Accessibility to Inclusion: The Next Step

Inclusion is more than a buzzword; it embodies the broader impetus to create an open and equal forum for people of different cultures, backgrounds, or abilities.  Inclusion takes accessibility one step further, from an open door to an invitation.

Art Beyond Sight, an organization “dedicated to making the visual arts play a vital role in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired,” redefines the responsibility of institutions toward individuals with disabilities.[1]  Rather than a diagnosis, a medical ‘problem’ that limits and defines a person, Art Beyond Sight sees disability as “a social and environmental issue that deals with accessibility, accommodations, and equity.”  This new paradigm puts the onus on institutions to adapt and accommodate people of different abilities.

The issue of physical access has largely been solved; most museums today provide accessible bathrooms, entrances, lifts, and parking.  However, many museums stop at physical accessibility.  In order to be inclusive, museums need to add another layer of accommodations, and consider exhibition layout, content, and programming.  By offering staff training and including individuals with disabilities in exhibit development, museums could foster a deeper understanding of this diverse population and begin to make simple, foundational changes to create a more welcoming atmosphere.

Individuals with disabilities constitute an underutilized community resource that could enrich the cultural discourse in museums.  By not only opening the door, but also extending an invitation through accommodations, universal design, and inclusive learning environments, museums can grow to embrace a more diverse audience.

-Kirsten Swartz


[1] “Art Beyond Sight,” Art Education for the Blind.  Accessed December 2, 2013,

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5 Responses to Accessibility to Inclusion: The Next Step

  1. radtkedrew says:

    Great post, Kirsten! While we can’t predict the needs of every visitor who walks through our doors, there are things that we, as museum professionals and community members, can do to be more inclusive. I’m reminded of an initiative created by the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia entitled “Play Without Boundaries.” They understood that children’s museums are often sensory-intensive, and that such an experience might be difficult for kids on the autism spectrum. The Play Without Boundaries program offers an hour of museum time for kids with special needs, including quiet spaces throughout the exhibit, cool down “kits,” and inclusion training for staff and volunteers. They even allow kids to make their own schedules and maps of the exhibits beforehand so they know what to expect. Just one example of a museum that, in my opinion, is doing it right.

  2. hartmc89 says:

    You bring up some very important points here, Kirsten. Museums are institutions whose main purpose should be to serve the public. However, various members of the public have different levels of physical and intellectual ability. So, how can a museum fully serve the public if it doesn’t make an effort to reach out to all its demographic sectors? As we talked about in class, there are several variables to consider, such as who makes up the museum’s local community and whether the museum has made a good-faith effort to reach out and connect to communities of individuals with disabilities. In a small, isolated town, it is less likely that there will be a significant enough local community to necessitate highly specialized programs. The opposite would be true of larger cities, or places like Cooperstown which are the local centers of culture for a network of rural communities. Of course, another variable is the size of the museum itself. A small museum with minimal staff may have difficulty with developing programs for the disabled, though that doesn’t necessarily let them off the hook. In these cases, it would be helpful for organizations like Art Beyond Sight to develop guidelines and lists of case studies for these smaller institutions to draw upon for making accesiblity accomodations. Or, perhaps, AASLH could partner with these organizations to produce a handbook, like the one we read at the beginning of the semester, that would focus soley on considerations for accessbility.

  3. cnluthy says:

    Kirsten, I think that you are absolutely correct: museums have “solved” the accessibility problem by altering their physical space so that they are conducive for all kinds of visitors, but that does not make them more accessible or inclusive. Perhaps the reason why so many museums are losing visitation is because they do not offer programming or other such opportunities to those with diverse needs. For instance, about 1 in 88 children currently are on the autism spectrum. If a museum does not offer entertaining and enriching options for these children, not only will the children not attend museums, but their families will probably seek out other sources of education instead. Inclusion needs to mean more than physical accommodations. Inclusive museums should constantly seek ways to become more accessible and engaging to everyone.

    The Noah Webster House located in West Hartford, Connecticut, has been trying to define diversity and to accommodate needs prevalent in their community. For example, they are working to implement an iPad tour that would add closed captioning for the deaf in English and in Spanish. By taking these steps, the Noah Webster House is striving to become more inclusive.


  4. kcsten08 says:

    This topic is definitely an important one which needs to be addressed for museums to reach wider, more diverse audiences. This post reminds me of one of the sessions at this year’s MAAM conference, which was run by Sheri Levinsky and Miranda Appelbaum from the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space museum, and Cindy VandenBosch from the Museum Access consortium. They described programs offered at the Intrepid and the New York Transit Museum for visitors on the autism spectrum. This is a growing focus of museums trying to reach out to all potential visitors. For example, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both provide fun and educational programs for visitors on the autism spectrum. These programs are a great step forward, even if they are still not as accessible as they could be. To attend a class in the “Guggenheim for All” program costs $500, which might detract certain visitors who could otherwise benefit from the program. MOMA’s “Discoveries” workshop is free for visitors, but is only offered on a few days during the year. Nonetheless, these programs, and others being offered by many museums throughout the country, demonstrate the satisfying progress the museum field is making in providing content that is accessible to many different types of visitors.

    • keswartz says:

      Thanks for posting about those programs, Keith! These comments make me think about what museums can offer for walk-ins, people who don’t come specifically for programs. I like the idea of posting social story options and preparation material on the website, but I think there’s a lot that exhibits can do to be accessible.

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