Making Museums Accessible
How People with Disabilities Are Making a Difference in Science Centers
Many of us proceed through the world unconscious of what it means to deal with disability on a daily basis. A few steps up or down as we enter a building, a narrow stall in a public restroom, dim lighting in an exhibit area--such minor annoyances barely capture our attention. But for someone with a disability, these obstacles can mean exclusion from the ordinary activities of life.
It makes sense, therefore, that science centers and museums seeking to improve access for all visitors would include people with various disabilities as part of the process. The four short articles that follow show how people with disabilities are influencing the evaluation, planning, and even staffing of science center exhibitions.
Coming to Our Senses
By Corinn Brown, Floor Manager, the Exploratorium
Recently I had the opportunity to take a group from the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany, California, on a tour of the Exploratorium. It was a pivotal experience for me. When one of the Albany students, Dolores, called for information, I was embarrassed to admit we didn't have anything in alternative format to send her. She assured me that someone in the school office would be able to read our brochure to her. I saw a chance to learn from this group and, although Exploratorium staff members do not normally give tours, promised to show them around when they came.
Several weeks later, I met Dolores and 14 of her classmates in the parking lot. All had very limited or no sight, many as the result of complications of diabetes. The group was traveling with three sighted companions. We set off together, with me leading the way in a wheelchair (I experience severe foot pain when I am on my feet too much), Dolores and her friend Mildred holding onto the chair's push handles, and more people holding onto them. We must have seemed a strange beast indeed.
For a wheelchair user, navigating the Exploratorium's exhibit area is quite easy: The exhibits are well spaced, and the floor is relatively level. So I had not anticipated the difficulties that a visually impaired group would encounter. There were small stumble hazards and elbow bumpers everywhere. Because ours is a historic building with a slab floor, we have to run extension cords under flat plastic conduit to power many exhibits. With my chair I could cross the raised strips easily, but I noticed that my companions were often surprised by the unexpected bumps.
For more than three hours, we played with exhibits throughout the Exploratorium. I soon learned that I needed better descriptive skills to guide nonsighted visitors--simply reading the labels did not tell them enough about what was going on. But I was delighted to find that many exhibits were accessible to people with limited or no vision.
We spent quite a lot of time at the Black Sand exhibit, which is wonderfully tactile; Dolores and her classmates were able to feel the sand stand up in pillars around the magnetic field lines of the radar magnets. The highest percentage of accessible exhibits was in the sound and hearing area, but there were also good ones in the motion, heat and temperature, electricity and magnetism, and memory sections.
Other parts of the building were not so accessible, however. I could not think of any exhibits in the light and color section that my new friends would be able to use. We also skipped the human-physiology exhibition Revealing Bodies; it is largely visual and object-based, with few auditory or tactile experiences. We had plenty of other areas to explore, so this wasn't a problem, but it made me think about returning visitors.
In fact, since the tour, I have thought a lot about how to help people with disabilities get more out of the Exploratorium. My goal now is to have students from the Albany orientation center visit us on a regular basis. I hope they will want to work with exhibit developers and front-line staff to increase the number of exhibits people with limited vision can enjoy. Reference books may describe how to make exhibits and facilities more accessible, but nothing compares to working with someone who lives with a disability every day.
A Revealing Exercise
By Elana Yellen, Community Science Coordinator, St. Louis Science Center
In January, staff members at the St. Louis Science Center conducted a walk-through of the museum's Ecology and Environment exhibit area. Participants included staff members from community science, exhibits, design, graphics, and visitor services, as well as longtime volunteer Tony Pauly, who uses a wheelchair.
Our goals were threefold. First, we hoped to raise our awareness of the difficulties people with disabilities encounter when they interact with exhibits. Second, we wanted to become more familiar with using a checklist based on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. And finally, since this particular exhibition is slated for renovation, we wanted to aid the design team that would work on construction of the new gallery.
We began by taking a 20-minute self-guided tour through Ecology and Environment's three galleries--Past, Present, and Future--noting what we liked about the exhibition. There were lots of good things to report. The display graphics were colorful, high-contrast, and well-thought-out, with large, easy-to-read fonts. We liked the flow of the exhibition and the distinct places where groups could gather. And we were pleased to find many staff members stationed throughout to provide extra guidance.
Next, we divided into two groups and, armed with tape measures and a checklist, went back to take a closer look. Tony was in my group. In one gallery, most exhibits were accessible to him, but he had trouble fitting his chair through an entrance in an artificial tree. In another area, which was designed to look like a living room with couches and a coffee table, the table was too low to accommodate Tony's wheelchair. Even after transferring to the couch, something not all wheelchair users could do, he was unable to reach the exhibit controls on the table.
At our debriefing, we talked about areas of possible improvement. We noted that text placed behind glass or set flat on a table was hard for some people to read. We agreed that areas of the galleries needed better lighting, and that the exhibition lacked places to sit. And we recommended posting more signs to direct visitors to restrooms, telephones, and the main lobby.
Staff members were incredibly positive about the walk-through. It became a starting point for greater staff communication and professional development, such as a luncheon video series on diversity. As a result, SLSC staff are beginning to think about access on an institutional level, not just within our own areas of expertise.
By Lynn Parrucci, Program Coordinator, Carnegie Science Center
At Carnegie Science Center, we recently hired Jeffrey DePaolis, a 19-year-old theater arts student from the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (WPSD), to be a member of our presenter staff. Jeff speaks in American Sign Language (ASL).
I met Jeff when I was taking an ASL class at a local community college. One day, he and some other WPSD students were jumping up and down outside the classroom, trying to see in the windows. The professor invited them in, and Jeff continued to attend class on his own time.
I am always looking for part-time actors to join my staff. Jeff was very animated and had such a passion for teaching hearing people sign language that I started to think how he could help take our programs in new directions.
Jeff had already been teaching children sign language through developed games, and he was studying mime and acting. At CSC, we have a newly expanded space for ages 3 to 6 called Exploration Station Junior, and I thought his skills could fit in well there. Our goal for him was to develop two types of programs--signing games that relate to content in exhibit areas, and theatrical programs and demonstrations that focus on more basic concepts or observation. For the latter, Jeff began training on Freeze!, which uses liquid nitrogen.
During the Freeze! program, another presenter introduces Jeff and prepares the audience for communicating with him. The children and their families learn how to sign Jeff's name, how to applaud, and how to make the signs for "cold," "hot," "break," and "What's happening?"
"By the end of the show, some audience members remember the signs for cold and hot," Jeff says. "They all remember how to clap. Some people are shy. They sit there or tell J.P. [the other presenter] what is happening, even though I ask the question. That's fine. Some little kids and adults use their whole body to communicate. It's fun and funny to see."
Jeff has also been helpful in assisting visitors who are hearing impaired. He remembers one incident when the interpreter for a group attending the Science Bowl did not show up. "When we went to greet the group, I saw that they were from WPSD," Jeff says. "I was excited to work with them, and the kids were really excited to see me work here. Their visit was better because they could communicate with me. For a deaf person to talk to other staff--even ones who sign--can be slow. When we talk to each other, it's fast!"
It has taken time to integrate Jeff into the presenter staff. I have had to keep reminding people to stop thinking about what he can't do and focus on what he can do. To help break the ice, I arranged for Jeff to present an awareness program at a staff workshop. I am now looking for ways to do more theatrical programs without words. These types of communication are not exclusive to audiences with hearing loss; they can help us break down a variety of language barriers.
Jeff smiles when I ask him about his work at CSC. "When I first arrived, people didn't know how to sign. Then I taught them slowly. They learn--we learn together, he says. "Some want to learn a lot. Some are afraid like I'm going to bite them. That's fine. I was a little afraid, too, because I do not know them. But I like teaching people. I tell the staff and myself to be brave."
Adventure in the Dark
By Mikko Myllykoski, Head of Exhibition Planning, Heureka, The Finnish Science Centre
Finland is quite advanced in the matter of accessibility. We have news on TV in sign language, for example. But more could and should be done. The constitution demands accessibility for everyone, and we have laws to regulate two specific areas: services for the disabled and construction and urban planning.
In Finnish museums, the issue has been in the forefront since the mid-1990s. Last year, the Finnish National Gallery (FNG) launched a project aimed at improving access in its three art museums. Directed by Sari Salovaara, an arts professional who is herself a wheelchair user, the FNG project includes accessibility audits and training for staff. Representatives of disability organizations are involved as advisors.
Heureka has its own exciting accessibility project planned this year. On November 1, we will open a Finnish version of Dialogue in the Dark, an exhibition designed by Andreas Heinecke of Frankfurt, Germany.
The exhibition, which brings together sighted visitors and visually impaired guides in a pitch-black environment, consists of four different areas: an outdoor environment, an urban setting, a harbor with a boat trip, and a bar where visitors can buy a drink and talk more in depth with their guide. In groups of eight to 10, visitors start the tour with a short briefing. They are shown how to use a cane and then sent off into the darkness, with the aid of a handrail, to meet their blind tour guide. As they go through the exhibition, the usual roles are reversed--in the dark, the blind are more able than the sighted, guiding their charges with expertise and authority. The process empowers the guides and draws on their innate creativity. It is real, demanding work.
Dialogue in the Dark has been staged in art galleries, museums, and theater festivals in more than 60 cities in Europe and Canada. Although the exhibition has not been presented in the United States, Heinecke received an SAP/Stevie Wonder Vision Award for his work in 1998. Heureka is the first science center to host Dialogue in the Dark. Heinecke is helping us to develop a specifically Finnish version, since it is very important for all scenes to have a local flavor, with familiar sounds and odors. Also, we will add tactile routes throughout our building to help visually impaired visitors find their way.
Shortly after Heureka launched the project, I had an opportunity to go on television to describe the exhibition and recruit visual impaired listeners to work as guides. To our surprise, we got 56 applications. Not only that--the Finnish Minister of Labour named Heureka "employer of the month" for March, and the TV station promised us a promotional campaign that will reach 4.4 million viewers.
On May 13, we held our first seminar and interviews for our applicants. Fifty-five prospective full-time and part-time guides attended, all filled with energy and enthusiasm for the project. We will train and employ most of them, at the same pay as other Heureka presenters, during the four-month exhibition. We expect Dialogue in the Dark to be a remarkable learning process for everyone involved.