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Museum Accessibility: An Art and a Science

Category: Alliance Blog
A wheelchair parked at the bottom of a concrete staircase
Museums are increasingly making accessibility a priority, but without a clear blueprint for how to advance it, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some suggestions for finding your entry point.

Over the past decade, conversations about accessibility have increased within the museum field, and many organizations including AAM have identified it as a priority. There is not, however, a straightforward and approachable blueprint for increasing accessibility, meaning the museum workers tasked with doing so are often left wondering, “How do I get started?”

Heather Pressman and Danielle Schulz wrote The Art of Access: A Practical Guide for Museum Accessibility to answer this question and support museum practitioners on their accessibility journeys, regardless of the size, budget, or scope of their museum, by providing a range of starting points. Here we share three main guiding principles that every museum, regardless of size or focus, should keep at the forefront. Additionally, we highlight the work of three museums—The Henry Ford, the Intrepid Museum, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art—to shine a light on exciting ways accessibility and inclusion have been integrated into programs and evaluated.

Nothing About Us Without Us: Meaningful Inclusion

When engaging diverse audiences, simply putting up a welcome sign is not enough. Meaningful inclusion entails opportunities for members of disability communities to advise on and design accessible public programs, exhibitions, and spaces from the very beginning. People with disabilities should be the ones leading the conversation about their own interests and needs, a principle summed up in the expression “nothing about us without us.”

When this is not the case, and outsider perspectives and opinions (however well-meaning) overshadow the conversation, it can perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions that only cause further barriers to access these spaces and programs. To avoid this, museums only need to follow practices they have used with other visitor groups for years, such as organizing advisory committees, focus groups, and community panels. Just as parents can give feedback on the effectiveness of a family gallery game, wheelchair users can identify inaccessible routes within a gallery, or a neurodiverse visitor can inform the ideal location of a quiet space. Be sure to talk to multiple people with disabilities in the process, however—no one person can speak on behalf of everyone.

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There is a range of ways to approach this undertaking, depending on the scale of the museum’s needs and resources. On the more time- and resource-intensive (yet higher-return) end is convening an advisory committee that meets anywhere from monthly to quarterly to provide regular input on museum policies, practices, and long-term strategic guidance. An ideal accessibility advisory committee consists of people with diverse experiences and abilities (who are compensated for their time) who can bring to the table both a level of community expertise as well as an interest in being a change agent within the museum. In the middle of the continuum, requiring moderate resources yet yielding a fair amount of impact, is populating already existing advisory committees or focus groups with people from different disability communities, a significant identity group that is often overlooked in recruitment. Finally, on the least intensive end of the continuum is simply asking for feedback, then listening. Create an email address ( whose sole purpose is to receive questions and concerns about accessibility supports and barriers. Business cards with this address can be printed and stored at your front desk, even carried by staff, for easy and far-reaching distribution to visitors. This should be promoted widely on your website and marketing materials so as to encourage usage, and ideally monitored regularly and by more than one person who can respond to this feedback in a timely, respectful, and honest manner.

Tapping into diverse disability communities as content experts can be extremely helpful to building a better museum. Oftentimes ideas unearthed during feedback sessions or submitted as general inquiries can lead to important learning opportunities for—and changes to—the entire museum.

A Word About Words

Sometimes, often unknowingly and with the best of intentions, people use words or phrases in everyday conversations that are ableist, meaning insulting or discriminating to people with disabilities. Very often, ableist words show up in the language museum staff use to speak about people with disabilities and the programs or support materials they use. This can come in the form of euphemisms intended as niceties that are actually patronizing and divisive. For example, this can include describing bathrooms and parking spots as “handicapped” rather than accessible, using overly negative terms like physically or mentally “challenged,” describing people as “suffering from” or “afflicted with” their disabilities, and calling support materials or accommodations “special” items. It can also include using the words “normal” or “regular” to refer to people without disabilities or their experiences and needs. The same goes for avoiding made-up terms that are a substitute for disability, like “differently abled” or “handi-capable.” Disability is not a negative word, and using euphemisms or substitutes only succeeds in reinforcing the stigma around disability as something to be ashamed of. Disability should be valued as an equal, and valued, aspect of the diversity of our visitors.

Avoiding ableist language is sometimes easier said than done, as perceptions of what language is most inclusive are constantly shifting. Five years ago, for instance, person-first language (speaking of the person first and the disability second, e.g. “a person with autism”) was considered best practice, while now identity-first language (describing a person’s identity as closely tied to their disability, e.g. “an autistic person”) has increased in popularity. Museums can maintain inclusive communication by keeping up to date with research and writings by disability and social justice advocates and regularly reviewing any written materials for negative or outdated terminology or euphemisms.

Not My Job: Shared Responsibility

In a museum, accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. Really. Frontline staff need to be prepared to field requests for sensory equipment. IT or digital staff need to ensure the museum website is accessible. Educators need to ensure that every child can participate in a field trip. Evaluators need to meet visitors of all abilities where they are to learn why they are coming to their museum and what they need to be able to engage.

The list goes on, and so does the list of resources necessary to fulfill these tasks: funds to purchase sensory support materials, hire website audit specialists, pay ASL interpreters for focus group facilitation. This is not to say that accessibility must be expensive, but it must be expansive. There are low-cost and free ways to make museums more accessible, which we share more in our book, but this mindset of shared responsibility for accessibility is the bigger takeaway.

Even if you cannot make the case for allocating financial support across a variety of departmental budgets, how can you bring together a cross-departmental group to both discuss the successes and weaknesses of your museum’s accessibility practice and share the expertise and knowledge that abound in your staff? Considering that one in four people have a disability, there are very likely people on your staff who either themselves have a disability or know and love someone who does. How can you harness this shared knowledge and lived experience?

Furthermore, learning from other colleagues and organizations and their unique accessibility journeys can help guide and motivate the work we all do. In this dynamic field where terminology and best practices are constantly shifting and developing, no single person or organization could possibly possess all the information. For that reason, we’ve gathered some examples from across the field of museums doing exceptional accessibility work, and gotten them to share how they’ve done it. We hope hearing about their journeys will help you start yours toward welcoming people with disabilities into your museum in a truly inclusive way. 

Evolving an Accessibility Program | The Henry Ford – Museum, Greenfield Village & Rouge Factory

In 2015, The Henry Ford created its first accessibility-focused position, signaling its commitment to build an intentional accessibility program for its community. As of today, the museum offers about fifty accessible programs per year, including touch tours and virtual verbal description programs for people who are blind or have low vision, sensory-friendly events for people who are on the autism spectrum, and programs for people who are living with dementia and their care partners.

Collecting feedback on these programs was challenging at first. At the sensory-friendly events, for instance, asking attendees to fill out a paper survey before leaving did not lead to much feedback. Attendees were often distracted or in a hurry, and there was no email list for a post-visit survey, as the events were open to anyone without registration. To help get the feedback staff needed, the museum formed an Autism Advisory Group in 2017. This group, which comprises parents and teachers of individuals with autism, as well as several individuals who are themselves on the autism spectrum, shares thoughts and suggestions for sensory-friendly events. Group members have even walked with The Henry Ford staff through several events beforehand to identify potential sensory triggers.

Eventually, the events changed to requiring pre-registration, allowing staff to send pre-visit materials and a post-event survey. This saw a much higher response rate than the paper survey, most likely because attendees could respond on their own time. Over the years, the surveys have asked various open-ended questions: “What were the positives of your visit?” “What could be improved upon for next time?” “What impact does the availability of sensory-friendly offerings have on your family/group?” and “What topics/themes would you like to see in future programs?” Staff have received some heart-warming affirmations, such as, “For many of us parents of children on the spectrum, just having a safe space to let our children be themselves is amazing. … Being at an event that is designed for our children brings a level of comfort we can’t get at ordinary events,” as well as some incredibly valuable feedback they have been putting into action.

The Henry Ford charged admission for the first several sensory-friendly events; however, feedback from both the surveys and the advisory group drove home the importance of keeping tickets at a low cost or free. Not only is affordability an inherent issue for many families, but many also do not know how long their family member(s) with autism will be able to last at an event before needing to leave, meaning the investment in admission can be difficult to justify. As one attendee commented, “The fact that these events are offered at no cost is a game changer. … There is no pressure to ‘get our money’s worth’ and so we can enjoy what my son can tolerate and leave without regrets.” This feedback inspired the museum to apply for a successful IMLS grant, a large portion of which now provides free admission to the sensory-friendly events.

Feedback has changed numerous other aspects of how sensory-friendly events are formatted and implemented, from including start/end times for each activity on visual schedules that are sent in advance, to setting comfortable sound and light levels, to sending reminders to bring a sweater to air-conditioned events, to checking people in on a list for some of the events rather than giving them paper tickets.

Overall, the feedback that The Henry Ford has received on its sensory-friendly programming has been significant to the success of these programs. It has helped ensure that they are meeting their audience’s needs and incorporating their interests. Staff look forward to continuing to use feedback as much as possible to help plan programming in the years to come.

Designing for Accessibility…On a Steel Ship | The Intrepid Museum

Designing for accessibility can be particularly challenging for historic sites, which have to balance preserving spaces not originally built with accessibility in mind with serving and welcoming the public today.

Centered on a landmarked 1943 aircraft carrier, with collections including a submarine and a Concorde, the Intrepid Museum is full of potential physical and sensory barriers to access. Regardless, when we began our accessibility journey more than ten years ago, it was imperative to start somewhere, deciding on the first step and taking it. We began by considering the institution’s strengths and seeking direct feedback from audiences. For example, when the museum reopened after an extensive renovation, educators began noticing that self-contained classes of students with developmental disabilities were booking guided school programs even though the museum did not have programs specifically designed for them. Through conversations with teachers and colleagues, and, later on, through surveys, educators learned more about the appeal of the museum for these groups and created more customized programs and approaches for these groups. They also began offering free American Sign Language-interpreted (and ASL-led) tours, as well as verbal description and touch tours to both individuals and groups. These initial programs have grown to a robust menu of specialized public and by-request programs, as well as more general inclusive public programs with accessibility baked in.

Accessibility is about more than specialized or inclusive programs, however, and considerations around infrastructure, exhibitions, and customer service have also increased over time. As part of the museum’s renovation, for instance, elevators and lifts were added to a few key areas to reduce (though not fully resolve) barriers to physical access. The exhibits and facilities teams also followed guidelines for auditory and visual accessibility by installing hearing loops in the box office and at audio features around the museum, adding captioning to videos with sound, and following best practices for lighting and for the size, color, contrast, etc. of print labels and signs. Visitor Services and other front-of-house staff also have training sessions throughout the year on welcoming visitors with disabilities, helping to decrease potential attitudinal barriers and to ensure that staff know the choices they can provide visitors.

Evaluation has been essential to each of these steps toward increasing accessibility at the Intrepid Museum. As part of an initial seed grant to develop sensory-friendly programming for children with autism and their families, the museum brought in the non-profit consultant group Autism Friendly Spaces to conduct initial assessments and provide feedback on pilot programs and set up a Parent Advisory Council. The council provided in-depth feedback on planned and past programs and later helped advise on the development of resources for all visitors, such as a general social narrative, a sensory guide and sensory kit, and a specialized maker camp for children with developmental disabilities. Several years ago, we recognized a glaring gap in our council of adult self-advocates, so we started recruiting for them to join as well and renamed the group the Autism Advisory Council.

We also send surveys to program participants, which provide insights from a wider range of people. As the museum moved into creating more physical environments and interactive elements with the hope to be accessible to all, staff began employing prototypes, user testing, and focus groups. When developing a permanent, accessible exhibit about the technology and history of the submarine Growler, for example, they conceived an exhibit element that would let people feel the subtle vibrations of a moving submarine. Partners from the Stevens Institute of Technology helped construct a prototype. User testers were drawn from various groups, including the NYC chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, local advocates of people who are blind or have low vision, and members of the Autism Advisory Council.

More recently, the museum began work with the NYU Ability Project under an IMLS Leadership Grant on developing accessible sensory tools for interpreting historic sites. In this project, NYU and the Intrepid Museum worked with seven historic sites to identify access challenges, prototype solutions and, through the process, develop a toolkit which will be freely shared. Advisors included leadership from Access Smithsonian and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Also enlisted in the process were disability advocates, the majority of whom are also self-advocates, who gave feedback and insights for the historic sites.

As we continue to work toward a more accessible and inclusive museum, our evaluation efforts increasingly engage the self-advocates throughout the process. Building off of the Autism Advisory Council and our work with self-advocates on the sensory tools project and exhibit prototyping, we are pursuing and setting aside funds to compensate user/experts for their time and expertise when sharing more extensive feedback. For example, thanks to support from the FAR Fund, Autism Advisory Council members will receive an honorarium for attending quarterly meetings, in addition to the year of family membership they already receive for meeting the minimum requirements. Similar honoraria will also be provided for other user/experts who participate in in-depth or repeated evaluations of upcoming projects, such as an “Innovation Deck” (maker space) or online mobile guide, at different stages. Likewise, for the museum’s upcoming web redesign project, we are contracting with the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) to provide guidance and feedback throughout the development process, including from their team of web accessibility experts and from their pool of disabled user/experts.

Accessibility work, especially in historic sites, is always a work in progress. At the Intrepid Museum, basic evaluation work helped kickstart our efforts and has only continued to enrich our work as we engage more deeply and regularly with our diverse disability communities.

Culturally Competent Evaluation—In Practical Terms | The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

When the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art began to engage community partners for our d/Deaf* Culture Project, we received feedback that the Nelson-Atkins was a “hearing person’s museum.” While we intend to create an inclusive museum as an institution, our community was nonetheless telling us that they did not feel the space included them.

Funded by a three-year grant from IMLS, The d/Deaf Culture Project is a suite of interrelated products and activities designed to provide quality and accessible programs for visitors who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (d/DHH). We engaged Garibay Group to conduct a summative evaluation using a culturally responsive approach. Evaluation activities included focus groups, on-site survey intercepts, on-site interview intercepts, and participatory data analysis and feedback sessions. In practical terms, this meant:

  • Booking interpreters for every evaluation method used
  • Educating staff on dos and don’ts of accessible communication
  • Scheduling CART services (Communication Access Realtime Translation, which allows for captioning of a live event) for focus groups and feedback sessions
  • Planning additional time for sessions to account for the time it takes for interpreters and live captioners to capture conversation
  • Making paper and pencil available for quick communication
  • Creating printed/laminated introduction and instruction sheets when no interpreter is available
  • Ensuring that printed materials and surveys use inclusive language

Making evaluation accessible was not as easy as consulting a checklist and implementing accommodations. A major part of the work included consulting with experts in d/DHH accommodations. Luckily, as part of the project, we were able to hire a program coordinator who was a member of the local d/Deaf community, Lucy Crabtree. Already established community partnerships were expanded to serve as an advisory panel throughout the project and beyond. By implementing reflective practices, we were able to create several products and activities with the help of our advisory panel. The museum began to use CART captioning for programming, lectures, and webinars. We hired art teachers fluent in ASL and implemented monthly in-person and virtual ASL tours. Products that were adjusted due to partner feedback include filming of ASL vlogs (video blogs featuring staff and community members that introduce visitors to the museum and galleries), ASL video guides (ASL narration of artworks in the museum collection to provide an immersive in-gallery experience), and the creation of a Teacher Advisory Board. Most importantly, we heard from our partners that more emphasis should be placed on the annual Deaf Cultural Festival as a focal point for engagement.

Staff and partners involved in this project needed to recognize our limitations, implicit biases, and knowledge of the subject we were addressing. By prioritizing reflective, sustainable practices and implementing consistent partner-driven analysis activities and products we can shift and change to create a truly collaborative experience for all that can be continued into the future.

*Note: when referencing d/Deaf and hard of hearing in written form it is important to acknowledge the community you are addressing. A capital “Deaf” is used in reference to Deaf culture/community, while “deaf” is used for all other references. This allows for greater inclusion as not all individuals who identify as deaf or hard of hearing consider themselves culturally Deaf, therefore, inclusive language should be used.

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    1. Rayen, thanks for reading and for your comment. We were excited to bring these ideas a stories to the field!

  1. Hi All,
    So excited to announce that based on the fabulous response we’ve gotten from this blog, we are turning this into an edited volume with 7 institutions sharing their experiences of evaluating accessibility programs and exhibitions in museums. I’ll post more here as we move forward!

    1. Hi Laureen,
      Great to hear about the edited volume. Thank you very much for your efforts! May I know if it is available now? If so, can we download it or find it somewhere?

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