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.
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.