectional part of our community and to not serve them is morally outrageous and fiscally irresponsible. We were loud, convincing and persistent in our advocacy.
Slowly, the word spread. Different departments caught on to what we were doing and wanted to join us. Thus, Access MSI was born. This is now a branded program at MSI that catches all efforts in accessibility and inclusion. This did not happen overnight.
4. Ask better questions
When groups visited MSI on field trips, we used to ask the standard “Does your group need any accommodations on their visit?” We realized that we weren’t getting great data from that. Often, teachers wouldn’t share information. As the sister of and caregiver to a young man with disabilities, I know the very real fear of rejection that comes with bringing someone that does need accommodations to a museum. You’re afraid you’ll ask for too much and be told that this might not be the best place to visit. You’re confident that the museum could not provide more than you are already providing.
We started asking better questions. When you book a field trip at MSI now, you are required to read through a targeted list of offerings and questions about your group. Rather than asking an open-ended question, we created a checklist that includes what we do offer. Teachers can select: large print notebooks, Spanish notebooks, additional tactile opportunities, written transcripts or instructions, large pencils/pencil grips, auditory assistance, extra time for tasks and a sensory backpack. We then ask better questions about who is visiting us on this field trip. Teachers can select: my group includes students who might be sensory sensitive, who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, with vision loss, with intellectual disabilities, who are primarily proficient in a language other than English, who are non-verbal, who have low-mobility, who are non-readers, who need to use an elevator and who use a wheelchair.
By creating this list, we set boundaries on what we do and do not offer for accommodations. By asking better questions about who is coming, we are able to better plan our lesson and also hopefully make the teacher feel comfortable checking as many boxes as she needs do without fear of the rejection.
5. Universal design
Universal design means by creating spaces and offerings that are accessible to people with disabilities, they also become better for everyone. For example, large print is helpful for people with low vision. But isn’t it also better for younger visitors, older visitors and just about everyone in between? Yes! Whenever possible, make one thing that is better for everyone. It will save you time, effort and money.
6. Practical changes
We started by making low-cost, practical changes that were in the spirit of universal design. All notebooks we use with field trip groups became large print with high-contrasting colors. We added more spaces for sketching rather than lines for writing. We began offering pencil grips at tables for students that preferred them, often students that had a hard time with fine motor skills. We made sure to have written instructions rather than relying on just verbal directions. This helped students that might have hearing loss but also is just better for everyone. These are examples of changes that cost pennies but can make a huge difference for many different groups.
7. Sphere of influence
If you’re just beginning to think about access and inclusion, it can be overwhelming and feel as though it will never be enough or never be good enough. The fantastic Nina Simon once stressed in a webinar on inclusion that we must start with our own spheres of influence. What can I change tomorrow? What can I change next week? What can I do? Gradually your sphere will grow.
8. Access is more than disabilities
At MSI, we decided that accessibility was a holistic term that was going to mean much more than better serving people with disabilities. To make our programs more accessible, we started thinking about all groups that might not feel as though museums were for them. I made pronoun buttons for education staff. We translated notebooks we use on field trips into Spanish and came up with strategies for better sharing knowledge with English language learners. We started being more aware of how often we gendered language (Hey guys!) and held each other accountable for speaking with more intention. These changes were better for everyone.
9. Check your privilege
As a white, able-bodied, educated person working in museums, I understand that museums were made for me. I’ve never felt discomfort visiting a museum and I’ve never questioned whether I was welcome there. But part of cultural humility is understanding that not everyone has this privilege. There are systemic barriers in place that prevent full inclusion of people with disabilities in cultural institutions and it is your job to be an ally in breaking down those barriers.
10. It’s ok to be corrected
Yes, the stakes are high. You don’t want to offend anyone or make someone uncomfortable. But the overwhelming message that I have gotten is that it’s ok to get it wrong. What we think is best might not be best, and sometimes it’s only best for some people. For example, best practices say that we should use person-first language. My brother has autism, he is not an autistic boy. But some people identify as disability-first. If (when!) you are corrected, learn from it and do better. Stay humble and understand that you will mess up. Work in accessibility is not static; it’s always going to be a learning process.
It will take time to break down the systemic barriers that prevent all guests from visiting, engaging with and loving museums. We cannot ask people with disabilities to change. They are a vibrant, intersectional and essential part of our community. It must be museums that change.
Abigail Diaz signs her emails museums are for everyone and works every day to make that a reality. She is the proud sister of a darling and daring boy with disabilities. Abbie has worked at 13 cultural institutions across four states. She is currently the Education Director at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and on the Board of Directors of the Museum Education Roundtable. You can find her at @AbsLovesMuseums on Twitter.