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Inclusion: More Than Mere Access - Collections, Connections and Communities Conference, Ottawa, ON

Thursday, October 1, 2009

By: John Rae

Whenever you hear the words "access" or "accessibility," what thoughts immediately come into your mind? Most people think of a sloping ramp or accessible washroom. This is understandable, since the International Symbol of Access is a stylized wheelchair.

However, a more inclusive concept of accessibility requires much more than just physical access.

Some of us look different, talk differently, learn in different ways, move around differently, or use adaptive equipment to communicate or perform our jobs.

True inclusion involves understanding and valuing differences. The disabled community in Canada is diverse and growing. It includes individuals who have both visible and invisible disabilities. It currently comprises about one in seven persons in our population, and that percentage is rising as our population ages. This figure does not include our friends and family members, all of whom are potential patrons of your facility.

The sequence of learning about access and inclusion is an example of moving from the “medical model” of disability to a “social model” approach. It started with the relatively simple idea of enabling people using wheelchairs to enter buildings, and unfortunately some institutions have never gone beyond this.

The next crucial stage was the transition from seeing the person using the wheelchair as an access problem to seeing the individual as a visitor with an impairment for whom the museum or art gallery posed an access problem. Service providers had to learn to take responsibility for the problems created by steps even if the physical environment dated back many decades.

From this starting point, many museums, art galleries, wilderness facilities and heritage properties began to learn about other disabilities, including much less visible disabilities - learning disabilities and mental health problems. This was part of a wider process of learning about, and responding to audiences in all their variety and complexity, a process which once begun can never end.

Looking back on this process can teach us many lessons about how museums, art galleries, wilderness facilities and heritage properties do and do not learn.

Accessibility definitely does include access to premises, but it also covers all aspects of your organization, its programs and what it offers. True inclusion must provide access to collections, to educational programs, to employment and volunteer opportunities, and to information about what's on display and what's happening in your facility.

Museums and art galleries come in different settings and sizes. While the focus of this presentation is more on major art galleries and museums, many of the same principles apply to smaller heritage properties and wilderness trails in both indoor and outdoor settings.


Getting in is key to taking part in what's happening. Gaining access to and being able to easily move around a facility - the entire facility - is paramount. Providing parking spots close to the entrance, level entrances and walkways, adequate lighting, non-slip floors, elevators, accessible washrooms, clear signage, minimizing surface glare, providing that occasional bench for a quick rest, and accommodating staff will make your facility more "inclusive" and inviting to a larger number of patrons.

Today, a great deal of material on making buildings physically and attitudinally accessible exists, including check lists, that you can use to review accessibility in your facility and develop a plan for making needed improvements. However, a better approach to accomplishing this is to consult with a number of visitors with different disabilities, invite them to come through your facility, and ask for their input. This direct involvement is much better than a check list and this direct contact will give staff the chance to interact with the “real experts” on disability - persons with disabilities ourselves, and to develop useful links with individuals and organizations in your community.


How do you promote your programs? Are they only advertised by print flyers at the entrance to your facility? Or do you also have a tty with staff who check it regularly, provide brochures in plain language and multiple formats or put a message on your phone line, especially at night?

Most museums, art galleries, and heritage properties now operate a website. Is your organization’s website fully accessible? Does it conform to WC3 standards? Are videos captioned? Do links on your website include alt tabs so a blind person will not have to guess what the link contains? Are there text descriptions of photos, and are these descriptions in plain language?

Accessible design provides information to people with a range of disabilities, and it also provides websites that are more usable by all, and available through a wider array of technology.


How are staff and volunteers recruited? Do you rely solely on word of mouth, or does your organization have a plan in place to reach out to various groups in your community to ensure a more diverse work force and pool of volunteers? Do you train your staff on diversity issues, and do staff members know about the duty to accommodate short of undue hardship?


What material exists in your collection that pertains to disabled people’s lives and history? Persons with disabilities do have a history, though it may not be as well documented as it should be! At a time when museums are increasingly concerned to research and present “hidden histories,” why is disability rarely, if ever, considered?

A UK project, "Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries," identified a wealth of material in museum and art gallery collections. However, much of this was in storage, and not on display. Where objects and artworks were displayed, their connection with disability was rarely made explicit or interpreted to visitors. Representations of people with disabilities in displays and exhibitions, when presented, most often conformed to prevalent stereotypes found in other media – in film, literature, television and charity advertising. These stereotypes included people with disabilities as freaks, as passive and dependent recipients of charity, Biblical miracle cures; and as heroes who somehow transcend their disability by overcoming the challenges presented by their impairments. Depictions of people with disabilities in everyday life were practically non-existent.

Interviews conducted with curators helped to explain this situation. Many who were interviewed were open to including representations of people with disabilities in exhibitions and displays but were concerned how this might be achieved. Many expressed a fear of causing offence, of making mistakes. Curators were anxious not to promote freak-show approaches through displaying “difference” in ways which might encourage staring or other inappropriate forms of looking.

Other display dilemmas emerged during the research. Should we tell (and if so how should we tell) the difficult stories surrounding disability history – of asylums, industrial and war injury, holocaust, freak-show history, people’s personal experiences of pain, discrimination and marginalization?

In what circumstances should an object’s link with disability be made explicit where it might not otherwise be obvious to the audience? How can the material in collections be presented in ways which incorporate perspectives and insights from disabled people themselves?

The social model of disability provides a powerful lens to challenge and revise such negative representations by highlighting the environmental, attitudinal and social barriers that people with various disabilities face in struggles for equality and basic human rights.


Last year, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) hosted "Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember," a powerful exhibit that briefly explored Canadian disability history. This exhibition of 13 diverse objects was produced in collaboration with students and alumni from Ryerson University.

Participants were invited to identify an object representing a particular era or moment in Canadian disability history, and explore its significance.

Each of the pieces unfolds from a one word title, for example:

  • Labouring draws attention to the unpaid labours of three women inmates at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane during the early 1900s.
  • Dressing features 16 identical sweat suits that were typically worn by inmates in Ontario’s 16 residential institutions and brings attention to the thousands of Canadians with intellectual disabilities currently living in conditions equally drab and formless.
  • Packing presents a trunk sent with a seven year old boy to the Orillia Asylum for Idiots in the early 1950s. Between 1876 and 1950, almost 10,000 lives were crammed into trunks as people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized.


Do you offer public lectures. Are they held in fully accessible rooms? Do you ever provide sign language interpreters, and are these accessibility features mentioned when these events are publicized?

Do movies or films ever include descriptive narration? DVS provides information on an additional audio track through a head set to fill in gaps in narrative content? Again, while this approach was developed to assist movie goers who are blind, sighted viewers often feel they also gain more from a movie when DVS is added.

Are your lecturers adept at describing what is on the slides they are using to supplement their presentation, or do they spend most of their time talking to their slides?

Do you offer special programs for school groups? Do you have some items that students can examine by touch?


Photo: John Rae at the National War Museum.  Is this wall-sized description of the War of 1812 accessible? Is information about items on display presented only by notes in tiny print on a display case? Or does your facility provide audio guides, tactile drawings, or information sheets in multiple formats, including large print and braille?


How is your collection displayed? Are items only presented in glass cases, or is it possible to touch some or most of what is on display?

Do you provide educational programs, where a patron can participate in classes, or interact with staff and ask questions about what's on display? Will these staff members be willing to take a little extra time to provide more detailed descriptions of the items and answer questions?

When you are negotiating for visiting or special exhibitions, is access ever discussed with the artist or the facility providing the exhibition?


I have traveled extensively, both in Canada and abroad. My feet have walked through many marvelous places from the past. I have visited many museums, art galleries, castles, maritime facilities, nature reserves and historic homes and properties. I have roamed around many pioneer villages throughout Canada, and touched many implements that were used to build this country. I was particularly impressed by how much could be touched at Fort William.

While there are a variety of ways to convey information about items on display, for a blind visitor, there is simply no substitute to tactile access to your regular collection, no substitute whatsoever!

As Maya Jonas of Toronto observed recently: “Touch misses nothing, whereas vision can sometimes miss or misinterpret what is there. By touching you can feel the reality of the piece.”

Replicas, however, can assist.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of paleontology, houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs. I suggest any visitor start in its Gift Shop, where you can examine dinosaurs in various forms, from stuffed animals to key chains, and gain a better appreciation of what you are about to see in the collection itself.

The Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, established July 28, 1926, is housed in an 18th century vice-royal mansion built over a 7th century pre-Columbian pyramid. It boasts one of the world's largest collections of pre-Columbian art including Moche, Nazca, Chimú, and Inca.

It also is well known for its gallery of pre-Columbian erotic pottery, and was one of the first museums in the world to put its entire 45,000 piece collection in an electronic catalogue.

The Museum’s Gift Shop contains many replicas that were cast from pre Incan vessels from their collection. During my recent visit, as part of a specialized tour with Traveleyes of the UK, Museum staff organized an opportunity for us to touch about 20 examples of these vessels, and they even gave each of us one to take home.

At the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, I had the pleasure of examining their collection, which consists mainly of replicas of artifacts from ancient times. Begun in 1974, the collection began as a small group of replicas purchased from the Louvre, but grew to include replicas from other museums and workshops, as well as some original artifacts.

These replicas are created directly from, and are practically indistinguishable from the originals. Most are not crafted from the same material as the original. Most are casts made of plaster or resin, not marble or bronze, for the obvious reasons of expense and weight. The replicas by large workshops--such as those at the Louvre, Paris, the British Museum, London, and the Gipsformerei der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin—are created from moulds taken directly from the original pieces. They therefore replicate exactly any damage in the original. After the plaster cast is unmoulded, it is painted and given a surface finish which matches the original.

Special tours can also help.

After a special tour of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, I had the opportunity to touch many items they did not have room to put on display.

At the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, I have had special tours, especially during the summertime when their staff is augmented by archaeology and anthropology students and touched much from their extensive First Nations exhibition.

But tactile access to items in the regular collection is paramount.

At Nelson Mandela's former house in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, South Africa, I could touch much of what was on display, including Tommy "Hit Man" Hernes World Championship boxing belt, which was a great thrill for me.

A woman reaches up (wearing a pair of rubber gloves) to touch Rodin's Adam (Art Gallery of Ontario).

While in Copenhagen, I was asked to put on a pair of thin cotton gloves to prevent the oils from my hands from damaging any of the irreplaceable collection from ancient times that I was touching at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Their collection includes artifacts from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, the Ancient Mediterranean, and Imperial Rome. The Egypt portion of this collection alone contains more than 1800 works, including statues, reliefs, paintings, decorated mummies, painted mummy coffins and a wealth of tomb treasures. The oldest is the hippopotamus from around 3000 BCE.

Access can also be provided by taking down existing barriers.

During a tour on board Admiral Nelson's flagship, they took down the rope and allowed me to wander his quarter deck at will.

While at the Museo Inca in Cusko, Peru, the security guard took down the barrier and allowed me to examine models of two Incan cities, including Machu Picchu, which I had visited the previous day. This experience gave me an even better idea of the so called “lost city of the Incas.”

Over the past several months, I have had the great pleasure of working with the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is in the process of developing its first Accessibility Plan under the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA).

This work has included the opportunity to touch a growing number of items on display. I have been ably assisted by Jen Rinaldi, a graduate student at York University, who is as passionate about visiting museums and art galleries as I am!

When I asked for her reaction to our first "touch tour" at the AGO, she commented:

"I also had the opportunity to touch art while on the tactile tour. While I am not blind, I like to experience the world through touch. For this reason, the tour was almost mystical for me. Being able to reach out and gently run my fingertips along Henry Moore's Reclining Woman was a very intimate, beautiful moment for me, a memory akin to my memories of touching the pillars of Chichen Itza and the Pantheon in Rome. It was as if I crossed a chasm that has always separated me from that statue that I have admired from afar for years, every time I have visited the AGO. Through touch I was able to connect with the woman, and the artist. I will never forget that experience, and I am so grateful to the AGO for providing me with this opportunity."

If she was so moved by her experience, can you possibly imagine how much more important the opportunity to touch objects on display is to a history buff who is blind like me! Being able to run my fingers over a shiny surface, feel the material that was used, examine the contours of a statue, and feel the face and clothing, this is what makes history real for me! Again, let me emphasize that while there are various ways of conveying information about your collections, there is simply no substitute to tactile access, no substitute whatsoever!

Lake Nicaragua: A man stands behind a reclining lioness, who is chewing on the bottom of his white cane.

But the ultimate experience might be going down into the pit to touch the Terracotta Warriors outside of Xian, China. Andrew Spridgens from the UK, my room mate on my recent Peru tour, had such an experience in 1996.

“Going down into the pit to touch the Terracotta Warriors was a very special moment and one I shall never forget. It was very special because not many people have had the privilege to do this.

It was great touching something so old. They felt dustier than I imagined they would. Quite a few of them had parts missing. I would say it was one of the two great moments of the holiday, the other being walking on the Great Wall of China.”

If tactile access can be provided in such diverse places as Peru, South Africa, the UK, Turkey, Xian and beyond, tactile access can be provided in museums and art galleries across Canada!


Many of you are concerned about potential damage that touching items can cause, and I assure you that I am as concerned about preserving the irreplaceable remains from the past as you are. Having these items on display at all, exposed to light, air, and flash photography, can pose some damage. However, we take these minor risks, because while preservation is a priority, these works are on display so we can all appreciate and enjoy them.

While some other members of the blind community are as interested as I am to enjoy and fully participate in all that an art gallery or museum has to offer, you are unlikely to be deluged by hordes of blind patrons wanting to touch your collections.

The more objects that you have available in your collection that can be touched, the less each individual sculpture will get handled. Elizabeth Sweeney reports: “At the National Gallery we have about 15 touchable sculptures. We at most do a tactile tour once every 2 months – so each work gets touched maybe once or at most twice a year.”


To be able to imagine that other people’s life experiences are different from yours is an essential trait of anyone providing a public service. Recognizing that other people may experience the world differently and speculating and imagining what that might be like is, however, only the first step. No one can imagine another's life well enough to develop services for them without involving them directly.

This fundamental principle, embodied in the axiom, "nothing about us without us," may appear obvious, but when this issue is raised, staff at all levels - curators, conservators, educators and front of house staff - often feel somewhat threatened. However, the opportunity to learn more about an artist, an object, or to gain new skills to better serve a particular target audience should not be seen as a threat, but rather, as an exciting opportunity.


As we move beyond the idea that disability equals wheelchairs and access equals ramps, and engage with groups of visitors that are not so visible (and who do not give the illusion of being easy to understand) your work may become somewhat more complex. It may require a more in-depth exploration of how your programs are delivered, experienced and how they need to be modified to be genuinely inclusive for all visitors.

The need for awareness and the complexity of issues multiply when the question of representation of disabled people’s lives within museums and art galleries is addressed. In a society pervaded by stereotypes and unrepresentative images, it is difficult to avoid absorbing the prevailing attitudes in our wider society. To date, it has generally been far easier to not deal with us at all, and where representation has occurred, the depictions have too often been stereotyped or clichéd.

Changing this understandably involves anxieties about "getting it wrong." But anyone who has engaged with disability seriously over recent decades has found that service improvements put in place for people with disabilities improve programs for all visitors!

What is a Museum, heritage property or art gallery? What is its real purpose?

Do museums really want to leave out a sizeable portion of society as history has attempted? Or, do museums of today want to have all patrons explore and learn from the past and help society forge new attitudes of true inclusion by opening your doors to all members of your community and encouraging all to come, explore, learn, participate and grow?

I believe these are places of learning, information and entertainment that should be enjoyed by more members of our communities, including persons with various disabilities. They are designed to provide a window on the past, and offer valuable insights on the present and the future. As such, all members of our communities can and should be encouraged to come in, participate, and benefit from what art galleries, heritage properties, wilderness facilities and museums offer.

I have walked through many impressive historic sites both in Canada and abroad, marveled at the accomplishments of many societies, and touched the remains of many cultures. And I want to visit many more places, experience more civilizations, and explore more artifacts from the past, and do so in the best way I know, by touch.

Creativity, ingenuity and reaching out to various organizations in your community can go a long way to making your collections more "truly inclusive" to a much larger number of patrons, who want to experience what the past has left us to learn from and enjoy what you have on display.

Remember the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world: indeed it's the only thing that ever has!"

I believe that "access for all" in experiencing the past through our many senses is our shared desire. We in the disabled community look forward to working collaboratively with you to make this goal a reality in all our communities across Canada.

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