Sensitivity and Awareness at Your Museum or Cultural Organization

This blog has been a long time coming, but I have finally found some free time to get the blog back up and running.  Expect more this summer from former professors and students, a recap of my trip to New York City, dissertation and research updates, and more!

Seriously, best conference ever.

This past March I had the opportunity to once again attend my favorite yearly meeting, the Tennessee Association of Museums Conference.  Even better, I was a scholarship recipient, which was an incredible honor.  To top it all off, I also chaired a session called, “Your Museum: Compliance, Awareness, Sensitivity, and Outreach” with some other folks from Middle Tennessee State University’s PhD in Public History program.  My talk was on, “Sensitivity and Awareness – Steps to Take for Successful Connections.”

This talk stemmed from conversations about my dissertation and research in the residency colloquium I attended last academic year.  The idea is that museums are meeting requirements for ADA, but they are generally only doing the minimum as opposed to branching out to offer more accessible programs to diverse groups.  Before any radical changes can take place, I believe that museum staff must be trained on sensitivity and awareness techniques to use when working with disabled populations.  I wanted to share a few high points from my talk here online so others can take advantage of these options.

As I have said before,  in the residency colloquium in the PhD program, we were required to read selections based around each of our interests and research.  Prior to this, I had already decided that disability and museums would be integral parts of my dissertation research.  The class instructor took this into consideration while choosing our readings.  The special issue of the Public Historian, from Spring 2005, was all about disability and museums.  The articles range in subject matter from FDR to visually impaired visitor’s experiences at a museum to reviews of websites and books.

Presenting at TAM

Striking in this selection of readings were the first-hand accounts of people with disabilities and their experiences.  A lack of compassion, sensitivity, and even awareness was very present in their stories.  This led to discussions about what museums can do to welcome more people.  Also missing from the literature was the inclusion of those who have learning, cognitive, or developmental disabilities.  Since the implementation of ADA so much of the focus has been on wheelchair accessibility.  Accessibility for the sight and hearing impaired has also been embraced, but in many cases those with learning disabilities are forgotten.

As anyone who works in museums or at historical sites, many museums are small and short-staffed.  Resources and training are not always readily available for all staff and volunteers.  Through this blog post I hope to give some ideas and thinking points for small museums and staff members.

Here are some interesting numbers:

  • There are over 500 known disabilities. Common disabilities include: vision, hearing, speech, physical, and developmental.
  • From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of the total US population with a disability grew by 2.0 percentage points (American Association of People with Disabilities)
  • Currently around 10 per cent of the total world’s population, or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability (
  • There are more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States today.
  • Many of those 50 million are elderly (a large percentage of museum-going population)

As the AAM reminds us, “access is not just a legal and moral obligation. Changes that increase access for those with disabilities can mean more visitors, since most people don’t attend museums alone. In other words, enabling one person with a disability to visit often brings at least two people to the museum.” (

Here are some important tips on what to do when you have visitors at your museum who have a disability.  Some of these things may seem to be common sense, but they are still important to remember in your everyday interactions with visitors.

In general, people with disabilities are like everyone else, so try to treat them like anyone else.  Think through the other person’s mind – can they see your subtle, headshakes or nods?  Eye movements?  Can they hear sarcasm or inflections of your voice?  Can they reach where you are?

Using your words:

  • Always put the person first. Example: “the person who is blind” and not “the blind person”.  Emphasize abilities.
  • Don’t underestimate people with disabilities.
  • Avoid labels. Never refer to people by their disability. For example, don’t say “the handicapped, the crippled, the blind”, etc.
  • People sometimes use negative language without realizing it. Make sure to emphasize the positive.


  • Speak directly to the person with a disability rather than through a companion or interpreter who may be present.
  • Find the best way to communicate. The person may want to sign, fingerspell, lip read, or write notes.
  • Speak normally-don’t yell or exaggerate.
  • If you offer assistance to a person with a disability, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen or ask for instructions. Assisting without permission may cause serious injury.
  • Offer to shake hands or trade business cards when introduced. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Offering the left hand is an acceptable form of greeting.
  • Use body language. It offers important clues about what you are saying.

Visual Disabilities:

  • Security guards should know how to accommodate the needs of blind patrons, and should be able to direct them clearly and helpfully
  • Always identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting someone with a vision impairment.
  • Never touch someone with vision impairment unless they know you are there.
  • Offer your arm. Don’t propel or lead a person with a vision impairment.
  • If you meet someone with a guide dog never distract, pet, or feed the dog. If a service animal is distracted it may inhibit the service animal from doing its job.


  • Do not lean or hang on someone’s wheelchair. Bear in mind that people with physical disabilities treat their wheelchairs as extensions of their bodies.
  • Never patronize people who use wheelchair by patting them on the head.
  • Never move adaptive equipment outside the person’s reach.
  • Place yourself at eye level when speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair, scooter, crutches, etc.
  • Prevent a strained neck by standing a few feet away when talking to an individual in a wheelchair.


  • People with mental impairment learn slowly and have a harder time using their knowledge.
  • Be clear and concise – don’t use complex sentences or difficult words.
  • Don’t talk down to the individual – in other words don’t baby talk. This won’t make it easier to understand.
  • Don’t take advantage of the individual. Never ask a person with a mental impairment to do anything that you wouldn’t ask a friend to do.
  • Be understanding and patient. People with mental impairments are often aware of their limitations, but they have the same needs and desires as everyone else.

The basics

The Association of Science-Technology Centers has a great website devoted to options for museums.  Below is a list from their website,

  • Become familiar with museums’ legal obligations.
  • Talk to people in your community. Conduct focus groups and surveys, form advisory groups , build relationships with people with disabilities.
  • Consult with community organizations for and about people with disabilities.
  • Call or visit other institutions that have services like those you want to offer.
  • Conduct an access survey
  • Consider what resources you already have available in your museum.
  • Provide staff and volunteer training about interacting with people with disabilities. Additionally, staff and volunteers need to know what services and equipment the museum provides, where to find them, and how to maintain and operate them.
  • Make high priority and low cost changes in accordance with your plan.
  • Seek national and local funding for high cost changes.

Other ideas include creating audio tours, written/captioned options for films or auditory parts of your museum, and creating picture books for inaccessible areas of the museum for those who cannot physical visit certain areas.  Accommodations can often be easily made,  and museums can also adapt presentation techniques (such as being sure the speaker is always visible to those with hearing loss, being aware that people who are blind may need visual information described verbally to them).

I’m sure many of you have ideas and ways that you have adapted.. please feel free to discuss and share these in the comments section!

Successful Accessible Museums

The Museum Access Consortium in NYC consists of representatives from various museum departments throughout the New York City Metropolitan area and members and representatives of the disability community. Members of MAC exchange information, ideas and resources and provide a network of mutual support. Museums such as,

MOMA, The Jewish Museum, Tenement Museum, and Transit Museum have taken advantage of the MAC and are in the process of working on great accessible programming.  I was lucky enough to visit these museums last month, and will be posting a blog on these museums, staff, and programs in the near future.

Homestead Museum in Los Angeles County, CA is also working on programs for adults with dementia and programs for people who reside at adult living centers.  The Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y is a historic home with a small staff.  However, they initiated physical changes, including making a restroom accessible, adding ramps, renovating obstacles in pathways and acquiring county money to replace the elevator. Their full story can be found on the AAM Website –

Additional Resources:

For those of you in the Nashville area, information about our upcoming workshop is available below:

Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History Program Presents:

 Disability and Your Cultural Organization: Sensitivity and Strategies for Going Beyond ADA

 Saturday November 3, 2012

9AM – 3 PM

at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

 Morning Sessions Include

 Keynote Speaker:

Krista Flores, Program Specialist, Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program

 Additional Speakers:

Karen Wade, Director of Homestead Museum, Los Angeles County, California

Dr. Lisa Pruitt, Middle Tennessee State University

 Panel of various experts in the fields of education, museums, special education, recreation and more!

 Afternoon Breakout sessions will include case studies, information about specific issues, and think-tank opportunities.

 Registration Fees will include lunch and all workshop materials

 Please email Katie Stringer at for more details, questions, or registration information

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