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Inclusion More Than Mere Access

Editor's Note: What follows is adapted from a presentation delivered at the Collections, Connections and Communities Conference, Ottawa, October 2, 2009. <a href="http://www.blindcanadians.ca/publications/briefs/2009-inclusion-more-mere-access-collections-connections-and-communities-conferen">Full presentation available</a>

For many persons with disabilities, the prospect of visiting a museum, art gallery or heritage property can be rather intimidating. While today, more of these institutions aim to educate and entertain all members of society, too often access is limited for people with disabilities. Organizations need to adopt a more inclusive concept of accessibility--much more than just physical access to premises.

Canada's disabled community is comprised of people with visible and invisible disabilities alike, and accounts for about one in seven people in the country, a figure that is rising as our population ages. As such, true inclusion means understanding and valuing differences within Canada's entire population, and involves access to collections, educational programs, employment and volunteer opportunities, and to information about what's on display and what's happening in your facility.

The ability to gain access to your facility and move around easily inside, providing parking spaces close to the entrance, level door- and walkways, lower countertops, accessible washrooms, and conveniently located benches and elevators will all make your facility more accessible, as will adequate lighting, clear signage, and minimal surface glare.

How do you publicize your programs? Is it only by print flyers inside your facility's entrance? Do you provide brochures in multiple formats? Does your phone line have a recorded message, especially at night? Does your website conform to current W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards? Do its links include alternate tags so blind users will know what they contain? Are online videos and photos accompanied by text descriptions? Is there information on accessibility in all the forms of media you use?

New technologies are increasingly used to enhance the experience of all museum goers. Do you provide audio guides to your exhibits and if so, are all items described, or only some? Are visitors with disabilities able to use your interactive kiosks, or are they operated by inaccessible touch screens? Are you investigating other innovative technologies that can transmit information directly to a visitor's own mobile phone? Through inclusive design practices and compliance with accessibility standards and legislation, we can ensure museum technology affords engaging experiences to a greater number of users.

How are your staff and volunteers recruited? Do you rely solely on word of mouth or do you reach out to various groups in the community to ensure a more representative workforce and pool of volunteers? Do you provide training on diversity issues and have you developed a policy on providing needed accommodations?

Do you offer public lectures? Are they held in fully accessible rooms? Do your lecturers adequately describe the content of slides they use to support their presentations? Do you offer educational programs, where a patron can participate, and would a person with a disability be welcome in an art or sculpture class?

What about your collection? Is information about items on display presented only by notes in tiny print on a display case? Or do you offer replicas, audio guides, tactile drawings, or information sheets in multiple formats, including large print and braille? Are items displayed solely in glass cases, or is it possible to examine any by touch? When you are negotiating for visiting or special exhibitions, is access ever discussed with the artist or the facility providing the exhibition?

Gallery guides are important to the museum or art gallery experience for all visitors. How much verbal description or background information on an object or painting do you, or should you, offer visitors? Of course, tours for blind patrons will inevitably involve more time to provide verbal description of visual images. Individuals who lead such tours often say they gain a deeper appreciation of a piece, and even of the important role they themselves play.

What do your collections say about war, and how it adds significantly to the number of persons with disabilities worldwide? What other items do you have on display that pertains to disabled people's lives and history? At a time when museums are increasingly concerned with researching and presenting "hidden histories," why is disability rarely, if ever, exhibited?

Representation of people with disabilities in displays and exhibitions, when presented, often conforms to prevalent stereotypes found in film, literature, television and charity advertising. These stereotypes include people with disabilities as freaks, passive and dependent recipients of charity, Biblical miracle cures, and heroes who somehow transcend their disabilities. Depictions of people with disabilities in more realistic, everyday life have been practically non-existent.

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

Curators have been afraid of causing offence. How does one present difficult stories surrounding disability history--of asylums, industrial and war injury, holocaust, freak shows, and people's personal experiences of pain, discrimination and marginalization? How can material in collections be presented to help confront and alter outdated and stereotypical attitudes about disability?

I have travelled extensively, both in Canada and abroad, and have visited many museums, art galleries, castles, maritime facilities, nature reserves, pioneer villages and historic sites. I was particularly impressed by how many implements used to build this country could be touched at Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

At the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, I have had special tours, especially during the summertime when its staff is augmented by archaeology and anthropology students, and touched much from its extensive First Nations exhibition. The Royal Tyrrell Museum, meanwhile, 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 as you tour the collection itself.

Further afield, at Nelson Mandela's former house in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, South Africa, I was able to touch much of what was on display, including Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns' World Championship boxing belt, which was a great thrill for me. At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, whose collection includes artifacts from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, the Ancient Mediterranean and Imperial Rome, I was asked to put on a pair of thin cotton gloves to prevent the oils from my hands from causing any damage to the irreplaceable pieces I was examining. Finally, at the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, which boasts one of the world's largest collections of pre-Columbian art and pottery, I was able to touch replicas of vessels and take one home, a unique opportunity organized by Traveleyes International, a UK tour company that organizes tours for blind and sighted travellers.

While there are a variety of ways to convey information about items on display, for a blind visitor like me, there is simply no substitute for tactile access to regular collections--no substitute whatsoever! Replicas, raised-line drawings, special tours and other means of gaining access, however, can be somewhat helpful.

Although conservators cite possible damage to pieces as grounds for not offering tactile access, having them on display at all, exposed to light, air and flash photography, can pose a threat. We take these minor risks, however, because while preservation is a priority, these works are on display so we can all appreciate and enjoy them. What's more, the greater number of objects on display that can be touched, the less each individual piece will be handled.

If museums and art galleries in such diverse places as Peru, South Africa and Denmark, as well as the several in Canada mentioned above, can provide tactile access, then surely more museums and art galleries across Canada can make their collections more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities, who wish to learn more about the past and participate in present-day culture. I believe that "access for all" in experiencing the past, through all our senses, is our shared goal. We in the disabled community look forward to working collaboratively with staff in museums, historic houses and art galleries to make this goal a reality in every community across Canada.