Welcoming Participants with Disabilities

Visitors to a temporary exhibit at the NC State Fair

Visitors to a temporary exhibit at the NC State Fair

A few weeks ago, the Gathering Place Project hosted a session on modifying our cultural heritage institutions to become more accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires publically funded organizations to make “reasonable accommodations” for access. Of course, “reasonable” is a subjective term and depends a great deal on the organization’s capacity, staff and financial resources in particular. Another challenge in compliance is that needs vary tremendously. There is no one set of access measures that will allow access for all disabilities. Accommodations for someone who is blind differ from those for someone with intellectual disabilities and again for someone with impaired mobility. Online guidelines can help cultural organizations navigate toward accessibility improvements.

Some suggested modifications are physical: ensuring ramp access to entrances, providing family bathrooms, creating signage in large sans-serif fonts. Other modifications require welcoming attitudes and the development of new procedures to accommodate a wider range of physical and intellectual abilities. Every cultural organization is required under the ADA to assign one staff member the responsibility of functioning as a point person to handle access requests. Upon receiving requests for services to individuals with disabilities, avoid saying “No, we can’t do that.” Instead, get contact information to get back in touch. Brainstorm possibilities and discuss them with other staff members. If you can’t meet the initial request, suggest alternative activities or other ways you can be welcoming.

Most people with disabilities want to focus on what they can do, not their limitations. When they come to participate, ask “How can I help you?” and “What can we do to make your experience more comfortable?” The experience of this Charlotte family, denied access last summer at a historic house museum in Savannah, is a cautionary tale for all of us. Avoid making assumptions about how to proceed. Listen to the patron and present as many access options as possible.

Many counties across the state have service organizations for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Wake Enterprises operates in Wake County and supports employment in addition to coordinating social and learning opportunities for its constituents. These county-based groups could be an untapped audience for many history museums.  Participants may need activities on a children’s educational level but can be sensitive about having child-like content. Tactile opportunities such as learning from an educational collection which they can touch can be especially effective and enjoyable. If special tours at your site are impractical, Wake Enterprises has had success with travel trunks, especially when a museum staff member or docent comes to the organization and offers a program. If you can imagine developing an appropriate special tour or program, please get in touch with a staff member at your local county organization to discuss possibilities.

The NC Arts Council offers a range resources for arts inclusion here. Arts Council staff are available to offer advice on accessibility assessments and plans for improvement. Access to cultural heritage institutions is challenging, especially for those who live with disabilities every day. But the opportunities to build deep and meaningful connections to diverse segments of your community can be rewarding. What can your organization do to welcome new audiences?



About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on November 4, 2014, in collections access, NCDCR collections, public programs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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