Montshire staff works with advisors on access

by Sally Middlebrooks

The following article appears in the July/August 1998 issue of the ASTC Newsletter. Sally Middlebrooks is director of education at ASTC.

On June 8, staff from the Montshire Museum of Science and six advisors who have personal and professional experience with disabilities worked together to assess the accessibility of some of the museum's most popular exhibits. The group discussed many aspects of design, including, for example, table and handrail heights and other measurements. By far, the most telling discussions took place as participants gathered around and interacted with exhibits such as the Leafcutter Ants, Air Play, and Science Park, an outside area. "The workshop," said David Goudy, director of the Montshire, "moved us many notches forward and gave us some new ways of looking at the issues."

Renee Wells, an accessibility consultant, opened the workshop with words meant to put everyone at ease, saying, "When you ask people to help you and, together, you take a closer look, it may seem that nothing is right: the height of a sign is off, there aren't enough parking units, the width of a doorway is too narrow, and so on. That can be really discouraging, because it seems like so much to correct. And then you think of the money needed to make the changes and you feel that the task will never end." Renee, who has helped Vermont arts institutions with issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, also underscored the importance of doing things gradually. "Accessibility," she went on to say, "is not all or nothing. Rather, it's a slow and steady process. What you're doing is striving toward compliance, looking for solutions and possibilities, and setting priorities."

The Montshire staff, like those at so many other museums, has looked at accessibility in terms of their facility--entrances, bathrooms, TTYs, and so forth. When developing exhibitions, their questions have typically included ones such as these: How can we hold visitors' attention?, How can we engage them in messing about with phenomena?, and How can we accommodate a range of ages and interests? Problem solving, as part of the exhibition development process, has involved extensive conversations among staff and a long period of prototyping. The workshop extended these conversations and the value of prototyping by actively involving people with various disabilities, who joined staff to take a closer look at exhibits. Joan Waltermire, director of exhibits at the Montshire, shared, "There were surprises and good suggestions aplenty. The books that tell you what the law is don't tell you about all the subjective factors in a visitor's experience. It's best to find out from your public what makes an exhibit work, instead of trying to guess."

Photographs taken of the workshop participants will be displayed at the workshop on universal design preceding the 1998 ASTC Annual Conference in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. They will also be shown at a Saturday conference session focusing on ways to recruit and involve people who have personal and professional experiences with disabilities for similar assessments as at the Montshire Museum of Science. The workshop was funded by a NSF planning grant to ASTC and the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY), a project of the Academy for Educational Development. For more information, visit the Accessible Practices area of the ASTC web site. For disabilities and state and national resources call NICHCY at 800/695-0285.

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