Accessible Practices: A Report from the Field

By Sally Middlebrooks

The following article appears in the November/December 1997 issue of the ASTC Newsletter. Sally Middlebrooks is ASTC's Director of Education.

A survey of ASTC members has provided additional evidence that science centers are places where everyone can learn. At the same time, it has revealed challenges, unfinished work, and opportunities for growth for science centers in serving people with disabilities.

In August 1997 the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a planning grant to ASTC and the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY), a project of the Academy for Educational Development. The grant program, known as the Clearinghouse for Accessible Museum Practices (CAMP), encompassed a number of activities, including a series of interviews to gauge the efforts of science centers to open their doors to children and youth with disabilities. A summary of the study results, which follows, was based on telephone interviews conducted by ASTC staff with administrators from 25 ASTC-member institutions in the United States from July through September 1997.

Background: People with disabilities
People with disabilities make up a larger percentage of the population than is generally recognized. There are over 49 million Americans with disabilities (that's one person in five). Disability rates are higher among persons with low levels of education and living in poverty, and the chances of having a disability increase with age. In fact, in the United States, 43 percent of people aged 65 and older have "severe" disabilities, meaning they need assistance to perform daily activities such as walking, bathing, and breathing (figures taken from Statistical Brief, SB/94-1, Bureau of the Census, 1994).

Perhaps surprising for most of us are the relative sizes of groups of people with specific disabilities. For example, only three percent of the 49 million Americans with disabilities use wheelchairs. When disability and access are equated with wheelchairs, 97 percent of the population of persons with disabilities is ignored.

Responses to the interviews
How science museums address accessibility has, of course, legal and financial consequences; additionally, it is a test of how their mission is played out every day on the floor and behind the scenes by museum staff and volunteers. By looking at a specific museum audience, the interviews brought to the surface conflicting beliefs about the purposes of museums and what their priorities should be: namely, how museums can truly be inclusive and serve "everyone."

Overall, the good news emerging from the interviews conducted as part of CAMP is threefold. First, science museums must be "for everyone" - that is, places where everyone might learn and enjoy the world through science and technology. Second, the combination of recent construction, the development of new exhibits, and the addition of captioning and assistive listening devices to exhibits and large-format theaters has helped make museums increasingly accessible to everyone and specifically to people with mobility impairments and people who are deaf or hearing impaired. Third, those surveyed see accessibility for persons with disabilities as "an evolving process" that would significantly benefit from a national perspective, technical assistance, and the dissemination systems that ASTC already has in place.

The sequence of accessibility
In part because of the high number of museums interviewed in new or recently renovated facilities, new construction was named as the area of most intense activity. Whether building a new facility or modifying an existing one, newness was seen as an opportunity to "get it right the first time," whereas some parts of the museum - older exhibits and some bathrooms, for example - were characterized as unfixable. For work done since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there was a discernable sequence to the changes made. Efforts focused first on making doorways, entrances, elevators, bathrooms, and parking accessible. Although it is arguable that these changes have benefited all visitors, people who use wheelchairs are the prime beneficiaries.

Who benefits, who waits
The next wave of change for many museums appears to have had little to do with construction and retrofitting, but has involved the selection and purchasing of new technologies that aid people who are deaf or hearing impaired. These assistive technologies either amplify the sound or caption the narration for videos, films, planetarium shows, and tours. While specific groups of persons with disabilities have benefited from these changes, others wait. Little was noted by those surveyed, for instance, about efforts to make exhibits accessible for visitors who are blind or have vision impairments.

Accessibility as a burden
Accessibility is consistently perceived as a burden by museum directors who have experienced a specific request or "demand." In one case, a child who is deaf registered for an extended museum program (the parent had described her child as deaf on the requisite form, but museum staff had not noted the information). A response was worked out, but concerns about the future remained. A director of a small museum explained:

"I do not want to set a precedent and then have to live up to it at a future time. What's going beyond the call of duty and what's moral and what's legal? To set aside money in our annual budget for persons with disabilities is a burden and also it may not crop up again...We feel faced with the question of how to be accessible without going broke."

Money was most often given as the reason accessibility is perceived as a difficult issue for museums. New construction and new exhibits seem less costly when contrasted with retrofitting portions of the facility (e.g., providing integrated seating in the museum's theater). Money also translates into the time staff need to consider, plan, and make changes to exhibits and programs.

Wait and see
For some museums surveyed, "wait and see" appears to be the primary mode of response. A visitor services manager summed up her museum's recent response to an individual's complaint by saying, "Someone screamed, so we did something."

One consequence is that some areas within the museum are actively worked on, while others are not. For example, one director told us, "Low vision has not come up," meaning that whereas other steps have been taken, accommodating people who are blind or who have vision impairments has not been part of the museum's planning. From several sources, we heard the phrase "catering to specific groups" when asked about programs and exhibits for people with disabilities other than visitors who use wheelchairs.

"It would be nice to have an exhibit geared to sight-impaired people, but for business reasons, we can't do that; there are so few of them."

Accessibility is good business
From others interviewed, we heard a different take on accommodation: namely, that accommodation is good business. For the most part, those holding this view take a pragmatic approach, addressing accommodation disability-by-disability. How to caption large-format theaters for persons who are deaf or hearing impaired is an example of museums' ability to solve problems.

Three things we learned from their efforts are: (1) solutions to the same problem will vary from museum to museum; (2) specific initiatives may be appealing to local funding sources; and (3) within the community, people with disabilities and groups representing people with disabilities can be helpful. One museum's experience brings in each of these points.

"With help from the deaf community, we had a grant to work on open captioning for our planetarium. This helped us later when we researched and tested assistive listening devices for our large-format theater."

But what to do about people with various disabilities who use the same doors and space, participating in the same program, wanting to explore and learn from the same exhibit?

"Solutions for one group are not good for others. For example, wheelchair users want heavy restroom doors propped open, but that's exactly the wrong thing for people who are visually impaired [open doors present a hazard to the unsuspecting]."

And a director of a large museum cautioned that "best practice" for one museum might not be "best practice" for another. Pointing to differences in staffing, resource, and process between large museums and small, she advises small museums to "customize." She argued that "small museums may need to do more on the floor with objects, carts, and volunteers." Or, as another museum director told us, "One size does not fit all."

Local resources
Asked to whom they turned to answer questions about accessibility, respondents most often described someone within the museum or friends and family of staff. Other museums seek out local people with disabilities or someone from a local organization that provides services for people with disabilities, often one individual whom they value and trust, typically someone who uses a wheelchair. Interestingly, in the search for resources, several museums spoke of calling other ASTC members for specific guidance, but no national professional associations or organizations were named as places where museums currently seek or find assistance.

Possible implications
We were told over and over again by those we interviewed that assistance is needed in three key areas. One is a national effort to collect, organize, and disseminate information specific to science museums, including changes in legislation; examples of best practices (e.g., how to write an access guide); and resource (e.g., potential funding sources and referrals - whom to ask about audio description being one example). Two, needed are models of staff and volunteer training and examples of user-friendly checklists or handbooks for assessing facilities, exhibits, programs, services, and policies. Three, more than half of those surveyed said something like this: "Keeping the issue in front of people's faces is necessary."

ASTC is striving to accomplish these goals. The ASTC web site features the section "Accessible Practices" at ASTC sells several publications dealing with the subject, including Diversity in Science and Technology Centers (a report of Project MOSAIC), and User Friendly: Hands-On Exhibits That Work by Jeff Kennedy. ASTC has also received funding from NEC Foundation of America for a preconference workshop on universal design that will be held at the Annual Conference in Edmonton next year.