Archive for April, 2009

The Disabling Museum, Part 3: Beyond Braille

April 17, 2009

When most of us think about visual disabilities, we think about blindness. 

 slide-112This is our picture of blindness – a totally blind person with a white cane. Most museums accommodate blind visitors with Braille labels and signage.

But Braille is not nearly enough. There are different kinds of blindness, and many, many degrees of visual impairment.  

  • Most Americans over 40 are farsighted. 
  • 20 million Americans age 65 and over have cataracts.
  • Eight million have major visual impairment.
  • Two million are legally blind.
  • Of the legally blind, only a small percentage are totally blind — that is, entirely without vision.
  • Of the totally blind, only 5 percent regularly read Braille.
  • Only 10 percent of totally blind children are taught Braille.

 So while Braille is certainly a good and correct accommodation, it addresses the needs of only a vanishingly small percentage of museum visitors.




The Disabling Museum, part 1: Beyond ADA

April 16, 2009

The concept of The Disabling Museum is that because of oversights and errors in design and attitude, museums often fail to meet the basic needs of visitors, whether or not those visitors are identified  — or self-identify — as disabled.



 To deal with the issue of disability, and to accommodate visitors with disabilities, most museums rely on ADA —  the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark legislation has done much to correct longstanding injustices and inequalities. However, an unintended consequence  of ADA is that museum exhibit planners, designers, curators, and others tend to categorize visitors as either “able-bodied” or “disabled.” This is reductive and overly simplistic. 

In reality, we all fall somewhere on a curve, from Olympic athletes in perfect health with perfect vision and hearing to people commonly defined as severely disabled. On any given day, most museum visitors fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps they’re tired that day, or pregnant, or forgot their reading glasses. But they are impaired — yet not perceived or treated as disabled. 

Carla’s Story

A woman, her mother-in-law, and a baby walk into a museum … and walk out disabled.

This is a true story. Carla, her mother-in-law, and Carla’s large one-year old baby visited an exhibition at a well-known art museum. Her baby was in a stroller. Museum personnel told Carla that strollers were not allowed in the exhibition. The baby was too heavy to carry, and there was no place in the exhibition to sit and rest.

Carla, who knew her rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act, said to the museum, “You must accommodate me and my baby.” The museum provided her with a wheelchair — which happened to be much larger than the  stroller. Carla sat in the wheelchair with the baby in her lap. Her mother-in-law pushed the chair.

The baby felt confined and unhappy; the mother-in-law, who was inexperienced in pushing a chair, ran over her own toes; and of course Carla was also unhappy. All three were impaired in some way by the museum’s shortsighted accommodation policies. They cut the museum visit short, and Carla vowed never to return.

Slide 2


Visitor comfort in museums: Eye and spirit relief

April 5, 2009

Eye relief — and spirit relief — are essential to staying refreshed and comfortable during a museum visit. It’s a blessing to be able to change visual and psychological focus — to look at something other than the art and the gallery walls. 




It’s even nicer when you can sit and look at the view, as at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.




Now, not every museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But if you have vast resources and equally vast space, why not make the most of it?


The Met, of course, has many such superb spaces where you can just sit and relax in harmonious surroundings. 




While it’s true that museums can’t be as homey and relaxing as a visitor’s own living room, there’s no reason they can’t strive to be comfortable, welcoming, and easy to use.