Museums and the Americans with Disabilities Act at 25: Progress and Looking Ahead

By Beth Bienvenu, NEA Director of Accessibility
graphic image of person in wheelchair facing wall with three pieces of framed art

Since July 2015 our country has been celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the ADA with commemorations, concerts, festivals, parades, social media conversations (see #DisabilityStories, #ADA25), and gala events. Throughout this past summer, we reflected on how far our country has come in ensuring full inclusion for people with disabilities. In the past quarter of a century, there has been an increase in opportunities for employment, education, transportation, healthcare, and participation in public life, as well as significant progress in terms of acceptance, attitudes, and perceptions about disability.

Within the cultural sector, there has also been progress for inclusion of people with disabilities. Museums have been steadily incorporating accommodations and programs that ensure inclusion for all visitors and participants. For people with vision disabilities, museums are using audio guides, large-print labels and materials, and content in Braille, as well as tactile tours, models, and maps. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, institutions offer captioned video, sign-language interpreted tours, assistive listening devices, real-time captioning, and sign-language interpretation. Museums are also paying more attention to physical access by ensuring wheelchair access to all physical spaces and installing exhibits and displays at heights that accommodate people in wheelchairs or those of short stature. Additionally, museums are more apt to offer seating options throughout galleries and have increased accessible seating in auditoriums. Museums have also responded to particular conditions and circumstances as evidenced in new partnerships with the autism and Alzheimer’s communities. Many museums now offer visiting times for families with members on the autism spectrum when galleries are less crowded, special materials to help orient new audiences, and educational programs for people with dementia and their caregivers.

Many of these innovations in accessibility are due to the passage of the ADA in 1990, but the advocacy work began much earlier. When the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973, federal agencies were required to make their activities, and those that they fund, accessible to individuals that receive their benefits. This meant that museums receiving funds from federal agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), had to begin looking at how they welcomed visitors with disabilities.

Since the 1970s, the NEA has educated its grantees about these requirements, while also working with its network of state arts agencies to help them interpret how best to assist cultural organizations with the accessibility requirements. The NEA‘s Design for Accessibility: A Cultural Administrator’s Handbook provides easy-to-use information and resources on making programs and facilities accessible. The most recent version, published in 2003, is still used as a reference guide in museums across the country. The NEA, working in partnership with NEH, IMLS, the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) and other organizations, is currently updating the guide and will launch a comprehensive Web resource in 2016.

The NEA also partnered with the Smithsonian Institution and other museums to educate the museum field and provide resources for museum and exhibit accessibility. The Smithsonian took a leadership role in not only ensuring accessibility in its own programs and exhibits but by guiding science, art, culture, and history museums across the country through its various publications and resources, including the Smithsonian’s Guide to Accessible Exhibit Design. The NEA worked with early champions of museum accessibility, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Science, and the Museum of Modern Art, to incorporate access and inclusion programs. Additionally, the NEA worked with the Graphic Artists Guild to develop a set of accessibility symbols used in museums across the country; helped build the field of universal design; and was the first to work with museums to provide audio description of art for visitors with vision disabilities.

Despite such efforts, people with disabilities are still underrepresented in museum visitorship. The 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the NEA finds that adults with disabilities comprise less than seven percent of all adults attending performing arts events or visiting art museums or galleries. The data also reveal that 21 percent of all adults visited an art museum or gallery, but only 11 percent of adults with disabilities made such a visit.

According to the Census Bureau, the Baby Boom population is turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 per day, and by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over 65, which will potentially increase the number of people with diminished eyesight, hearing, mobility, and cognition. In addition, according to the 2013 American Community Survey, there are 3.6 million veterans with service-related disabilities, and more people with disabilities are living independently in communities, increasing the potential audience of museum visitors.

Although museums have worked to increase their audiences of people with disabilities, there is still much to be done to involve those with disabilities in the curatorial, content, and decision-making activities of museums. Such a gap is noted by performer and activist Mat Fraser in his exhibit and performance piece, Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was Kept in a Box. Fraser addresses this issue by challenging museums to question their view of people with disabilities as objects of exhibit and display, and to include their voices and experience in the work of the museum. As evidenced by the disability rights movement’s slogans, “nothing about us without us” and “nothing without us,” people with disabilities should be included as curators, exhibit designers, artists, historians, scientists, administrative staff, Web and application developers, and volunteers. They need to be a part of the conversation and the work of museums.

Leading the way in this regard is the DisArt Festival, launched in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past spring. The festival’s goals are to change perceptions and ignite conversations about disability and how it informs artistic practice. The festival and its follow-up activities have drawn more than 20,000 visitors, featuring hundreds of artists and community members with disabilities. The festival’s success was due in part to its many community partners, including the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The festival’s centerpiece was an NEA-supported exhibit curated by Amanda Cachia called The Art of the Lived Experiment. Initially presented at DaDa Fest in Liverpool, England, the exhibit featured more than 19 U.S. and international artists whose sculpture, video, painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, and performance creatively examined disability from an experimental point of view and addressed the uncertainty and change in both art and life. Through this exhibit and numerous additional exhibits, films and community events, the DisArt festival succeeded in its mission to change perceptions of disability, effectively involving those with disabilities in all facets of the event.

What else can museums do to ensure full inclusion? The options are unlimited, but to name just a few:

• Consider the legal requirements and design standards set by the ADA as merely the minimum standard and expand efforts to ensure full access and inclusion for everyone.

• Incorporate universal design principles throughout the museum, ensuring that exhibits and facilities are designed to be accessed by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

• Consider accessibility from the start when developing and designing exhibits and programs, not as an afterthought.

• Incorporate the best practices listed at the beginning of this article throughout the museum experience.

• Work with curators and exhibit designers to design exhibits that are accessible to not only those with physical disabilities but also those with sensory or brain-based disabilities.

• Pay attention to exhibit and display heights and font sizes to enable viewing and engagement for people of all abilities.

• Establish an advisory board of people with disabilities to advise on access and inclusion.

• Partner with local disability organizations to help inform your museum’s work and develop new audiences.

• Train all staff to be fully aware of accessibility requirements and how to provide accommodations, rather than relying on one person or department.

• Take affirmative steps to recruit staff and volunteers with disabilities.

• Work with local college and university disability offices to recruit interns and graduates with disabilities.

The future offers many opportunities to expand access through technologies such as 3-D printing, mobile applications, and new adaptive devices, as well as partnerships with the disability community and design with disability in mind from the start. Disability is a natural part of human life and offers a broad window into the human experience, from the perspective of the arts, culture, science, technology, and history. It is a perspective that museums should embrace.

Read more about the DisArt Festival and other projects at the intersection of arts and accessibility in a special issue of NEA Arts magazine here.

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in Museum magazine, September/October 2015.