Next month, I’ll be presenting work at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Baltimore! The working group – MAKING PUBLIC HISTORY ACCESSIBLE: EXPLORING BEST PRACTICES FOR DISABILITY ACCESS – 2016 WORKING GROUP – has created a page on the Public History Commons to foster conversation and ideas before the conference.
The working group introduction states, “Many of our museums and historic sites still exclude persons with disabilities, whether through physical barriers, communication barriers, or the omission of disability from the historical narrative. Public historians have an important role to play in providing an inclusive experience within their programs and institutions. In conjunction with the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, this working group will discuss and begin to address the challenges public historians face in creating fully inclusive sites and programs for people with all types of disabilities.”
As you may know, this aligns itself perfectly with my research! Here is my case study information:
- How did I get here, and what did I do about it?
As I started my Public History PhD Program, I knew I wanted to do work in museums, possibly with a concentration in education. During the NCPH conference in Pensacola, FL, I walked downtown where adults with special needs were having a field trip in a park. It struck me in that moment that in my experience, at the history museums I had worked with up to that point, I had never worked with a group of people with special needs. During my dissertation research, I wanted to see how historic house museums and historic sites can create better, more accessible spaces, for all visitors. Specifically, I focused on field trips for high school students in general special education classes. In my experience in museums for several years across Tennessee, I didn’t see historymuseums, specifically, making an effort to create accessible spaces, beyond the typical ADA requirements. As part of my research, I visited several art museums that had specific programming, as well as some leading museums in New York City. I was able to take what worked and didn’t work for those sites, and through experimentation at a historic site in Tennessee I was able to come up with the “best practices” for creating programs for people with special needs at museums. After graduation, I published this manuscript as Programming for People With Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites, which include 7 practical steps for anyone wants to work with groups of people with special needs or disabilities, or frankly with any group in general at a museum. Another aspect of my research is the history of disability in museums – not through access necessarily, but rather how people with disabilities have been portrayed at museums, or “museums,” in the past, as exhibits rather than as visitors with agency.
- What does it mean to make historic sites and programs accessible for people with disabilities? What challenges do smaller sites face in becoming fully accessible?
I think, and hope, that accessibility is starting to move beyond ADA requirements for wheelchairs, accommodations for hearing and sight impaired, and become something that is embraced, rather than a moral and legal obligation. Universal design is a term often used to describe a one-size-fits-all type of site or program, which should be the best solution for every person. That isn’t always the most feasible solution though, especially at smaller sites with limited staff, resources, and funds. Small budgets, historic buildings, limited time… all those things that staff at historic sites are so familiar with can put accessibility on the backburner to paying the electric bill, running copies for the board of directors, or directing a cider-and-cookies Christmas event for the public. However, even small adaptations to existing tours or programs or even the site itself can help with access for more visitors.
- What accessibility standards do practitioners currently use?
Until recently, several museums and sites that I worked at did only the bare minimum for ADA, and often not even that. However, there are some good guidelines from the Smithsonian Institute for things like exhibit text and font size for people with low vision, introductory videos are often Closed Captioned, and some historic buildings even have ramps up to the first floor. There are several really great things in the works at museums I’ve visited – 3D printings of paintings or art (great for everyone, not just sight impaired), closed-museum tours for groups of students with autism, the old photos of the upstairs album for historic houses with multiple stories. Hopefully innovations and conversations, like this one, will inspire others to come up with more solutions and standards.
- How should staff and volunteers be trained to incorporate accessibility standards into their practices?
One of the most striking aspects of my research was the lack of training in accessibility, in all positions at museums and historic sites from the Director to education staff, to security and reception. Even a bit of sensitivity and awareness training of disability and accessibility at a regular staff or board meeting can go a long way. As a part of my department service as a PhD student, I held an Accessibility in Museums workshop for the public. It was an all-day affair, with Morning session speakers, including a Keynote Speaker, Krista Flores, a Program Specialist at Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, additional speakers: Karen Wade, Director of Homestead Museum, Los Angeles County, California and Dr. Lisa Pruitt, Middle Tennessee State University. Additionally, a panel of various experts in the fields of education, museums, special education, recreation and more spoke about challenges and solutions in their own fields. Afternoon Breakout sessions included case studies, information about specific issues, and think-tank opportunities. The workshop was not as well-attended as we hoped it would be, but those who did attend said that they saw the value in such a workshop and hoped that more would be available in the future.
- In what ways can new technologies assist public historians in making their sites and interpretation more accessible? What new challenges do these technologies pose?
Tablet technology, digital media, and 3D printing are some of the newest and best ways that we can reach more people, “make history exciting,” and create accessible spaces and programs. Apps and tours and videos can especially make accessibility to historic buildings better, but a lot of those sites do not have the funds available to purchase technology that is changing quickly. There are some grants available through local or state governments, for technology for accessibility, but those are limited. In my own experience at a historic house museum, the site received a grant to create tablet tours. Then there were several changes in administration; then new research changed many of the stories that had been told on tours; then the entire focus of the mission of the site changed. To my knowledge, that project is still out there, funding still available, but at this point, the technology that was supposed to be used, 5 years ago, is already out of date, as well as the script that was paid for and written by local scholars.
- How can we increase the number of visitors with disabilities to our sites?
There are many ways to increase the number of visitors with disabilities – by having a space that they can access, by telling their own stories so they can see themselves in the museum, through involvement from the very beginning, and more. In my own experience, reaching out to communities and telling them that they are even welcome is a big aspect, especially with children with special needs. In a survey I distributed, teachers and parents of children with special needs were concerned that history museums or historic sites (not necessarily science or children’s museums) were supposed to be quiet and still places, where no disruptions or noise would be tolerated. In my experience, by reaching out and inviting students and teachers to a specific program tailored just to their needs through detailed discussion with the teachers and aides, that myth was dispelled, and everyone had a great and educational time at the historic site.