My book is out!

How did I let a month go by without posting this immediately?  A sign of the life of a museum director, I suppose.  In this week’s adventures, my assistant found a squatter set up on the back porch of our secondary historic home. Playing Xbox.

Anyway… without further ado…

That's my name! On the front of my book!

That’s my name! On the front of my book!

In case you haven’t followed the story of publication and proposals and writing and so forth, here is a short description:

Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites will help museums and historic sites become truly inclusive educational experiences. The book is unique because it covers education and inclusion for those with both intellectual and learning disabilities.

The book features the seven key components of creating effective programming for people with special needs, especially elementary and secondary students with intellectual disabilities:

  • 1442227605Sensitivity and awareness training
  • Planning and communication
  • Timing
  • Engagement and social/life skills
  • Object-centered and inquiry-based programs
  • Structure
  • Flexibility


In addition, this book features and discusses programs such as the Museum of Modern Art‘s Meet Me program and ones for children with autism at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn as models for other organizations to adapt for their use.

Its focus on visitors of all ages who have cognitive or intellectual disabilities or special needs makes this title essential for all museum and historic site professionals, especially educators or administrators, but also for museum studies students and those interested in informal education.

I already have two reviews of the book, too!  Here is what my esteemed colleagues had to say about the book:
Programming for People with Special Needs is an invaluable manual with clear, concise examples of how museums benefit when they open their doors, exhibits, and programming to all audiences in a community. A commitment to common-sense universal design principles opens the dialogue about what matters in our history and culture to every citizen, thus enriching our communities through better education and community engagement.
— Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee University, and Tennessee State Historian

Programming for People with Special Needs is an important new resource for any museum or historic site serious about expanding their current audience base and preparing for tomorrow’s visitors. While the ADA already requires us to accommodate visitors’ physical needs, it is equally important that our programs consider the needs of visitors experiencing various forms of learning and intellectual disabilities, including memory loss, especially since their numbers are expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades. This thorough and practical volume can help your institution accomplish this goal and, in turn, become a museum or historic site better prepared for the future.
— Karen Graham Wade, director, Homestead Museum, City of Industry, California

I hope that if you work at a historic site, historic house, history museum, or small museum that you will encourage your supervisor or staff to read this book.  I really did approach this topic with real-world implications in mind.
You can purchase the book from the publisher on their website.  I suggest hardcover. 😉
Thanks everyone for their support throughout this project, especially my parents, my Charles, Dr. West, and my publisher at R&L Charles.

Q&A With Tenement Museum Educator, Sarah Litvin

Sarah is an Education Associate at the Tenement Museum in New York City.  She was kind enough to speak with me through email and then in person during my time in NYC last May.  

What kinds of programs do you offer on a daily basis for student field trips?

Every day, we offer 3rd person building tours, Costumed Interpretation, and walking tours to students between 10 am and 1 pm.

What kinds of programs do you offer for people with special needs or disabilities?

Talking Tactile Tablet at the Visitor Center

We have a variety of built-in accessible features in our Visitors Center including a Talking Tactile Tablet and Induction loops. We also try to duplicate the ways we share information: through signs, audio cues, and tactile guides. We offer ASL tours conducted with no voice interpretation at the Museum for regularly scheduled public tours, and for school groups upon advanced request. We also offer touch tours for visitors who are blind/low vision for group of 5 or more with advanced notice. (They don’t have special programs that were created only for students with special needs; they do use modifications and very flexible educators to make programs for students with special needs successful. More information on their accessible programs is available on my previous blog, Accessibility and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and at their website.)

What disabilities or disorders do you focus on?

We focus on visitors who are blind/low vision, deaf/hard of hearing, and visitors who have mobility impairments. Increasingly, we’re building our toolkit to work with visitors with autism.

How do you feel about universal design?  Is that incorporated into your exhibit design or programming?

Tenement Museum Visitor Center

Universal Design is where it’s at! We’ve tried to incorporate it into new exhibit development and into our new Visitors Center. As I mentioned, we have induction loops for people who are hard of hearing installed at the ticketing and retail kiosks as well as the cinema space in our Visitors Center.  All of our films are open-captioned, and every tour begins with the educator offering an assistive listening device. We incorporate handling objects on all of our public tours, and have extra objects that we bring in for visitors who are blind or low vision. Our newest exhibits are the trickiest, since we are now working on creating a touch interactive exhibit. Designing it with Universal Design in mind has been extremely difficult. What works for one population sometimes makes it less accessible for another population.

How did you research for program development?

In terms of support, I rely on my Museum professionals in the New York City Museum Educator Roundtable, which as an Access Peer Group. I also rely on a series of advisors; our Access Advisory Committee is a group of consultants/advocates drawn from different disability communities in the area.

Do you have a specific staff member or set of staff members that you work with on this?

Until this year, Access has been an Education department initiative. However, this year I have started a cross-departmental Access Committee to make sure that we are thinking about these issues Museum-wide.

What resources did you use outside of the museum (community, consultants, experts, audience members)?

In addition to the folks cited above, we also do a lot of focus groups following programs. I’ll pretty much pick anyone’s brain that is willing to talk to me about what they do in their Museum.

How do you evaluate results of programming?

We have not done a comprehensive evaluation of our access programming. We measure our success through the high rate of return from schools for the deaf and blind. Often, these schools recommend our programming to other schools as well, which we take as a good sign.

What kind of sensitivity and awareness programs or training do you have for staff?

Every new staff member has Access Awareness training as part of their initial Museum orientation. Follow-up and additional training is available for staff as well. I try to send out as much information as I can about trainings I hear about in the city, and to bring speakers to talk on Access themes at least twice a year.

How do you advertise your programming to the public?

We post our offerings on our website and create fliers for upcoming events. I also collect e-mail addresses to e-blast former visitors about upcoming events and programs. We also use population-specific websites such as deafnyc and handson.org to publicize our events.

A few notes from our meeting:

The Tenement Museum takes a narrative approach; for instance, they can take an object like a sewing machine and construct the stories of many people through that one artifact.  In addition to other accessibility programs, the Tenement Museum offers offsite and distance learning for adults who find the museum uncomfortable or inaccessible.

Things to keep in mind when developing programs for children with special needs:

  • Think about how to make programs more concrete and object based.
  • Always set an agenda and make sure you list what is coming next so students feel comfortable.
  • The museum tried using stress balls for students to focus their energy.  The objects were printed with an historical object (sewing machine, objects from every day life) to focus questions and ideas.  There were some logistical problems with the stress balls, but they are working on preparing more options.
  • They also provide notebooks or sketchbooks as a visual option for students.  The children can use the notebook to sketch things that they think are important to focus their questions and energies.
  • Educators try to talk to the teacher before the visit to evaluate the students’ needs.  The Tenement Museum also has a checklist of behaviors that they can look at before visits to know what tactics might work with the student groups that come to visit the site.

A BIG thank you to Sarah and the Tenement Museum for allowing me to visit and see the museum programs first-hand.  I look forward to sharing my research with you and hearing more about your journey towards new programs.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum, NYC

When I started researching museums that are working extensively with accessibility, especially accessibility for people with cognitive, developmental, or learning disabilities, I was fortunate to find the Museum Access Consortium of New York City.  This was one of the main reasons I chose New York City as my main research hub; there is a huge concentration of museums, and the citizens of the metro area value and support museums to a greater extent than many other areas of the country.  The MAC website led me to several different museum websites where I was able to learn about programs available to people with special needs.

The Jewish Museum

The first museum I visited was the Jewish Museum at 5th Avenue and 92nd Street, which is principally an art museum.  There I met with Dara Cohen, the School Programs Coordinator.  The museum offers several types of programs for people with special needs including: access school programs,  visitors with sight impairments, hearing impairments, dementia, and learning or developmental disabilities.  The museum also works with all general access groups including groups with autism, emotional disturbances, and more.

Our discussion focused primarily on their programs for learning and developmental disabilities.  The Jewish Museum adapted their current programs for special needs groups that cater to groups with fewer children.  The museum has specific access educators and hopes to train all educators sometime soon.  Educators contact the school teacher in advance and talk with the teacher to adapt the programming; this provides more avenues for participation by the students.  Dara made it clear that even with planning, there is still a lot of “on your feet” teaching and critical thinking involved with presenting programs to children with special needs.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum

Being an art museum, the programs are very visual; they have a studio art component for all elementary age groups and access groups of all ages.  For participation they might pick out a shape from the art piece and hold it, look at it, make the shape with their body, count the times the shape appears, etc.

The museum also holds  Sunday Workshops 4 times per year, that are open to the whole family, not just students.  The audience is generally people with learning and development disabilities. This program was adapted from MOMA and Met offerings that were changed to fit the Jewish Museum.  Dara estimated that 95% of students who attended these workshops have autism, a small percentage have Down Syndrome, and the rest of the percentage is made up of other disabilities or multiple disabilities.  In the morning, the workshop is set up for children ages 5-17, which generally seems to skew to the 5-12 age group.  The afternoon is for 18+ adults.   Tours are led by an access educator, and they have gallery and studio time for a total time of 1-1.5 hours.

Kehinde WIley, Napoleon leading the army over the alps, 2005

A recent example of a Sunday workshop activity was done in conjunction with the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  The group spends half an hour in the gallery with the works of art, and the gallery guide engages all members of the family with the art and subject.  Wiley’s art is generally a African American male subject in traditional portrait form with an elaborate backgrounds which are inspired by Jewish paper cut-outs.  In the studio, the family has a photocopy of one of the subjects that they can place on different backgrounds to explore how background, color, and shape can change the mood and expression of the art.  In the studio, the family creates a paper cut out from butcher paper that they can use as their own background for a family portrait taken in the studio.  Parental involvement is important at these workshops, and the museum wants to expand into a family day event with school partnerships.  Attendance at the workshops varies, but including the family (siblings, parents of the special needs child) there are usually 15-20 people in attendance, with 7-8 of the attendees being the special needs child/adult.  These programs are fully funded through grants, and they are free for the families.

Dara is responsible for all access educator training, and the group of educators meet 4-5 times a year to duscuss teaching strategies about specific art pieces, listen to talks by consultants to help on certain things such as dementia, general management, strategies, different disabilities, and more.

The Jewish Museum started creating these programs to expand and diversify their audiences.  They looked at who was coming to visit the museum, and then explored how they could better serve them.  It seems as if art museums have an easier time at adapting programs and drawing in the special needs audience.  One reason for this might be that art museums are more about experimenting with concepts and the abstract.  Concepts at history museums are somewhat more challenging to adapt.

Some tips that the Jewish Museum shared when working with special needs audiences are:

  • Sometimes open-ended questions can be very abstract.  If students are struggling to respond verbally to open-ended questions, try asking more concrete questions or narrowing the focus (i.e. focusing on a particular part of the painting like the figure or the figure’s clothing or the sky instead of asking general questions like “what’s going on in this painting”)
  • Sometimes yes/no questions can be useful, despite the fact that museum education courses usually stress the importance of asking open-ended questions.  Yes/no questions should be used in conjunction with open-ended questions, and with other activities that allow students to participate non-verbally (i.e. through sketching, movement exercises, etc.)
  • Giving the students the language to use helps (is this hard or soft?)
  • Reaching out to accessibility groups benefits other groups and the museum as a whole (wheelchair ramps can be used by people with strollers or knee problems)
  • Sensitivity and awareness training is important – educators are not the only ones who need to be trained
  • Security guards need to have some level of training to be comfortable working with people is disabilities.

I had a wonderful time at the Jewish Museum (in spite of being 10 minutes late because of a subway mishap), and I want to thank the museum and Dara Cohen for having me and discussing their programs openly with me.