In April, a Museum Accessibility Survey was promoted on the Western Museum Association (WMA) website and social media channels, and further shared out by other museum associations. The survey responses revealed a central theme – we know the need, but we need help. View the full survey report here.
One respondent voiced: “I think museums . . . know they need to make their exhibits, programs, etc. accessible, but many are not at a phase yet [where] they are able to make the changes they want (lack of money, lack of staff, lack of time, etc.). There are also so many accessibility considerations as well as so many ways to address accessibility issues that it can be both overwhelming.” Another simply stated: “Needs work. Would be amazing to have some field wide standards (or if those exist- make them widely known and accepted).”
Although 80% of the responses came from persons working at historical museums, the respondents were evenly divided over museums of varying size, their feedback was relatively consistent.
All successful projects have a leader, a team, and expertise. Implementing accessibility into a museum requires a leader to oversee accessibility practices and an accessibility advisory group with disability representation. However, 70% of respondents noted their museum does not have an accessibility leader nor an accessibility advisory group and where there was an advisory group in place, only 1/2 of them have persons with disabilities. Often there is disability expertise with the museum as 80% of respondents reported having persons with disabilities with the organization. Even through the majority of these are volunteers, they can provide the subject expertise to the advisory group. If an organization lacks potential leadership and/or expertise, it should solicit support from the museum and disability communities.
For staff to successfully deploy accessibility concepts they need policies, training, and resources. Half the respondents indicated that their organizations have accessibility polices but only 22% noted that their organizations have developed the policies into published procedures available to assist the staff in working with visitors with disabilities. No matter the size of the organization, it is difficult to implement policies without procedures and training. Only 30% of museums provide training to its employees and just 20% provide training to their volunteers. It is essential that volunteers receive training as they are the ones often interacting with the visitors. It is also helpful to provide accessibility resources to help the staff work with visitors who have disabilities. Yet 40% of the respondents are not being provided with any accessibility resources and those that are, are most often directed to online resources. Only about 20% have access to external agencies for support. Both museum organizations and community disability groups have expertise and resources that can be valuable in advancing accessibility.
It is important to know a museum’s position on accommodations for their visitors. Nearly all survey respondents indicated their museum provides accommodations upon request. Supporting visitor’s needs is certainly a step in the right direction. However, nearly half the respondents indicated that the visitor had to make the initial contact. This needs to change. Front-of-house staff needs to greet visitors with all the information that will make their visit a success.
Often the first place a person looks for information is on the museum’s website, and therefore, it is important to make accessibility information easy to find online. Although 60% of respondents indicated information is available on their website, it has been found that many museum sites have only limited information. Beyond the web, only 20% of respondents indicated that they use social media, newsletters, and brochures to communicate accessibility information. Greater information distribution needs to be done.
The ratings of compliance in the areas of facilities, collections, exhibits, and programs, show that there is much work to be done. Only half the respondents note their museums fully compile with all standards for facilities, and this was not just confined to smaller museums. Exhibits showed the most progress, which is hopeful, as exhibits provide the most contact with visitors. Programs also provide direct contact but need attention as over half the museums are only meeting some of the standards. Collection showed a high rate of non-compliance or compliance unknow. Collections may have limited visitor contact but is where exhibits and programs obtain information that can support accessibility.
Assessments are required to know a museum’s accessibility status. Over half of the museums surveyed have conducted assessments, but 40% still have not. Standardized assessments provide the most detailed review from which an organization can produce strategies and action plans. Less than 10% used a standardized assessment from an outside agency, most assessments came from internal activity such as informal reviews and visitor feedback. These assessments can identify opportunities but often creating one’s own assessment will result in “reinventing the wheel”, overlooking important concepts, and omitting less understood disabilities.
Survey respondents provided personal statements on the state of accessibility within their institution. Many commented on the barriers (resources and support) to accessibility but displayed a willingness to pursue change. Some noted change often comes from the bottom-up and less from the top down.
“Museums follow guidelines . . . . but I don't get the general sense that broad accessibility is on the radar. “
“Everyone aims for ADA compliance . . . . and most of us want to do more. But it’s a real struggle to hone in on the best course of action . . . . you have to decide who to prioritize with your limited resources.”
“Field is becoming more aware, but still has much to learn and implement to be accessible.”
“It's getting better for visitors, but Museum Professionals with disabilities are still being left behind.”
“Accessibility is a topic that has just started to be broached in museum spaces. Centering disabled voices is the next step in the journey.”
The survey revealed that there is strong support for implementing accessibility but there is much work to be done. Most of the institutions represented in this survey have yet to fully deal with the basics. Museums must make a commitment to a culture of equity and inclusion for persons with disabilities to guarantee them the full and rich museum experience they deserve. Every museum needs an accessibility leader, someone with passion, to lead an accessibility advisory group that includes persons from the disability communities. The accessibility leader and group must be empowered to develop polices and procedures, provide training to employees and volunteers, involve the local disability communities as strong partners, and structure effective communication (web and direct) with visitors.
The most powerful tool to assist the museum’s pursuit of enhanced accessibility is a comprehensive accessibility assessment. I strongly recommend that museums invest in a consultant that has experience in accessibility assessments. In lieu of a consultant, there are assessment toolkits available – I recommend the one from PA Museums. From an assessment, the museum can develop strategies to address issues within the limits of its resources, allowing the museum to focus their efforts on including accessibility in each new project, brining greater benefit to a range of visitors. As each new accessibility feature is added it will become a staple going into the future.
To bolster resources, museums need to include accessibility within every grant application. They need to share their successes and failures among the museum community through presentation at association conferences and communications in museum forums / networks. Museums must seek out webinars, workshops, and forums where skills can be developed. Sources can be found on the WMA website and through the Museum Learning Hub.
The survey has made me realize that the disability community is interrelated to all communities and needs to take its place within the full sphere of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion within the greater museum field.
Author bio: James Boorn is an accessibility advocate and a student in the University of Washington Museum Studies Certificate Program. With his wife, Dr. Alida Boorn a blind independent historian, they advocate for accessibility in professional organizations and museums. They recently performed an accessibility assessment for the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum.