I was so excited to visit a mystery museum in Montreal a few months ago. I put it on the top of my list--the time period was fascinating, and the subject matter of great personal interest to me. Imagine my chagrin when, after all that anticipation (and travel), I walk into the gallery and have to purse my lips, squint my eyes, and otherwise distort my face just to read the labels. The exhibition was a laundry list of why accessibility matters. Visitors, without or without visible disabilities, are truly put off by the museum that doesn't at least try to make things accessible for every body.
I recently sat down with Laurie Trippett, SITES' assistant director of exhibitions and our resident accessibility advisor to find out where this mystery museum went wrong and why every library, historic house, art museum, and civic center should make accessibility a top priority.
"The interesting thing about this," Laurie muses, "is that it will--at some point--affect everybody in the population. Best to start planning now," she continues. What to do? So much work and so little time? In this two-part series, we will examine some simple and not-so-simple steps you can take to help your institution "do the right thing."
First and foremost, do a thorough walk-through to assess your site's accessibility weaknesses. This is a baseline from which to work. Laurie suggests asking folks with disabilities to help you gauge the reality of your space, creating a community advisory committee, or partnering with a local university or college to do an official study of the property. She warns, however, that if you go down this road, you need to be prepared to implement a good portion of the recommendations your committee hands down. Otherwise, your efforts will appear hollow.
From here, begin with the most obvious question: Can people get into the building? Are there ramps or handrails? If you're in a situation where building a ramp into the main building is impossible, how about constructing one at a secondary site or alternate building. The point being, as long as you can get visitors in your doors, you can educate and entertain them, and above all, give them an equal opportunity to experience the spectacular things your institution has to offer.
Now, once they're inside, let the learning begin. Even if nothing else in your entire museum is wheelchair accessible, for example, you can provide a video presentation, offer an enhanced podcast, or even a hands-on Q&A with a special docent. Laurie also notes that there are plenty of companies out there that will create interesting and engaging pre-recorded tours of your site. Best practice: Create at least one space in your museum that IS wheelchair, walker, or stroller navigable. (Minimum clearance for an average wheelchair is 30" x 48").
For general information on the Americans with Disabilities Act
Stayed tuned for part II of this series with detailed design instructions and more helpful websites . . .