Accessible Practices Exchange
Association of
Science Technology Centers
Share Your ExperienceRead Others ExperiencesTopics
August 2003

Involve Accessibility Advisors

Advisor in wheelchair tests height and knee space of large microscope mounted on counter.Listen and work with individuals with disabilities and ADA professionals with and without disabilities, and you are sure to increase visitor satisfaction and repeat visits. Why? Because individuals with personal and professional experience with access can help you conduct ongoing reviews of your facility, programs, exhibits, and services; educate staff, volunteers, and board members; and advise you on how to attract new audiences.

Whether you are surveying your facility or planning an exhibit, success is more likely if you involve accessibility advisors early on and then keep them involved every step of the way. As sounding board, mentors, and allies, they help you build a bridge from your institution to the community.

Two groups of advisors. Accessibility advisors can be divided into two groups: ADA information specialists and people with various disabilities.

ADA information specialists can help you with the technical side of things; specifically, your obligations to the ADA (1990) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973). These experts may or may not have a disability. Three places to find ADA information specialists are in your mayor's office, local Independent Living Center, and regional DBTAC (see below for more information).

Individuals with disabilities help connect the ADA guidelines to human factors. For this reason, be sure to seek out individuals with various disabilities and experiences. Why? Because some people with mobility disabilities use manual chairs, while others use scooters, power chairs, or walkers; similarly, some people who are blind use canes, while others have guide dogs; and some people are hard of hearing and others are deaf.

It's not that you want a large group of individuals with disabilities advising you, but you want to involve as many as it takes for you to really understand how your facility, programs, services, and exhibits are experienced. And as you listen and think you understand these individual experiences, turn to your ADA information specialist for guidance.

As staff person hits metal pipes embedded in a long stone bar, the advisor feels for vibrations with her hand and bare feet.Institutional readiness. Is your institution ready to involve accessibility advisors? (Be aware of the time, resources, and commitment that are needed.) Do you have the backing from your director? Are you a bit uncertain about where to start?

It's not unusual to be fearful of promising too much or inadvertently causing offense. But think again. Involving both ADA information specialists and people with various disabilities in making decisions is not only the right thing to do, it makes good business sense. You will save money in the long run, build community good will, satisfy funders, and fulfill your institution's mission. There are no laws that commit you to building a large-format theater, designing an exhibition or developing a program; there are laws that obligate you to making them accessible.

Commitment, respect, and patience: One person's experience. Dr. Betty Davidson, exhibit planner emeritus, Museum of Science, Boston, has been working with advisors with disabilities for over a decade. However, her beginning was a bit uneven. She recalls telephoning a local school for youth who are blind and the administrator responding: "I wouldn't bring my kids to your museum for anything. There's nothing there for us!" Davidson was taken aback, but recovered, saying, "Well, we're trying to change it, and we need your help." The school has sent groups of youth to work with Davidson over the years, and she describes their contributions as "invaluable."

Davidson explains that she uses an "informal style" when working with advisors on new exhibits. She follows this four-part formula: "Work with small groups. Listen rather than talk. Test out some things together, and then test again." She explains that integral to this way of working is understanding that what works for one person may be a barrier for another, and that even individuals with the same disability have different preferences. Furthermore, she recognizes and appreciates that individuals are diverse in terms of their backgrounds, lifestyles, interests, and, important to the case in point, their experience with museums. She strives to provide visitors with choices. For example, she would not remove a microscope from an exhibit but would find another means for visitors with visual disabilities to get to the same point.

Use an informal tour to get going. A place to start is with an informational tour. It's a good icebreaker, and most people like to "go behind the scenes" to see firsthand how you plan and fabricate an exhibit, create a kit, care for collections, or feed the fish. A tour allows you to begin to see which individuals are interested in your institution and comfortable sharing their perspectives. Say in your invitation, "We're just getting to know each other so please let me know if you'll need an accommodation to participate." And afterwards, learn from each individual what might make the next meeting work even better for him/her.

Activities like tours build bridges between your museum and the community in two ways: they introduce individuals with disabilities to your institution, and they introduce your institution to the various disability groups in your community. With those goals in mind, be sure to design your informal tours to include meeting other staff; preferably those who are working on something concrete. When you stop to chat and show off their work, you are introducing them to the needs and interests of individuals with disabilities as well as showing your visitors interesting aspects of your institution.

Advisor places ping pong balls in air stream as her guide dog rests at her feet.Get to know potential advisors through local organizations. A way to get to know individuals and become familiar with accessibility-related issues is to attend meetings of various local groups that work for and with individuals with disabilities and are often run by them. Likely in your area there is a Independent Living Center (ILC), a parent group connected with Easter Seals, and meetings of Self Help for the Hard of Hearing (SHHH). It takes some courage to walk into an unfamiliar setting, but consider this your parallel opportunity to "go behind the scenes."

Seek advisors with these qualities. When considering accessibility advisors, look for individuals who are frequent museum-goers as well as those who are not, as each will tell you something you likely need to hear. Look for individuals who are straightforward with their comments, even when critical. Ask about their previous experiences giving advice (e.g., member of a committee to build a playground or active in a parent association), what they contributed, and what they think they gained from these experiences.

Advice can come from individuals or from a group. Some museums prefer to work with individual advisors on an informal basis; others prefer an advisory group that meets regularly to discuss a variety of issues; and still others involve specific advisors in specific projects. Actually, these three formats can take place in the same institution and at the same time. It's important for visitor-services staff to get the feedback they need when they need it. Similarly, staff designing a new exhibit will want to involve one or more advisors from the beginning of the project to the end while conducting focus groups with one-time advisors as exhibit components are being prototyped.

Your goal is to create an atmosphere where everyone feels that he or she has something to contribute and something to learn. Your best measure of success may be the extent to which people with disabilities talk openly and matter-of-factly about what works for them and what doesn't, and the extent to which museum professionals feel free to voice their concerns as well as their passions.

It's been over a decade since the ADA was passed and frankly some individuals with disabilities don't believe that their ideas will be valued: they've been there, done that, and nothing they can see came of their advice. Hence, you will need to be explicit from the start how their feedback will be incorporated into the museum's operations.

Thank your advisors. You should know that not everyone with a disability wants to be an advisor, has the time, or can offer their services for free. While some individuals may request a consulting fee or honoraria, others may welcome a family membership, invitations to special events, and/or free passes to your large-format theater. As was Davidson's experience, the more that people with disabilities and their families become part of your science center and museum, the more "invaluable" feedback you are sure to get.

As for ADA information specialists, if they work for a government agency, consulting is part of their work; if they work at a nonprofit, they will need to be paid. In either case, providing them with free passes will help build relationships and provide you with ongoing feedback.

      Tips for Finding Advisors and Asking Their Help
  • Start with people you know and branch out.
    • Talk with staff and volunteers about people they know and would recommend.
    • Get recommendations from colleagues at other cultural and educational institutions in your community.
    • Contact local and state disability organizations that work for and with people with disabilities. Carefully explain what you want and ask for names of possible advisors.
  • Make the contact. It gets easier.
    • I work at the city museum, and we are trying to get better at how we welcome and accommodate visitors with disabilities, their families, and friends. We've been working on accessibility and feel we need some more input; we thought your experiences could help us.
    • I got your name from _____________; she thought you might be interested in helping us.
    • Have you visited the museum before? Tell me more.
    • I thought a tour would be a good way to start. How does that sound to you? I expect it would take about an hour and a half. Is that okay?
    • Are there any mornings or afternoons in the next month that would work for you, either weekday or weekend?
    • What is the most convenient way for you to get here? We are happy to pay the cost of your transportation.
    • Would anyone else be coming with you? I want to leave your name(s) at the desk. When you arrive, ask person at desk to call me.
    • What are the best ways for us to stay in contact? Let me give you my name again, and my telephone number and e-mail address. That way, should you need to get in touch with me, you can.
    • And likewise, let me get your address. We'd like to send you a pass to the museum for you and your family. After all, the more you get to know us, the more we can learn from you.
    • We'll pause for a snack; are there food restrictions or other things that I should know about when planning the menu?
    • Is there anything else I should know that might make this visit enjoyable?

      For more information

Read Others' Experiences for more ideas and please Share Your Own.

National Science Foundation LogoAccessible Practices EXCHANGE is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. ESI-9814917 and HRD 9906095. Opinions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and presenters and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation. www.nsf.gov
Blue Line
ASTC is not responsible for the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The information presented here is intended solely as informal guidance, and is neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the ADA, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. This web site is not intended to offer legal, architectural, engineering, or similar professional advice. You should refer specific questions to an attorney, and/or national, state, and local ADA authorities.
Association of Science Technology Centers Logo
Copyright 2006 by the Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated. All rights reserved.