The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Changing Practices: Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Science Museums

By Christine Reich
From Dimensions
November/December 2012

Science museums hold great promise for engaging learners of a broad range of abilities and disabilities in informal science learning. As institutions known for their interactive and self-directed activities, science museums already exhibit many of the principles of universal design for learning that foster equitable learning environments for all (see the Center for Applied Special Technology). Science museums have the ability to present information and content in a variety of ways, they can offer visitors multiple ways to express themselves, and they are designed to foster interest and curiosity. In fact, these very characteristics of science learning experiences in museums have been found to eliminate the performance differences that can exist in the classroom between students with disabilities and those without disabilities.

While science museums hold great potential for being welcoming and inclusive of visitors with a broad range of abilities and disabilities, the question remains: Do we live up to that potential? Looking back, I see evidence that science museums have become more inclusive of people with disabilities over time. Looking ahead, however, I believe much more work remains. Fortunately, new insights on ways to create lasting change toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities make me feel that change is possible and feasible in the years ahead.

Looking back over the past 15 years

The year 1997 marked the beginning of the ASTC Accessible Practices initiative, which set out to improve accessibility in science museums across the United States, and also the beginning of my professional career in science museums. Since then, science museums have taken great strides to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Most museums now consider wheelchair access when designing exhibitions, many offer visitor services such as assistive listening devices or wheelchairs, and some reach out to audiences not considered 15 years ago, such as children on the autism spectrum or with other intellectual disabilities.

The field has also begun to think more broadly about what it means to be inclusive. When I look at the content on the ASTC Accessible Practices website, which is still a phenomenal resource, I’m reminded that much of our thinking in the late 1990s focused on physical aspects of inclusion, such as height and reach of exhibits and accessibility of the physical museum building. Only a few individuals at the time (such as my mentor and close friend Betty Davidson, now retired from the Museum of Science, Boston) were thinking more broadly about inclusion.

Today, the term inclusion has a more multidimensional meaning. As outlined in the 2010 Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) Inquiry Group Report titled Inclusion, Disabilities, and Informal Science Learning, inclusion extends beyond physical access. Inclusion now also encompasses ways to cognitively engage all visitors in learning about science and ways to enable all visitors to interact socially with others in their visiting group. The report found many examples of science museums taking actions to create a learning environment that is both physically and cognitively inclusive. Unfortunately, only a few museums explicitly address issues of social inclusion.

Fifteen years ago, few science museums addressed issues of inclusion in a meaningful way. Today, science museums around the world take intentional, meaningful, and repeated actions to be more inclusive of visitors with a broad range of abilities and disabilities. Even those museums that took actions to be more inclusive years ago have since expanded how they think about inclusion.

When I first started working at the Museum of Science, Boston, the inclusion of people with disabilities was largely addressed within exhibitions and through special programming. Today, we have an official accessibility initiative aimed at improving access for people with disabilities across the entire museum. We consider the inclusion of people with disabilities in exhibition design, facilities management, visitor services, programming, human resource policies, professional development offerings, and information technology development. These efforts are funded through a variety of sources, including the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Science Foundation, nongovernmental foundations, endowments, and our general operating budget.

The great progress we have made as a field over the past 15 years is certainly worth celebrating. However the unfortunate reality we found while researching current practices to develop the CAISE report is that true commitment to the inclusion of people with disabilities remains an exceptional practice—not the norm. What can we do to move this effort forward? One route is to seek change within our own institutions.

Changing our institutional practices

How do we change institutional practices so that our museums become more inclusive of people with disabilities? I have sought to answer this question through a multi-year, two-phase research study funded through the IMLS National Leadership Grants program.

Phase one consists of an extensive literature review to examine 25 empirical studies of organizational change toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in a broad range of institutions (schools, museums, other non-profit organizations, and businesses) around the globe (e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland, Spain, Canada, and India). Phase two features an in-depth study of three science museums that have taken substantial actions to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Although the phase two findings are not ready for publication, lessons from phase one, combined with information from the CAISE report, sketch a pathway for facilitating change toward inclusive practices within science museums.

After reviewing 25 empirical studies on organizational change and inclusion, I found that seven important factors facilitate a change toward the inclusion of people with disabilities:

  1. Shared inclusive cultures, values, and beliefs facilitate change when present in an organization, and impede change when absent.
  2. Distributed knowledge and expertise can facilitate change, and conversely, an overreliance on the knowledge of any one individual (whether an internal or external expert) impedes change.
  3. Distributed leadership is an important component of successful change, particularly when the formal leader is knowledgeable of inclusive practices and fosters further leadership within a group of individuals.
  4. Collaboration is a key element of change when carried out in multiple dimensions (between internal and external stakeholders, among staff members, across hierarchical levels, and with institutions of similar types).
  5. Involvement of people with disabilities is critical, as such individuals play a role in advocating for change and challenging traditional assumptions about the limitations of disability.
  6. An on-going learning process that may include elements of inquiry and reflection appears to facilitate change, while an overemphasis on one-time events poses significant barriers.
  7. The perception of available funding can facilitate change when staff members believe funding sources exist, and can serve as a barrier when they believe funding to be unavailable.

My findings from this literature review resonate with information we gathered when writing the CAISE report about the practices of seven science museums that demonstrate a commitment to the inclusion of people with disabilities. Shared inclusive values and beliefs were evident in several of these institutions’ official position statements about disabilities. Two noteworthy examples were from the Pavilion of Knowledge (Ciência Viva) in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. The latter states on its website that, “access and inclusion practices are intended to open doors and are recognized as critical components of the museum’s planning and development.”

Most of the seven institutions distributed knowledge of inclusive practices (and perhaps distributed leadership, as well) through internal professional development experiences that were offered to a broad range of individuals. For example, the Education Inclusion Initiative program at Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, extended across a broad range of educators at the zoo, including those who facilitate interpretation carts, organize lectures, and coordinate internships.

Change was also an on-going process at most of these institutions. We saw evidence that many of these museums were building upon their prior work, as well as the work of others in the field. Some of them, such as the Science Museum of Minnesota, Saint Paul; the Museum of Science, Boston; and the New York Hall of Science, integrated evaluation (a form of inquiry and reflection) into their ongoing change process.

Perhaps most importantly, these museums all shared a common practice of involving people with disabilities. For example, at the Science Museum of Minnesota and the New York Hall of Science, people with disabilities work as staff members or volunteers, serve as advisors and consultants, and provide feedback through regular testing of exhibits and/or programs.

Looking ahead to the next 15 years

Reviewing the changes over the past 15 years makes me hopeful about changes we will see in the next 15. As more and more science museums adopt inclusive practices, I can imagine a time when it is commonplace to present information in multiple formats (not just with text labels, but also with audio, images, and video), to offer multisensory interactives, and to provide scaffolding and supports that aid all visitors in learning about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I can also envision a greater emphasis on the social inclusion of people with disabilities, making sure they can learn alongside, not segregated from, their friends and family.

While some may see this vision as rosy-eyed and unrealistic, I see it as a necessity. Only through such changes can science museums begin to live up to their potential as places that engage all visitors in informal science learning and help all individuals feel that learning about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is for them.

Christine Reich is director of research and evaluation at the Museum of Science, Boston.
About the image: People with disabilities assist in the development and testing of a new exhibition at the Museum of Science, Boston. Photo courtesy Museum of Science, Boston

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