“My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.” When Stella Young said this she was referring to the sad state of affairs revolving around people with disabilities. In the United States over 15 percent of people have some form of disability that doesn’t allow them to fully comprehend or navigate the way others can. Working at a social institution, it is our jobs to make the institution open to the public- and just like I have full access so to everyone else, regardless of his/her limits should also have access. This week’s blog will focus on what museums can do to make it as easily accessible to everyone, and how my personal experiences working with children with autism and other disorders helped me really understand why there needs to be universal access.
Throughout time there has been a long evolution in including people with disabilities in society. It used to be that anyone with a disability would be put into a rowboat and sent out into the ocean. People began to progress away from the idea of killing but these individuals were still kept on the outside in state institutions, albeit isolated and exhibited terrible conditions. Institutions, like Willow Brook, deprived these individuals of basic rights and needs. In the 70’s the spotlight was turned on to the way disabled people were treated, and then the change came to integrate them into society. It took a very long time but after three different set of laws and almost 25 years later the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA set out rules that put into place regulations that mandated every public space, like museums, to be accessible by those with any and every form of disability. Afterwards many other sets of rules were established outlining specifically how museums needed to accommodate disabilities to grant everyone the same experience – as the goal of the ADA is to get rid of any obstacles or barriers from equality.
In the health care world, where I work, there has been a similar change from being glorified babysitters to having a mandate to teach each and every person skills that we ourselves take for granted. The government gives a lot of money to my organization to take every service receiver to different institutions so that they can receive a cultural education. Even so, I hear many complaints and concerns about not feeling included. Whenever I take my clients anywhere they usually need to get special treatment, and you can see on the faces of the people that serve them that sometimes the workers are thinking “man, I have to deal with these people again.” This is why the idea of a universal device is so crucial to make everyone feel included. The fact that these services are available for each and every person no matter their ability makes them feel a little better about themselves.
The point of a universal system in a museum is that it is supposed to be “little to no cost” to the participant or to the museum, which has to incorporate these accommodations into their building. Now as we discussed in class and as Allison reiterates, all these steps are supposed to be done at inception. While planning the pre-design phase, it is important to discuss what needs and abilities should to be met. This should be discussed again and again at each and every phase. For example, discussing adding more spaces in doorways for wheelchairs and other design issues and allowing for extra room for secondary languages on the walls of exhibits (e.g., ASL, Spanish or whatever language is popular in that specific area). While many people would consider those that couldn’t speak a disability, a person who can’t speak English is not, and they are not given the same accommodations. As Allison defines, disability is “anything that results in restrictions on an individual’s ability to participate in what is considered “normal” in their everyday society.” Under this definition not speaking English, in America, would be considered a disability. Especially in a melting pot like New York where over 200 languages are spoken, and in a country where over 60 million people don’t speak English, these needs should also be accounted for.
And there are many ways to address these language issues. The Oakland Museum has its areas top three languages (English, Spanish, and Cantonese) at the entrance and by every header, main topic and interaction. In the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust Museum, many things are showcased in their original German or Yiddish and then translated into English, because many people visiting will still be reading and speaking those languages. Additionally, if I remember correctly, its audio guide is available in over 5 languages. Allison brags, and rightly so, that the 9/11 Museum offers translations in over 8 different languages. Not to put the hardworking staff at the 9/11 Museum down or anything but they have the advantage of opening up in the past 5 years, thus making it easier for them to comply with all these ADA mandates, and being such a world wide museum they were forced to deal with people from many countries, speaking many languages, from the start. Many older museums are now being forced to deal with the ever-growing barriers between those with disabilities.
With the presentation that Allison gave, I think that many museums can look to the 9/11 Memorial for guidance. With its 5 different types of guides through the exhibit – for those able to listen and see, for children, for those interested in the architecture, for those needing ASL, and my favorite the Audio descriptive tour. As we were listening to the little snippet of that tour, I tried to close my eyes and imagine what it would be like if I was blind, and wondered if I would I be able to feel the same emotions. When I read the description of the video I realized that it gives deaf people just as much of feeling as if they were able to see, if not more. This lends to a visitor with a disability to feel as if he or she fits in and is not singled out and an outcast, which is exactly what the universal system sets out to do.