I have been thinking about how discussions of museum accessibility shift based on the lived-experience of a majority of participants. When a group of blind people discuss museums, they talk about the limits of visual presentation and the scarcity of tactile objects. When a group of museum people discuss accessibility, they talk about everything from limited funding, and a lack of training, to a perceived lack of visitors who are blind or have low vision.
Combining my lived-experience as a blind person and my work with museums makes me both the “they” and the “us” in the title of this post. I recognize the conversation topics of both groups, but honestly, I identify more strongly with the concerns of blind people. That said, I believe that I can help museums become more accessible to blind people, and more appealing to anyone by developing multisensory (tactile and audio) components for exhibits.
The first step to resolving an accessibility problem is to collect information. Data reported in two different surveys illustrates the contrasting perspectives of blind people and museum people.
I will describe the two surveys. Next, I will compare their results and highlight areas where both groups consider the same problem from an opposite perspective. Finally, I will explain how I can work with museums if they want help resolving these problems to create more accessible exhibits that everyone can enjoy regardless of their visual acuity.
Introducing The Surveys
In 2018, I created a survey asking blind adults about their experiences at museums. It received 124 responses.
One group of questions focused on the last visit that a survey participant made to a museum. A second group of questions asked about their attitudes towards museums generally.
Read my post titled Survey of Blind Adults About Museums
The final question asked: “In your own words, describe your overall impression of museums of any type that you have visited, including specific things you liked and disliked about museums you have
Read my post titled.
The second survey that I will discuss in this post was sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and conducted by Open Door Arts in 2021. I commend them for taking the initiative to collect data, for publishing their results, and for making a clear statement that they have work to do.
The survey findings address common problems surrounding access to museums and other cultural experiences. In my opinion, the data collected about organizations in Massachusetts reflect similar conversations that I have heard all across the country.
The Massachusetts Arts & Culture Access Survey received 94 responses representing arts and culture organizations–museums, libraries, galleries, theaters, performance venues, festivals, and parks among others.
Questions captured a combination of factual data about current access practices and the survey participant’s individual perceptions or opinions about current access work.
I will focus on two of their eleven questions. One question asks how often services are provided. Another question prompts participants to identify “barriers that inhibit your organization from being more accessible and inclusive to the disability community.”
Responses to these questions are significant because they document misconceptions held by many museum people. My survey of blind adults gives concrete examples of how these misconceptions impact their experiences at museums.
Comparing results from both surveys demonstrates that blind people and museum people approach accessibility from opposite perspectives. Blind people identify a scarcity of opportunities, and museum people identify shortages in funding, and a lack of training or knowledge, among other factors.
Services That Are Never Provided.
The Massachusetts Arts & Culture Access Survey asked participants to rank how often services were provided on a scale from never to always. Services considered essential by blind people that were never provided are braille materials (56%), touch/tactile tours (38%), and audio description (36%).
Blind people are well-aware of these deficiencies. Inaccessible exhibits lack tactile, braille, or audio components, and they can only be appreciated through the sense of sight. Most museum exhibits are “inaccessible (27 comments), and “under glass” (9 comments).
Inaccessible museum exhibits are “boring”, “disappointing”, “frustrating” and “a waste of time”.
The rare museum exhibit that is accessible may include:
• audio description (18 comments)
• tactile experience (10 comments)
• tactile models (6 comments)
• braille (5 comments)
• tactile art (3 comments)
• tactile replicas (2 comments)
I shared the many ways that blind people described tactile experiences because we gather information through the sense of touch. Tactile experiences are essential, and they can be created in many different ways.
• 2.5-dimensional tactile graphics made of raised lines
• 3D-printed models
• Artist-created tactile models using a variety of materials.
Accessible museum exhibits are multisensory, and that allows everyone to enjoy their museum visits. Positive comments made by blind adults referenced the inclusion of tactile experiences (models, replicas, graphics), and braille and audio descriptions.
Identifying Accessibility Barriers
The Massachusetts Arts & Culture Access Survey Asked:
“What are the three greatest barriers that inhibit your organization from being more accessible and inclusive to the disability community?”
Survey responses identified the primary barriers as limitations in funding (66%), staffing (63%), and time (41%). I agree that shortages of funding and staffing are common challenges faced by nonprofit organizations. However, these constraints are not specific to museums or exclusively related to providing access services.
Resources can be found to make exhibits and programs accessible. If accessibility is included in project planning, it can be covered by federal and state grants designated for community engagement. Searching the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awards database using the keywords accessibility and disability will retrieve details about funded projects.
The survey report’s authors, on page 18, examine the relationship between concerns about funding and annual budget size.
“For example, while respondents selected limited funding as the greatest barrier inhibiting their access work, data analysis reveals that organizations with budgets under $1 million are further along in their access work in multiple areas than their counterparts with budgets above $1 million.”
Funding, by itself, does not predict an organization’s access practices. In my experience, organizational culture determines what an organization values and what changes it may be willing to make.
In my opinion, the barriers with lower scores hold greater significance because they pose more insurmountable obstacles. These include:
• Limited skills or training (28%).
• A perceived lack of demand for access services (23%).
• Absence of relationships with the disability community (16%).
• Organizational culture issues, such as lack of support from leadership (7%) and insufficient staff support (4%).
I value the honesty of survey participants who have expressed concerns about their limited skills or training. Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources available to address these gaps, including online webinars and instructor-led training sessions. I may write a future post on this subject, so I encourage you to subscribe to my blog to receive updates.
The perception of low demand and the absence of a connection with the disability community, clearly indicate that individuals in the museum profession are influenced by society’s negative perceptions of people with disabilities.
Given that the Centers for Disease Control reported that 1 in 4 people have some type of disability, it is disheartening that many museums fail to establish connections with the disability community. This oversight neglects a substantial portion of their potential audience, and remember, people with disabilities have family and friends who care about accessibility.
The fact that many museums do not establish connections with the disability community affects how blind individuals perceive their level of welcome or exclusion.
One of my survey questions addressed the apparent attitudes of museum staff/volunteers towards visitors who are blind or have low vision. Participants were almost equally split on the question of whether personnel in the last museum that they visited were comfortable interacting with them; 56 answered “yes”, and 63 answered “no” for a total of 119 responses.
Documenting the discomfort of museum staff and volunteers when interacting with blind individuals is significant because it underscores the process of ‘othering’ experienced by individuals with disabilities.
issue of “othering” can be addressed through two approaches.
Increasing the representation of people with disabilities among their staff and on their boards of directors.
Establishing relationships with individuals or organizations in the disability community, preferably as paid consultants.
When organizations increase their internal disability representation, or establish partnerships in the disability community, we are transformed from faceless ‘others’ into friends and colleagues. Our concerns become those of real people, instead of anonymous complaints made by “others”.
In this post, I compared the results of two independent surveys–one of blind adults, and one of staff at museums and other cultural organizations. I discussed key findings of both surveys. The contrast is most evident in responses to questions about braille and tactile objects.
Blind people know that museum exhibits are highly visual and they rarely include tactile objects. Another significant problem that they identify is the lack of braille signs, labels, or exhibit guides.
Many participants in the Massachusetts Arts & Culture Access Survey admit that they have never provided braille materials or touch tours, even upon request. Given what I know of the museum sector, I would expect similar results in other regions of the country.
My passion to help museums create multisensory exhibits is rooted in my lived experience as a blind person combined with research and communication skills developed during previous employment in academia, museums, and the federal government. I am uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between museum people and the disability community.
Here are some of the ways that I can help.
• I work with museum staff to determine short term and long-term accessibility recommendations with high- and low-tech options.
• I provide advice on best practices for designing exhibits and planning events, both in-person and virtually.
• I help museums establish and nurture connections to their local disability community.
I encourage you to consider working with me to bridge the gap between museum people and the disability community.
If you would like to discuss a project, you can fill out the contact form on every page of my site.