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Four Things I Learned When I Started Thinking about Museum Accessibility

Category: Alliance Blog
At the top of a staircase in a museum, a sign advises that there are "37 steps down to the gallery."
After working as an assistant for people with disabilities for years, Ryan Saglio decided to study accessibility in cultural institutions as a graduate student. Here are her takeaways as she's immersing herself in these studies. Photo credit: Brian Suda on Flickr. CC BY 2.0

I first started working with the Disabilities community in 2011. Over the years, I’ve worked with individuals of all ages in their homes, at their jobs, and in their communities. The state I live in, Rhode Island, has had to radically restructure the way it cares for older teens and adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (ID/DD), from a network of segregated day facilities to a model of community integration, after the Department of Justice found the old practices violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The DOJ has called this a “landmark” shift, and it is expected to serve as a model for other states across the country. Critical to the success of this state-wide policy change are safe, meaningful, accessible programs and spaces within the community for people to visit. Unfortunately, finding these spaces has been challenging. In the years immediately following the policy changes I started working with adults, so I was working on the metaphorical ground floor with clients, helping them transition to community-based care. As a result, I got to experience firsthand how frustrating, disappointing, and at times even dehumanizing it can be for people with disabilities to access community spaces. Sometimes it’s that a space is completely inaccessible for people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility, or just downright difficult to navigate. Other times, the staff in these spaces are unfamiliar with people with disabilities, and whether they are well-intentioned or not, they create interactions that are uncomfortable and spaces that are unwelcoming. In short, many of the experiences we had within the community were second-rate.

It was on the heels of this work that I entered graduate school. During my undergraduate years I had developed an interest in working in the cultural sector and saw the opportunity to blend my experiences. As a graduate student, I was eager to think about the ways spaces like museums and libraries can help facilitate community integration for people with disabilities. As sites that often seek to dedicate themselves to education, enrichment, and community, these are institutions poised to make a tremendous difference.

For the past couple of months, I have been working to take a closer look at the ways museums engage with accessibility. For museums, accessibility can seem overwhelming and downright scary. Any type of change within an institution, whether it be big or small, requires money, time, and resources.  Even newer museums built post-ADA are not always doing enough. Accessibility is more than ADA compliance; it’s about community building. With that said, there is still incredible work happening in the world of museums. While I’ve only just started to scratch the surface, I am excited to blend my experiences in the human services field into my current work. I’ve been reading, talking with other professionals in the field, visiting sites, and discussing with anyone and everyone.

I’m excited to share just some of the things I’ve learned:

1. There are no perfect answers

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When I first started my research, I was particularly interested in programming and accessibility for people with ID/DD. However, I quickly found that I needed to take a big step back and think about accessibility more holistically. In an ideal world, every museum would have the capacity to serve any visitor that walked through its doors, but it isn’t that easy. Museums, especially older museums and historic sites, were often not designed with accessibility in mind. Furthermore, not all museums have the resources to meet the needs of every community. So while I look forward to a world full of inclusive, accessible museums, I know there is no way to change the world overnight magically.

It is important to think critically about accessibility in museums, but it is also vital to take a moment to celebrate the strides museums are taking to become more accessible. These programs serve as a reminder that while there are no perfect answers for making museums more accessible, the field is trying to move in the right direction.

In taking a step back and thinking about accessibility, disability, and museums more broadly, I realized that each museum is different. They each have their own site-specific strengths and weaknesses. For some museums, physical access is their main priority. For others, it’s about creating programming and resources for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.  Some museums do great work for visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorders. All of this work is wonderful and exciting.

For museums just starting to think long and hard about accessibility, finding a starting point seems impossible. I recently presented at the Small Museum Association Conference in Maryland about museum accessibility, where I talked about this quandary. Should they try to install an elevator or do a digital tour of their second-floor spaces? Should they start by reaching out to their local Autism center or to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community? Should they close-caption the exhibit videos or get raised line drawings in the galleries? It’s impossible for any museum, no matter how well-funded or well-staffed, to tackle all of these changes at once. So—where should museums start?

If a visitor walked in the door and asked: “What do I absolutely need to see before I leave?” What exhibit or space or experience would you tell them defines your institution? All museums need to sit down and answer that question.

And the answer to that question? Well, there’s the starting point.

2. Embrace complexity

Doing accessibility work is about understanding real and perceived barriers that make visitors feel unwelcome in museums. It’s about opening yourself up to learning more about a community different from your own and learning to embrace experiences and meaning across a range of human ability.

Sometimes that means things get messy.

Part of doing accessibility work means sitting down and taking the time to define keys terms2 like accessibility, disability, equity, inclusion, etc. It’s important not just to understand how these words are defined, but how they overlap and diverge from one another.

In particular, taking the time to understand disability and the way it functions as an identity is critical. Disability can be an umbrella term that applies to many different people. There are many types of disability, like people who have limited mobility or use wheelchairs, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, and folks with ID/DD, to name a few. Each community has its own culture and history, and each has different accessibility needs.

From all of this, I learned a critical lesson: to embrace complexity. For institutions like museums, this can seem overly complicated and daunting. However, by taking the time to learn more about how disability acts as a medical, legal, and identity term, I gained a deeper appreciation of how varied people’s interactions with it can be. I think so often there is a compulsion to simplify our understanding of these terms.  Oversimplification, regardless of whether it stems from good intentions or not, is a breeding ground for ignorance and assumptions. Taking the time to explore allows institutions to carve out their own understanding and interaction with disabilities, accessibility, and inclusion.

3. Accessibility is a conversation

Different people have different needs, and engaging as many diverse communities in conversation is critical when striving for inclusion and access. I think that often when institutions try to make changes to their site and their programming to welcome new visitors in, they forget to engage the community directly. As a result, many of the changes they make are ineffective and based on assumptions, and while these changes stem from the best of intentions, they’re a misstep. Additionally, if no one is being consulted, chances are no one within the community knows about the services and resources being offered. When no one knows about them, they don’t get used, and then it makes it easier for museums to justify deprioritizing accessibility work. Why move forward with another expensive physical change or take the time to develop a new program if no one is going to use it? One executive director of a small museum asked me, “How can I ensure that accessibility work isn’t a waste of my time and resources?” For me, the answer is making sure the people you’re trying to reach are active participants in tackling problems.

Whenever possible, museums should reach out to the communities they’re hoping to welcome. Accessibility work needs to be a conversation among equals, where both parties are working together to solve problems. So much of doing accessibility work is asking questions—What can we do? What changes can we make? How can we help? Even more important than asking these questions is listening—really listening to the answers.

Learning to have these conversations also means working towards being transparent about the resources and limitations of your institution. Changes don’t happen overnight, but it’s essential that visitors with disabilities can access honest, up-to-date information about visiting your site.

Accessibility work isn’t just about providing equal access; it’s about equitable access. It’s about making sure visitors have the resources to choose to experience the museum however they want. When I think about tackling an accessibility problem, I have to remind myself that I don’t know what I don’t know. Being able to bring in the outside knowledge and use it to build a relationship is a beautiful gift.

4. Access is not a burden

I turn my attention now to a current campaign by Disability and Transformative Justice activists Mia Mingus, Sandy Ho, and Alice Wong. They recently launched their #AccessIsLove campaign to remind us that accessibility work is not a burden but an act of love:

“Access is Love aims to help build a world where accessibility is understood as an act of love, instead of a burden or an after-thought. It is an initiative to raise awareness about accessibility and encourage people to incorporate access in their everyday practice and lives.”

—Disability Intersectionality Summit, “Access Is Love”

Their work speaks for itself. For more information about #AccessIsLove, their work, and the Disability Intersectionality Summit, click here.

Accessibility work doesn’t have to be scary. It’s not a burden, or merely a matter of ADA compliance; it is an ever-changing conversation. It involves committing to a community often forgotten and ignored. When done right, it doesn’t just allow people to feel welcome; it gives them a place and makes room in your institution for their voices. As institutions often committed to community, education, and enrichment, museums still have a long way to go. I still have a long way to go. There is still so much to learn and experience and for that, I am so grateful.

1 Throughout my blog post, some might notice that I capitalized Disabilities when referring to the community as a whole. Additionally, I have also capitalized individual community names, such as the Autism Spectrum Disorder and Blind communities. At this time, there is no official style consensus within the Disabilities community and Disabilities Right Movement. To my knowledge, the only exception is the Deaf and Hard and Hearing community, who prefer to use capital D when referring to their community and culture. I have always felt more comfortable capitalizing as a way of recognizing these communities as distinct entities. Additionally, while some may still favor the term “disabled,” my experiences have always taught me to use disability.

2 When looking for definitions, I found AAM’s Facing Change Report to be a valuable resource.


About the author:

Ryan Saglio is working to complete her master’s degree from Brown University’s Public Humanities program. She is expected to graduate in May 2019. She also recently accepted a position at the South County History Center in Kingston, Rhode Island as their Assistant Director. She is a native Rhode Islander with a passion for museums that promote equitable museum experiences for all visitors.

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  1. Not to take away from this excellent article…artist with disAbilities lack access in many ways beyond physical facilities, such as art museums mentioned here. Lack of access to the training, education, mentoring, opportunities, professional development, accolades, exhibitions, etc., etc., etc. Not easy for any of us artists, true. But what if you are an artist that has an intellectual disAbility, are unable to verbally communicate, do not walk or hear, see, etc.? In my role as an “Artism Agent” and in working with other artists, besides my daughter, Grace Goad Autism Art for two decades, I know it’s important to start with awareness. Create pathways for yourself in your own artist career (or for whose career you represent,) and then remember those who need to find the pathway, who need to know how to maneuver the pathways. Someone helped you. Be inclusive and pay it forward. We’re out there.

  2. Thank you for this excellent article! I too am passionate about museum accessibility, having written my Masters thesis on accessible technology for the Blind and visually impaired (my article has been published here on the AAM blog: A New Way to See: Looking at Museums Through the Eyes of the Blind). I would love to touch base with you and discuss this topic more–maybe we can work together on something?

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

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