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How Monterey Bay Aquarium welcomes visitors with unapparent disabilities

Day of Discovery is a personalized scuba experience for kids with physical and unapparent disabilities to explore the wonders of Monterey Bay from the waters of the Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool. / Credit: © Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger

MuseumNext chatted to Beth Redmond-Jones, Vice President of Exhibitions at the
Monterey Bay Aquarium, about the steps her organisation is taking to ensure those with unapparent disabilities feel welcome –both physically and emotionally. By prioritising those who are so often overlooked, Beth’s work helps to ensure smoother sailing on the journey towards true inclusivity.

Beth Redmond-Jones’s career has focused around visitors: engaging them in the natural world; finding ways for them to connect; then inspiring them take that step to protect our Earth and our oceans. During the last two decades, Beth has been actively exploring how museums can more effectively serve those with unapparent disabilities including autism, sensory processing disorder and mental health challenges.

Monterey Bay Aquarium is a nonprofit organisation that works to inspire conservation of the ocean through a wide range of projects, exhibitions, and interactivity. In her role, Beth helps the organisation foster creativity, innovation, learning, and organisational change.  Outside of her role at the Aquarium, Beth has also recently published a book entitled: Welcoming Museum Visitors with Unapparent Disabilities.

Understanding unapparent disabilities

When we think about public health, museums are not always front of mind. However, Beth’s work aims to change that. Individuals with unapparent disabilities are a diverse group and their sex, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnicity and economic situation are as diverse as their disabilities.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), close to 1 billion people worldwide are living with a mental disorder, and this has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Beth’s passion revolves around the role of museums in addressing and supporting those with unapparent disabilities, as well as their families and caregivers.

She says, “We have a real opportunity to think beyond ourselves, to be thoughtful of the way we create programmes and exhibit experiences. By being thoughtful in our intentions, we’re able to create a universal design that meets the needs of several groups, not just a specific diagnosis.”

Mental health and nature

According to Beth, true inclusion is more than simply gaining access into a physical structure – it is also about gaining equal access to the policies, practices and systems that civil society affords. Her work seeks to ensure museum spaces, exhibits, onsite k-12 programs and public programmes are accessible to those with physical and unapparent disabilities, including finding meaning and feeling a part of a community.

This, she says, begins by bringing the healing power of nature to those who need it: “My passion lies in getting people connected with the natural world and finding a connection to it, because once that connection is made, people are more likely to take action to help protect the natural world.

“The natural world has been my saving grace, in regard to my own mental health. My career has been spent trying to create experiences for visitors in natural history museums and zoos and aquariums that allow them to feel closer to animals or nature or an experience they find joy in.

“There is a reason doctors are nature prescribing now. When you are in nature, you are able to slow down. You are able to listen to the sounds of the birds or the crunching of leaves. There’s no bombardment from social media, and we’re free to simply absorb what’s around us.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers two levels of noise-reducing headphones for those who are hypersensitive to ambient noise. / Credit: © Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger

Welcoming Museum Visitors with Unapparent Disabilities

In May 2024, the American Alliance of Museums and Rowman & Littlefield published Welcoming Museum Visitors with Unapparent Disabilities, edited by Beth. The book explores how international cultural organisations such as museums, aquariums, and art centres serve individuals with mental health and neurodiverse challenges.

Beth says, “When I started this book, I was using the term ‘hidden disabilities’, but that can imply someone is intentionally hiding their disability.

“‘Unapparent’ doesn’t equate to being hidden, but it more accurately relates to something people can’t necessarily see. I used the term after speaking with other disability advocates, as well as others with unapparent disabilities.

“Some people have questioned why I opted for ‘unapparent’ over non-apparent’, but ‘non’ is a negative, whereas ‘un’ is a little less negative. It’s nuanced, but it’s important. It’s all part of breaking down the stigma that people have around mental health and other unapparent disabilities, such as postpartum depression or grief or dementia.”

Museums must do more for unapparent disabilities

Working on this book has been a key factor in Beth’s work to make cultural spaces more accessible to those who need empathy, not judgement. As she says, museums have historically been “lacking” in their efforts to cater for unapparent disabilities.

“Since autism awareness has gained prevalence in recent years, we’ve seen a greater number of sensory hours, quiet times, and other tailored initiatives. But overall efforts have been lacking.

“The Whitworth Gallery in the UK is doing amazing work around grief and stillbirths, while Japan is implementing positive change surrounding dementia, due to a law stating that any community organisation must provide some dementia services because of the aging population.

“But overall, there is work to be done. We need to start thinking in terms of changing universal designs, instead of designing just for a specific challenge that someone may have.”

The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

“Museums need to be intentional about who their audience is,” says Beth. It’s impossible for museums to cater to everyone, but this shouldn’t deter them from helping those who need their support the most. This work begins locally, within the community.

“Making positive change in the community is a necessary starting point. If, for example, you have a home for those with memory issues down the street from your organisation, why are you not trying to create programming for those with dementia?”

One museum displaying the fruits of such efforts is the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene, which is a case study in Beth’s book. She says,

“They run a program for women who have postpartum depression, and who are migrant workers, and undocumented. It was born by working with a health organisation to create programming for their students around mental health and art, and the research that fostered around depression helped them offer support to these migrant mothers.

“They worked directly with the healthcare system that helped with the births, and it became a communal effort.”

The importance of empathy

Much of inclusion boils down to empathy, Beth explains. In order for modern museums to stay relevant, they need to have empathy for the people they aim to serve.

“We choose to visit museums, unlike school or the doctor, so whether it’s a museum, a zoo, an aquarium, a nature centre, a national park, or something else entirely, we have the possibility to cultivate the creative spaces people really need. We can be that safe space for people who are perhaps more vulnerable than most.

“It all starts with conversation, and asking the tough questions. Who is your community? Who are you trying to service? What is your organisation doing, and what more can be done?

“For example, we are in the process of converting the Monterey Bay Aquarium to a completely bilingual institution, because our community has a large Spanish speaking population.”

Giving staff the knowledge, understanding, and tools they need to create a more welcoming environment should be a top priority for any museum trying to embrace an empathetic approach, Beth says.

“From greeters to security staff, teaching teams about empathy and compassion, rather than judgement, is a simple way to make museums a more welcoming environment for everyone who comes through the doors, regardless of who they are or what challenges they may be facing.”

Advice for other museums? Listen and learn

Traditionally, museums were upheld as centres for knowledge. But, as Beth explains, in order to serve the community they inhabit, museums also need to be open to learning. This is the advice she would give other cultural institutions looking to cater to unapparent disabilities.

“When writing the book, I asked for individuals who have unapparent disabilities to write something about how they experience museums and how they serve them, as well as how they don’t. That’s what I would say to museums: speak to the people you’re trying to cater to.

“Take autism for example. My daughter has autism, so I have a good understanding of it. But I’m very aware that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. It’s vital that we don’t think of all people living with a certain condition as the same, with the same needs. We need more conversations about unapparent disabilities, but in order to do that, we need museums to be a safe place for those people to speak up.

“Don’t make assumptions about what audiences need. It’s about having the empathy and compassion to reach out of our own insecurities, and speak to people with an open mind. That’s how we make change happen.”

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.

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