Responsibility for Accessibility: Review of the 2010 International Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities April 12 to 13 and Seton Hall University’s lecture, “Universal Access to Culture: History and Technology”
Reviewed by: Katie Reid
Museums have a responsibility to not only serve the collections they protect and display to the best of their ability but also to serve the public and create a universally accessible environment to the collections and to the museum itself for all. The concept of universal design is based on implementing the most accessible design, layout, and services to benefit the most amount of people without changing the fundamental structure of the museum. For many people, accessibility means creating wheelchair accessible ramps, providing interpreters for gallery talks, or any service or design catered to aid people with disabilities. However, accessibility affects everyone and professionals of every sector can benefit from being knowledgeable about who they serve and how they can make their business more accessible legally and attitudinally. The International Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities and the “Universal Access to Culture” lecture at Seton Hall University demonstrate this.
The International Pacific Rim Conference (Pac Rim) on Disabilities has been bringing together professionals and students for the past 25 years to facilitate an international dialogue on disabilities. The event, held by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s Center for Disability Studies, encourages discussion among people of diverse perspectives across numerous areas, including those from persons representing all disability areas; researchers and academics studying disability; and educators and service providers. Held from April 12 to April 13, the conference was host to over 1,000 participants from countries as diverse as Mongolia, the Netherlands, Japan, Kazakhstan, Trinidad, and Tobago. With over 240 presentations, breakouts, workshops and poster presentations, pre- and post institutes.
The Pacific Rim International Forum on the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities kicked off the 2010 conference on April 10. Michael Stein, executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and Akiko Ito, Chief of the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations were two of the keynotes speakers that inspired the 120 participants with their vision for a just and inclusive world through advocacy and research.
The most important action for professionals interested in accessibility to take, according to speakers at the PacRim Conference on Disabilities, is “dialogue”. Accessibility starts with dialogue for the millions of Americans who have a disability, whether it takes place between patient and doctor; between a client and an interpreter; or an organization and its present and potential audience. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the more recently revised ADA Amendments Act require government agencies, educational institutions, businesses, and public accommodations to meet ADA standards in building design and construction as well as providing special services for those who require it. For museum professionals, the ADA and ADAA are relevant to every aspect of their work. According to the ADA, museums are considered a public accommodation and therefore will have to abide by the articles pertaining to this. Despite the fact that these laws have been put into effect years ago, the emerging museum professionals of today are better equipped with technology and cultural awareness to effectively serve their audience.
Seton Hall University’s Masters in Museum Professions program teaches aspiring museum professionals in the specialized Education, Management, Registrar, and Exhibition tracks to know the visitors at their museum, some of whom may have a disability and to be ethically and legally responsible for making it accessible. Students and museum professionals attended a 2 hour lecture on March 4, 2010 at SHU given by two keynote speakers whom are experts in the field of accessibility–Janice Majewski and Catharine McNally. Ms. Majewski is the Accessibility Specialist in the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She is also the author of Part of Your General Public is Disabled: A Handbook for Guides in Museums, Zoos, and Historic Houses, as well as Smithsonian Guidelines on Accessible Exhibition Design. Her presentation focused on the history of access and the ways in which museums and historic sites are (or are not) currently accessible to people with various disabilities.
As Majewski explains, museums started to become more accessible for those with disabilities in the 1960s. For instance, in 1968 the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) was enacted, the first law applicable to museum design and architecture and other federally funded buildings. The ABA requires access for the public in facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with Federal funds after 1968.
Majewski traced how many of the laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, adopted the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as a way to leverage the ideas of the Civil Rights movement—that difference should not a cause for discrimination and that all should have equal access. These include, for example, the 1973 Individuals with Disabilities Act, better known as IDEA, which states that children with disabilities have a right to free and equal opportunity to education in the least restrictive environment possible.
Majewski asserts that the most well-known and recent acts, the ADA and ADAA, have had the most profound effect on museum design, programming, and services. These acts requires public accommodations, including museums, not only to be physically accessible with ramps, doors, and parking spots but also to provide services to visitors with disabilities that include but are not limited to: qualified interpreters; TTY phones for those who are deaf; transcriptions of displays with audio; and, most importantly, to advertise these services and to train museum staff to be culturally sensitive and aware of the needs of this audience. She points out, however, that he ADA and ADAA contain loopholes that allow for museums and other public accommodations to avoid providing adequate services to visitors with disabilities if they claim it is an undue burden financially or otherwise. Museum professionals that wish to make their museums more accessible are now looking to outside companies for disability training courses and new technology.
Catharine McNally is the founder and president of KeenGuides, Inc., which promotes universal design and accessibility for all visitors, with and without disabilities. Ms. McNally was inspired by her own experiences—as an avid museum visitor who is also Deaf, McNally was often given bulky transcribed versions of audio guide tours which were not only inconvenient, but did not allow her to enjoy the museum in the same way as did her family or friends that were hearing.
KeenGuides uses short-format audio and video tours for everyone to use, including in foreign languages and with accessibility modalities such as closed captioning, sign language and cued speech, which is a phonetic system using handshapes representing spoken speech used with or among deaf or hard of hearing individuals. Since the content is created in-house and visitors can download or stream the tours onto their own personal media player like the iPhone, cultural centers or museums are able to avoid investing in obsolete technology and are ultimately saving money in repair and maintenance of many traditional audio guides.
McNally and her company also work with third parties such as the PBS television station affiliate WETA and DC By Foot, which develops free walking tours of Washington. The content includes short-format video that is geo-coded by GPS location and tagged with categories like “good for kids” or “Civil War.” They have contracted with Wake Forest and Gallaudet universities to develop campus tours for prospective students and other visitors. Most recently they were approved by Apple, and now anyone with an iPhone can download the KeenGuides Beta application.
Universal design and accessibility is not just for those with disabilities but allows for visitors of all types of intelligences, learning styles, and physical capabilities to enjoy a visit to the museum. Part of what makes a museum successful and sustainable is knowing its audience. A dialogue must occur between the museum professionals and visitors to learn what the needs and desires of the local, national, or international community are so the museum will be able to better serve its communities. Visitors with disabilities are part of an international community with local or national enclaves and it is important for museum professionals such as access coordinators to serve as liaisons between the community and the museum while being knowledgeable about disability laws. More museums are realizing that visitors with disabilities are still relatively underrepresented and underserved and with the expansion of the fields of visitor studies and access programs, every staff member of a museum can be more knowledgeable about the different audiences in their museum. Accessibility is an idea that starts with dialogue but can be maintained by museum professionals for audiences, with or without disabilities, in order to experience the museum in their own way.