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Making Museums Accessible to Those With Disabilities

The international museum day theme for 2020 “Museums for equality: Diversity and Inclusion” calls on museums to open doors for diverse audience. However, Researchers in the United States, United Kingdom and Israel found empirical evidence that museums in general lag behind other social institutions in regards to accommodating people living with disabilities such as wheelchair users, the visually challenged, and hearing impaired people. Museums play a crucial role in society by educating the public and representing diverse aspects of culture through their exhibits. People with physical disabilities are part of the community that is educated or represented by museums. Subsequently it is imperative to render museums accessible to these communities by providing reasonable accommodation in respect to their disabilities within the museum perimeters. This article discusses some of the access barriers which hinder the lame, blind and deaf from fully enjoying and benefiting from services offered by museums. The discussion also stresses the significance of catering to this disadvantaged segment of the population.

Goabaone Montsho is a blind curator working for Botswana National Museum

Above: Goabaone Montsho is a blind curator working for Botswana National Museum

The primary barrier which physically challenged members of the community, particularly those who are using wheel chairs, find themselves having to battle against its mobility and access to museums. In research conducted in Israel many wheelchair users referred to mobility as a main obstacle. Peoria, Reichel, and Brandt note that: “The interviewees expressed interest in the physical obstacles they have to face in terms of access by public transportation (e.g. bus or taxi) or by foot.” (2008, p.122).

People using wheelchairs find it hard to reach the vicinity of museums independently. Most of the disabled use public transport which might not accommodate their physical needs. It is worthwhile to point out that after reaching museum premises wheelchair users are confronted with parking complications. In Israel, participants often complained that “although there were special parking spaces, there was often no ramp between the road and the sidewalk.” (Poria, Reichel, and Brandt, 2008, p. 122).  This limitation obviously deprives wheelchair users the freedom to independently visit museums. In order for Museums to rectify this situation, it is necessary to modify their infrastructure, building ramps and railings to accommodate the disabled. It is vital for museums to take this step so that they remain  safe public institutions inclusive for all audiences.  Rendering physical infrastructure of museums user friendly to all indicates inclusivity and respect for diverse museum audiences.

Many visitors have emotional connections to the museum and the exhibits when visiting museums. However, this does not work the same for people in wheelchairs. In a misguided attempt to accommodate the physically disabled, some museums have located wheelchair entrances far away from the regular entrance. This separation creates sentiments of exclusion for wheelchair users. By using an entrance that is located on the other side of the museum means that the disabled have to separate with their companions who may be family members or friends.  Subsequently it is a reasonable expectation that museums should retrofit or build entrances that accommodate all people, with stairs and ramps adjacent to each other or in close proximity.  This will go a long way towards eliminating the stigma wheelchair users feel when asked to use a separate, hidden entrance.

Once inside the museum, people in wheelchairs are alienated through the use of tall furniture. Poria, Reichel, and Brandt write that: “people in wheelchairs referred to elements of the physical environment, such as the height of the counters (at the cashier, information desk, earphone-rental station, and shops). This height creates a sense of separation that prevents comfortable communication, as they cannot see the face of the person they talk to. Some interviewees reported a sense of humiliation due to this feeling of separation” (2008, p. 123).

One of the roles of the museum is to educate people, hence it is imperative for wheelchair users to be able to communicate without feeling excluded. For instance, their inability to reach out and get pamphlets from desks or bend down to read labels  which is difficult even for people using crutches, hinders the effectiveness of museums as community educators.

Museum staff play a critical role in sharing of information with museum visitors. However, in some cases Museum staff display discriminatory behaviour when communicating with the visually impaired. For instance, some blind museum visitors in Israel “felt that because of their physical appearance, the staff approached them as if they were “mentally retarded.” (Poria, Reichel, and Brandt, 2008, p. 123).  This implicates that training for museum curators and the staff in general on serving visitors with disabilities is imperative. Treating the visually impaired or any person with a disability with contempt discredits the museum as a public institution open to all. Improvement in this area will allow the visually impaired an opportunity to express their needs in museums and get appropriate help.

The blind require special technology such as audio to access information. A number of blind people are not interested in visiting museums because in most cases museums do not provide information in ways accommodating to blind patrons. It is important for museums to transcribe their written material into braille. This will allow visually impaired visitors equal access to written information on exhibits, giving them a chance to be educated on museum collections on equal basis with their sighted colleagues. It is beneficial to provide information in braille to enhance information accessibility for the visually impaired community. Providing audio descriptions of artifacts which are being showcased is a practical step in explaining to the blind exhibits on display.

Sighted visitors look at museum artifacts, but blind visitors who cannot see must touch objects to create the same learning experience. However, most museums have strict policies of prohibiting visitors from touching the artifacts for preservation purposes. This policy does not work for the blind since they depend on touch to learn and appreciate aesthetics.  Regardless of this policy museums can still make braille drawings which will represent the sketch of showcased objects or   provide replicas which can be touched. This will help the blind to interact with museum collections in ways that do not discriminate against their needs.

The deaf are another group of people with disabilities who encounter accessibility challenges during their visits to museums. Most museums do not offer sign language interpretation, which makes communication with the deaf almost impossible. Museum visitors are always keen to know more about exhibits. Generally they do this by asking questions and reading text labels. The deaf often find themselves helpless as museum staff do not understand sign language. Museums should hire sign language interpreters who can assist in these cases. The employee may also be responsible for guiding deaf visitors around, showing them the exhibits and answering their questions. This will provide deaf members of the community with the chance to learn about artifacts and culture from museums without being hindered by communication breakdowns.

People with disabilities ranging from wheelchair  / crutches users, the visually impaired, and the deaf face diverse kinds of limitations in accessing museums. Using a wheelchair in a museum exposes the disabled person to challenges such as accessing the ramp, lack of open space, and isolation due to tall furniture. The blind also benefit little from museums since they do not see the exhibits and information text in most museums. As it is hard to get Braille or even large print material in museums. The deaf also encounter communication barriers in museums due to the absence of sign language interpreters, making it a stumbling block for the deaf to have their questions answered in most museums. Regardless of all these challenges, museums must still work on being open to the entire society by modifying their infrastructure and upgrading their equipment to promote social inclusion and diversity.

References

Poria, Y., Reichel, A. and Brandt, Y. (2008). People with disabilities visit art museums: an

Exploratory study of obstacles and difficulties. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 4 (2), 117-129.

About the author – Goabaone Montsho

Goabaone Montsho is a blind curator working for Botswana National Museum. Working in the ethnology division, his job entails curating thematic exhibitions, documenting ethnographic collection of the museum and disseminating ethno historic information to museum visitors. He work with researchers and students conducting research in the museum. He graduated with a Bachelors of Arts Degree with a major in Anthropology (2010- 2014) from Vancouver Island University in Canada. Furthermore he attained a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (2016- 2018) from the University of Botswana.

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