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Accessible Practices Behind the Scenes Julie Johnson
Julie Johnson: Planning for All Visitors

When interviewed for this profile in 1997, Julie Johnson was director of education at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden. She became deputy director of the aquarium in 2000 and later a program officer at the National Science Foundation. Here she describes making programs accessible for people with disabilities through sign language interpretation and touchable objects.

My Background
I grew up visiting museums and aquariums. I have always been fascinated by aquariums and the marine world, so when I became a science teacher at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, I made sure oceanography and marine science were part of my science curriculum.

As director of education at the aquarium, I am responsible for the planning, implementation, and evaluation of exhibit interpretation and programming and for all educational services, including school and teacher programs, and outreach. I am the person on staff who usually asks, "How is this [new exhibit or program] going to impact our visitors?"

When I started working at the aquarium five years ago, I was the one who was most aware of our responsibility to be accessible and the main advocate for people with disabilities. Today, there are others. The American with Disabilities Act has made us all more aware, but there is still much to do.

The person who raises questions about access might not be on staff, but from a local agency that provides services for people with disabilities. I know how to modify programs for people who are hearing impaired or deaf, visually impaired and, to some extent, cognitively impaired. I also know where to get more information if and when I need it, and I call upon others to brainstorm about methods for improvement.

Finding Funds, Providing Programs
For me, there was never a question as to where I would direct my first energies. Having taught at a school for the deaf, the needs of the hearing impaired weres what I knew best, and so I made sure funds were designated in my budget for interpreters. My education and teaching experience have influenced the way I see my work and how I allot my budget.

When someone suggested this year that eliminating my interpreter line item would be a way to cut expenses, I gave a resounding "No," and found another way to save. These funds are modest and ensure that school groups with hearing impaired children that visit the aquarium for a specific lesson or tour have access to an interpreter. We send interpreters a packet of materials that describe the classroom lesson. Because we also run eight to 10 different programs daily for all visitors, they are also sent scripts of the shows and demonstrations. This helps prepare the interpreter for his/her assignment and makes sure the experience is a good one. This service has been available to school groups since 1992, and it has taken several years to spread the word. Now that teachers know about the service, they request it often.

Johnson signs in front of jaws over two feet in diameter, set with three-inch teeth.

Scripts of the shows and demonstrations are also available for individuals or families who call and say "I am bringing my deaf child, parent," etc. While this definitely is a way to provide accessibility, it isn't easy for the visitor. Imagine not being able to hear and having to follow a lively show or demonstration with a script. It is not easy to read a script while watching an activity. When possible, I arranged my schedule to coincide with the deaf visitors' so I could be available to interpret. In the photo at right, I am signing for a group at the Megaladon Shark Jaw exhibit. My ultimate goal is to secure funding so the aquarium can regularly offer interpreted programs at least one weekend day a month. We are testing this out by providing sign language interpretation on selective dates that coincide with special events at the aquarium (e.g., our Dive Expo).

Planning and Patience
Any program that provides accommodation needs to build momentum to gain an audience. It may take time for people with disabilities in our region to realize that the aquarium offers special services. I am persistent and use a variety of strategies to advertise. For example, I send information about programs to the New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which produces and distributes the Monthly Communicator, a newsletter announcing programs, services, jobs, and special events across the state.

Recently, we have had more requests from visitors who are visually impaired. Because most of what is exciting at an aquarium is behind glass, we have experimented with descriptive tours and the use of objects. For example, in our WOW! Weird? or Wonderful exhibition (an exhibition about adaptations), staff carry artifacts, such as a piece of coral to use at an exhibit containing animals that eat coral. Of course, this type of guided experience works best when the aquarium is less crowded and it is easier to hear and talk with each other. We developed this tour in response to a call from a woman in Delaware who works with people who are blind and visually impaired; that group helped us work out a solution. It has been my experience that as long as people are willing to work together, a solution can be found.

Flexibility and Openness
In general, the increasing number of visitors with disabilities coming to the aquarium is provoking changes in how we think about our facility, programs, and exhibits. But I think we need to be more proactive and turn those thoughts and ideas into actions. We [the museum community] all want more people coming through our doors, and we want everyone to feel that they are welcome. Most museums, aquariums, and zoos recognize they should be more accommodating, but are not sure how and to what extent.

How do we plan for everybody? The task sometimes seems overwhelming, but here are some tips that may help:

  • Conduct an accessibility survey of your facility: What do you already have in place? What seems the most likely initial goal, and what institutional strengths and expertise can be employed in reaching that goal?
  • Research and reach out to local resources: I use my community resources. The people with disabilities and groups I have worked with say, "Invite me in and ask me what I think would make my visit better." I think we need to ask more questions and be a little more aggressive in our intent to make ourselves more accessible.
  • Start with one good idea or strategy.
  • Use a variety of methods to advertise.
  • Be patient. A new program takes time to grow.
  • Be flexible. As the program gains recognition, it may change.

One other thought: I believe that while accommodations for people with disabilities require adjustments, they offer major benefits. The bottom line is that everyone is a winner.

Click on the links below for more information on
Interacting with People with Disabilities
Sign Language Interpreters
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