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Accessible Practices Behind the Scenes Janet Kamien
Janet Kamien: Making Science Centers Accessible

The following is adapted from a talk Janet Kamien gave at "Access to Cultural Opportunities: Museums and the Handicapped," a conference ASTC convened in February 1979 in response to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Although Section 504 was passed by Congress in 1973, regulations were to go into effect in May 1979. Whether already involved in access issues or wanting to be, museums were looking to each other for direction, support, and examples.

At the time, Kamien was the associate director of the visitor's center of the Children's Museum in Boston. This excerpt focuses on her thoughts about the opportunity to plan for accessibility in a new space (the museum had moved from Jamaica Plain to its new home on Museum Wharf), involving people with disabilities as advisors, and her perception of herself among colleagues. The excerpt below has been edited to focus on these points. Additionally, Kamien has substituted the word "disability" for "handicapped."

Reflecting on the relevancy of her comments 20 years later, she noted: "That was a very long time ago for me. But maybe it is where others are, and if that is the case, then reading my talk might be useful."

A new building
What I want to talk about is the trauma of moving into a new building. There are three separate architects on this project. There are about 27 carpenters. There are three main exhibit designers. There are something like 17 exhibit developers. If I were Superman and Wonder Woman rolled into one, there is no way that I could possibly keep track of all the things that those people are doing and sometimes I miss things. For example, one major exhibition that is being built in the museum is an actual house. I just found out that it has doorways that are 30 inches wide. Doorways that are 30 inches wide are not wide enough for wheelchairs.

I went back to the architect and said, "Did you notice this?" Now he is a very nice man; he certainly has nothing against wheelchairs or the people who use them, but this is a problem for him because the wood has already been put in place and the carpenters have gone home. I don't know what we are going to do about that. I think we are going to have to go back and tear some of the wood out.

We get into trouble, though, with our toilets. Children are little guys, so we install toilets that are lower. However, you probably have noticed that in accessible bathrooms the toilets are generally higher. Also, we need cross-sex bathrooms for a single parent bringing small children to the museum. Our solution for both these problems is to have separate bathrooms for boys and girls and then a single unit for everyone. The single unit will be the accessible bathroom and will also have baby-changing facilities. Our advisors were hesitant about the solution, but we told the architect to go ahead and do it.

Working with advisors
In the move to a new building, I have been working with a lot of people in the community who are adults with disabilities, teachers of special education, or parents of children with disabilities. I have not, however, formalized an advisory council. I am not sure I want to have a formal meeting in which everyone sits down and eats asparagus quiche and says important things. I think I would rather be able to just call people up on the telephone and say, "Hey, what do you think about this?"

Sometimes my advisors disagree with each other because the issues for them are really different. There are, for example, issues on which I have three different advisors who know the same information and come up with three different solutions. It is very difficult to figure out who is telling you the right thing to do and you always have to temper suggestions with your own common sense and with a sense of your institution's unique needs. But it takes a lot of nerve, chutzpah, to say, "Yeah, that is the solution. That is the one I'm going to back. That is the one I am going to do."

We want to have explanations of all the aids we have in the museum. If you go into the accessible bathroom, there will be signage that says, "You are probably wondering why this bathroom looks the way it does. This is the reason why." And elsewhere: "You are probably wondering why you cannot park in this parking place," and there is an illustration of a van and the amount of space necessary for a person using a wheelchair to get in and out.

We think this will be a good public awareness policy. We are not sure, however, whether a person with a disability is going to walk in and say, "Wait a minute. What kind of exposure are you giving me? You are putting signs all over the place that are making people pay more attention to the fact that I am using this aid." Our advisors have told us that they like the idea, however.

The role I play
That brings me to what I call the "here-she-goes-again syndrome." I show up at different museum planning meetings and as soon as someone says something like, "Well, we cannot get the height just right for adults to be able to use this thing as well as children. What we will do is put this little platform here, see, to raise the child." Then they look in my direction and sure enough, I say, "No, you cannot put a platform in; someone in a wheelchair cannot get onto a platform. Forget it." And they all think, "Oh, here she goes again."

Now, I am well-loved by my colleagues at the museum, but there will come a day when they will have had enough of this. You can only dash people's dreams about the wonderful solutions they just figured out so many times before they begin to resent you a bit.

Final note: Regarding the narrow doorways in the house exhibit, Janet told us that they were changed; regarding informal versus formal meetings with advisors, she told us she ended up doing both. Reflecting on her experiences at the Children's Museum, she writes: "In the end, things turned out pretty well. There was one awful incident, however, about which I am still embarrassed. For reasons known only to God, we ended up with a column in the center of our large, oddly-shaped staircase. One of my advisors, who is blind, walked smack into it on opening day. We had the iron workers come back and put a metal rail around the column. You cannot foresee everything, though you wish you could."

Click on the links below for more information on
Accessible Exhibits, Programs, and Facilities
Working with access advisors
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