Disability organisations as social participation

Clubs and societies bring together members with a shared interest which also provides a platform for social participation. The same can be said for disability organisations – with some differences. Disability organisations are a hub of social activity, political activism, and a resource of lived experience for planners. A paper from Sweden looks at this concept focusing on rural communities.

Researchers found that interviewees have extensive social lives and that disability organizations act as a platform for many social interactions.

Two women sit under trees in an outdoor cafe. One sitting on a bench seat at a table and the other is using her rollator or wheelie walker as a seat.

Sometimes acquiring a disability such as rheumatism, prompts people to join groups such as the rheumatism association. Some disabilities cause people to leave paid work so this gives them time to channel their energies into these civic organisations. But it doesn’t end there. Members of these organisations also provide valuable lived experience for local authorities in planning.

There are three dimensions to disability organisations: social participation, political action, and a resource of lived experience. Just on the basis of participation, disability organisations provide good value for their government funding.

Protesters at a disability access rally. A woman is sitting in a wheelchair holding a sign saying access for all. She is wearing a blue jacket and wearing sunglasses.

Disability organisations, and the disability sector as a whole, provide inclusive spaces in which to socialise. The strength of inclusive spaces is they facilitate participation on equal terms. On the other hand, disability-specific places are potentially more flexible and adapted to individual needs. Disability organisations are a form of a disability-specific space which form a base for recognition and a political voice.

Living rural with disability

Living with disability in rural areas is viewed as more of a problem than in urban areas. According to the researchers this is a simplification of how people relate to their environment. Rurality and disability are two different concepts which are not complicated when put together.

The article is titled, “I am a very active person”: Disability organizations as platforms for participation in rural Sweden. The link provides an extended abstract and the full paper is available via institutional access.

A rural road with homes on each side. The homes are painted dark red with white windows.

From the abstract

Disability organizations are places for social interactions and for the accumulation of knowledge about disabilities as lived experiences. They also form a platform for dialogues and political influence work in the local community.

Participation means being included in societal activities in a way that suits the individual’s capacities and ambitions. The role of the public sector also enables participation. That’s because, in Sweden, it supports disability organizations and opens up opportunities to influence local planning.

If more support is given and more disability-specific arenas are created, there will be more open arenas for possible participation. What counts as participation must begin with individuals’ own experiences and values of what they appreciate and need in their daily lives.

Inclusive and accessible libraries

We know public libraries have books and magazines, but they are often a major focal point in a community as well. But not everyone can take advantage of the many and varied library resources, and it’s not just about being able to read. Getting to and around a library and being made welcome will encourage more people to take advantage of their local library. So what actions can library staff take to make inclusive and accessible libraries?

Malmo City libraries in Sweden developed a guide to accessibility for their staff. It’s titled, A Library Without Obstacles: A Guide to Accessibility. The guide is easy to read and follow and is useful for any information service, not just libraries. It’s translated to English and consequently, some terms are specifically Swedish.

Libraries in Sweden must be accessible to all and provide an equal opportunity to enjoy literature and knowledge. Their basic premise is whatever is necessary for some is good for everyone. This premise holds for all information services. Image is the front cover of the guide.

Front cover of A Library Without Obstacles with a photo of a girl with a tablet close to her face. She is smiling. Inclusive and Accessible Libraries.

What do libraries offer besides books?

Libraries across the globe arrange events throughout the year including school holidays. Many offer community information services, and librarians have skills in finding information when looking for something in particular. Events must be as accessible as possible and visitors like to know the level of access they can expect. The guide lists some minimum requirements. The way information is presented is also important.

“We write so everyone can understand. Plain language means using words that are easy to understand in a clear and simple structure. Use everyday language, write short sentences, and begin with the most important information.” Image is from the guide.

A photo from the Guide showing a young man in a blue shirt working on his laptop. The text says, Accessible information and communication.

Reading without obstacles

Most libraries offer adapted media such as talking books, large print and easy to read books. Getting to the library and finding your way around is key for people with physical disabilities. The aim of an inclusive and accessible library is that everyone should be able to reach their next book.

While this guide is for public library staff, the content is applicable to other institutions and services that provide public information. An excellent resource with many of the actions easy to achieve.

Museums and universal design

The advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prompted museums and galleries to make their premises and exhibits accessible. But is compliance to standards, sufficient to enjoy a museum experience? The answer is probably, no. So museums need to take a universal design approach if the aim is inclusion, not just physical access.

A group of occupational therapists decided to find out the level of accessibility in museums. Was the ADA sufficient, or was a universal design approach required?

Image: Smithsonian Institute

The original Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.  A red brick building in the centre of all the Smithsonian museums on the same site.

Participants were recruited from state and regional museum associations. Twenty-five museum associations agreed to participate. At the commencement of the survey participants were given information about the differences between the ADA standards and universal design. This was to help respondents identify if they had incorporated universal design principles and ideas into their museums.

Sixty respondents completed the survey and were asked to self-rate their museum’s accessibility on a Likert scale. Overall, they all thought they provided good accessibility, but they also reported things that needed improvement.

The article explains more about the method and questions and the successes and challenges. People with vision impairment were least likely to be accommodated. Another challenge was providing access to and within historical buildings.

The role of staff

The key component for an inclusive and accessible experience is the skills and knowledge of staff. However, few museums offered disability awareness training or consulted with members of the disability community.

Not unexpectedly, the data revealed that respondents did not know the difference between ADA compliance and universal design. They thought ramps and accessible bathrooms were universal design.

Occupational therapists can help

The article concludes with a nod to occupational therapists being in a unique position to help museums overcome challenges. They are also qualified to train museum staff on how to be inclusive in their approach to people with disability. They make a call to action for partnerships between occupational therapists and all museum stakeholders.

The title of the article is, A Survey of Universal Design at Museums: Current Industry Practice and Perceptions. It is open access.

From the abstract

Background: This study explores current industry practice and perceptions of accessibility and universal design in a small sample of American museums. Suggestions for how occupational therapists can help museums go above and beyond ADA guidelines are provided.

Method: Data were collected using a 17-item cross-sectional survey. Twenty-five museum associations assisted with recruitment.

Results: Sixty respondents participated in the survey. The key challenges were accommodations for people with vision impairment, and physical barriers in historial buildings. Confusion between ADA standards and universal design was evident in several responses.

Conclusion: The most frequently reported accessibility rating was good. Staff training and community-based partnerships were often overlooked. There is a potential role for occupational therapists to assist museums with staff training, recruiting people with disabilities, and establishing community partnerships.

Multi-sensory storytelling

The great thing about universal design is discovering another level of design solutions. That’s why universal design is not locked in time like a standard. Sometimes a design solution includes some assistive technology. Simulating the experiences of people with different disabilities so that people without disability can understand is not new. But the Wondrous Goggles multi-sensory storytelling design strategy is new.

A headshot of a person wearing the Wondrous Goggles.

Creating a culture of inclusion is less about designing for empathy, charity, or diversity and more about designing places that all people can use.

Various methods and technologies for simulating disability have been developed over the years. These include sight-restricting glasses, restrictive gloves and virtual reality technology. But having low vision is more than not being able to see things – it affects the way space and how things in that space are experienced as well.

In a conference paper by Janice Rieger and Marianella Chamorro-Koc, explain the multisensorial experience of the Wondrous Goggles. The goggles were an outcome of an indoor navigation project with the aim of helping museum and venue managers understand the perspective of people with limited vision.

The research project was carried out at Queensland University of Technology. The researchers realised they needed something that went beyond just replicating a type of vision loss. What was needed was a lived experience explanation to go with it. And so the Wondrous Goggles were the born.

More than virtual reality goggles

The difference between these goggles and virtual reality goggles is the audio content. The goggles immerse the wearer in a process of sensing environments differently and at the same time they listen to people with low vision explain their experience of the museum.

The title of the paper is A Multisensorial Storytelling Design Strategy to Build Empathy and a Culture of Inclusion. It’s open access on the IOS Press website. It was one of the papers presented at the UD2022 Conference in Italy. There is a short outline on Linked In as well.

This type of technology assists non disabled people to devise a more inclusive, and universally designed experience.

Tips for an inclusive museum experience

Salvador Dali is well known for his unique way of looking at the world and expressing it in his art. There are six Dali museums in the world. But how many of them are physically accessible with equal opportunity to participate? The Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg Florida is the subject of Jamie Mays’ case study.

Mays begins the thesis with an general introduction and a literature review of disability history and accommodations. Universal design is discussed in the context of disability and the current need to ask for accommodations. Mays draws links between Dali’s creative mind and universal design.

View of the outside of the museum showing two large blue egg shapes attached to a concrete rectangle. Together they form the shape of the building.

The museum experience is unique because it needs to consider the physical design of the gallery and how visitors will access and engage with the content.

Mays proposes a walk-through audit process which is designed as a model of continuous self-assessment within the museum. The results of the physical accessibility audit is reported in a table with comments on accessibility. It covers, entry, signage, and wheelchair access to all parts of the venue.

A second chart covers communication and information results. This is where improvements are needed. There is partial accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and for people with low vision.

Mays provides several recommendations for improvement including setting up a disability access committee.

The title of the thesis is, Salvador Dali Museum and Accessibility: Accommodation, Universal Design, and a More Inclusive Museum Experience.

The Salvador Dali Museum has a website with an accessibility tab. It lists the services available including quiet hours for people who are neurodiverse.

The Dali Museum is operating within compliance standards of accessibility. However, accessibility cannot stop at physical access. All visitors should have equal opportunity to participate in the content curated and educational experiences that museums provide.


There are centuries worth of disability history and a dozen types of institutions, activities, and policies available that could be used to conduct an analysis of accommodation, modern-day use of Universal Design (UD), and an accessible world.

This study will focus on the status of participation, accessibility, and inclusion of art and museums. Specifically, looking at The Dalí Museum which is host to a collection of permanent work by Salvador Dalí and features a special, rotating, exhibit throughout the year.

Salvador Dalí, as an artist, pushed the boundaries of art, was a leader, and major contributor to the Surrealist movement as it is known today. He was described as “genius” but, despite his contribution and talent, was ostracized by other artists in his time (Isbouts & Brown, 2021).

The study of accessibility, and inclusion, for the participation of art museums will attempt to follow the example set by Salvador Dalí: analyze what is in practice, what can be reimagined, and design an experience that provides access to the cultural information of The Dalí Museum.

The ramps denied at a museum

Heritage values are sometimes used in many places to prevent workable access solutions to older buildings. A paper from Italy discusses the issue of pitting two different values against each other – heritage and accessibility. The complex museum structure at the Church of San Salvatore in Brescia is used as a case study where ramps were denied at the museum.

Similarly to contemporary projects, when ancient buildings are opened up to the public for the first time, accessibility should be considered first, not when the complaints come in. The authors conclude, “… accessibility to culture and cultural heritage is to be understood as synonymous with democracy and sustainability”. 

A view of the interior of the museum showing painted walls and a long arched corridor.
Santa Giulia Museum, Brescia
External view of the Church of San Salvatore- a light coloured three story building with a square tower.
Church of San Salvatore, Brescia

The title of the paper is, “Does Pure Contemplation Belong to Architecture? The Denied Ramps at the Church of San Salvatore in the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia”. The paper was presented at the 6th International Universal Design Conference held in 2022. Authors are Alberto Arenghi and Carlotta Cocoli. The full paper is open access and can be downloaded from IOS Press Ebooks.

You can also access all other published conference papers for this conference.

From the abstract

This paper addresses the issue of balancing the two values underlying the accessibility and conservation of cultural heritage: its use and its protection. These values are often, wrongly, regarded as opposites, or as incompatible. The reason for this contrast originates in the way ancient architecture is understood and in the value of the relationship between architecture and people.

We present a case of the Museum of Santa Giulia in Brescia, a multi-layered complex that preserves evidence ranging from the prehistoric to the contemporary age.

The failure to build access ramps offers an opportunity to reflect on the need for better integration between different approaches. We refer to recent reflections in the field of conservation carried out in Italy related to accessibility to cultural heritage.

Museum design with equity and dignity

The spiral design concept of Guggenheim Art Museum remains one of the most inclusive design concepts. That’s because everyone experiences the museum in the same way. It delivers equity and dignity, and of course accessibility for everyone. It’s universal design.

View of exterior of the museum showing a giant box shape cantilevered over the building's ground level glass facade.

Designers of the new Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs re-imagined the spiral theme. And they involved Paralympic athletes in the design process. 

Similarly to the Guggenheim, all visitors enter the museum on the ground floor. They take an elevator to the top of the building, and gradually wind their way down the spiral. The architects say that connectivity was the biggest architectural idea of the project.

Their initial idea was to have the spiral at the centre. The early design concept evolved after consultation with Paralympians and the spiral moved towards the outer edge of the building. This was so the ramps are more gradual and more circulation space was included. And it’s not just about wheelchair users.

The Museum website has a Plan Your Visit page that gives information about accessible media, audio descriptions, wheelchair access, tactile information, open captioning and American Sign Language. There are more personalised services available. The website has a great video giving an overview of the building design and the museum experience. 

The title of the article in FastCompany is, The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, celebrates all athletes – and was deigned for all visitors.  Perhaps we need more public buildings designed on the spiral theme. And more public buildings involving users at the design concept stage.

Universal Design for Museums

Many museums and historic buildings were built before anyone thought about accessibility and universal design. So, what’s the best way to keep the heritage values? A group of researchers decided a universal design approach would work. 

In their paper, the researchers discuss universal design in the context of historic buildings and evaluation checklists. Each of the 7 Principles of Universal Design are discussed in the museum context and applied as if they are a checklist. 

A view of the historic museum showing single story buildings.

The origins of museums are linked to one of the basic human activities – collecting.

The Graz Museum Schlossberg is used as a case study and exemplar of universal design. The researchers claim that universal design principles are incorporated well. This is largely due to recent renovations where architects would have current knowledge of access and inclusion. The short video below gives an overview of the building.

The article, Universal Design Principles Applied in Museums’ Historic Buildings has several photographs to illustrate points. There is a chart with the 7 Principles showing what aligns with each of the Principles and what doesn’t. 

“This article demonstrates theoretically, and practically, through the case study, that it is possible to apply UD principles even in a difficult terrain and historic environment, and combine it with the effort to preserve the historical value of the place in a very aesthetic way.

Editor’s note: The concepts of the 7 Principles of Universal Design were devised in the 1990s and the concepts have evolved. The Principles are a good beginning, but applying them as a checklist defeats the objects of learning through iteration and co-designing with users.

User perspectives of a theatre

Older adults are often excluded from participating in social and cultural activities and that includes going to the theatre. Some theatres recognise this and include productions with closed captioning, audio descriptions and sign language. But what are user perspectives?

Universal design principles go beyond physical access to the theatre. People with hearing loss use extra cognitive effort to understand speech and this detracts from the enjoyment of the performance. Many give up going because of this.

Two women are on stage. One is lying down and looks dead. The other leans over her with grief.

According to the United Nations everyone must have access to the performing arts as a basic human right (2006).

An article on the user perspective of a performing arts theatre cites three principles of universal design for hearing.

  • The first is to optimise the hearing environment by paying attention to reverberation time and background noise.
  • The second is to optimise the distance between speaker and listener such as optimal seating and use of hearing assistive technology. Making sure the technology is maintained and fully functioning is also important.
  • The third is to optimise opportunities for people to choose the type of interaction they need.

A universal design approach is about including as many people as possible. People who cannot be included will need assistive services or devices. This is the case for live performances. Physical access is just the beginning, being included takes additional thought and technology.

Principles of universal design

The researchers used the classic 7 Principles of Universal Design to analyse the results of a questionnaire about their theatre experience. All participants attended the same theatre performance. Although the theatre staff were aware of the study, they were unaware of the chosen performance.

According to user feedback theatre employees contributed significantly to the access and use of the theatre. Availability of an elevator, accessible bathrooms and easy-to-open doors were all positives. The barriers related to external walkways, noisy lobby, crowded hallways, and steep staircases with no handrails.

The hearing assistive technology was not functioning and it was also difficult to hear ushers and oral announcements. Other issues were the size of the font on the playbill, and poor signage from the carpark. Lack of sufficient bathrooms during intermissions is probably common in all theatres.

A graphic of the theatre masks of comedy and tragedy.

For everyone to enjoy a theatre experience, mobility, vision and hearing must be considered especially for older theatre patrons.

In this study the feedback was given to the theatre manager. Several issues were addressed in recent renovations and ongoing staff training. Asking users for their experiences and feedback is a great way to maintain customers and improve cultural experiences.

The title of the article is, User Perspectives of Accessibility and Usability of a Performing Arts Theatre.

A related article from the Design Council reports similar results.

Inclusive Theatres as Boosters of Well-Being: Concepts and Practices, discusses social wellbeing by being able to enjoy performances and focusing on people rather than barriers.

Also see another article on captioning for live theatre.


Older adults often have limitations due to normal ageing, which interfere with their ability to attend theatre performances. Mobility, visual, and hearing impairments can limit the experience older adults have as they engage in these cultural offerings.

In this study, 20 older adults (age range 65-78 years; 15 females, 5 males) perspective of the usability and accessibility of the physical environment before and during a musical performance was studied for one urban performing arts theatre.

Participants completed a self-assessment questionnaire, identified accessible features, barriers to access, and made suggestions for improvements.

Results showed that the participants had mixed experiences, some participants mentioned accessibility limitations in the built environment, and others regarding communication access.

Most participants would recommend the theatre to others. Following up on the recommendations will improve theatre access for any individual with mobility, visual, and/or hearing limitations.

Inclusive visual art

How can we include people without vision in the visual arts? A collaboration between the Queensland University of Technology’s Design Lab and Art Museum decided to find out. The result was a co-designed inclusive visual art project titled Vis-ability.

Co-researcher Megan Strickfadden audio-describing a painting.

The Vis-ability project pushed the boundaries of universal design to discover multi-sensory experiences.

Equal access to art and cultural heritage remains limited. As a consequence, it privileges people with sight. Cultural institutions are a draw for tourists, but few are considering equitable access to exhibits.

A team of 35 researchers and people with lived experience of blindness or low vision, co-designed 12 outputs. The process proposed alternative ways of engaging with the art collection and expanding understanding of visual art.

Front view of the tube shaped tactile model with two hand shapes indicating it can be touched.
Front view of a tactile model
A tube shaped tactile model with raised portions inside the tube. Someone has their hand at the opening touching the mode.
Side view of a tactile model

The project emerged from Janice Rieger’s conversations with people who are blind. They found it was pointless going to an art gallery or museum because they were told that “art is only for the sighted”.

The Vis-ability exhibition opened in April 2019 at the QUT Art Museum. Visitors had the opportunity to experience tactile models and audio descriptions of selected works on display. Visitors were encouraged to think about senses other than sight when engaging with the artwork. More in-depth understanding of the works added a new dimension to the experience of art. Audio pods concealed the paintings so that all visitors would have to ‘hear the painting‘ before seeing it.

When you went into the exhibition you could see the paintings, you could touch the paintings, and you could hear the paintings. Even people who consider themselves able bodied appreciated that.

Prof Janice Rieger

The Vis-ability exhibition was co-designed with people with disability and reached an audience of 4 million globally. Funding for the project came from the EU Commission and in-kind support from institutions in Canada and Australia.

The title of the short paper by Janice Rieger is, Vis-ability: Design Cultures of Inclusion in Australia and Globally.

Editor’s comment

I was lucky to be involved in the early stages of this project. I joined a workshop where different groups attempted to interpret a painting by creating a tactile model using paper, glue and an any other materials available. The process of creating the model was a learning exercise for everyone involved.

Touching artworks in regular art galleries is forbidden, but in this instance, tactile experiences were encouraged. This added another dimension for people who are sighted. As with many things designed for a particular disability, it turned out good for everyone – yes, universal design!

The top picture was taken during a workshop session. It shows Prof Megan Strickfadden, a co-researcher, audio describing a painting.

Books for everyone with universal design

Girl sits with a book flicking pages and looking a little unhappy. Reading is a skill that some people find difficult or onerous, so they miss out on reading for pleasure. But making books more accessible is more than just applying Easy Language. It also requires thoughtful layout, font and use of images. The Books for Everyone Framework describes the book making process from writing to publication. 

Matching readers to the “right book” is more than the issue of genre or reading interests. Readers have varying language skills, functional differences and are neurodiverse. So the question for the publication industry is, “How can they work for inclusion of all types of potential readers?”

An article from Norway describes a case study of how the Books for Everyone (BfE) framework was used for five fictional books. These books were written by different authors, illustrators and publishers. The article provides suggestions for the publishing industry to accommodate reader diversity in the future. 

A universal design perspective

At the beginning of 2000, books in Norway aimed at adults with dyslexia were often simplified versions of more complex books that were already published. Taking a universal design approach led to an awareness that books should still aim for high quality. 

Rather than just simplifying text, more attention was given to how Easy Language can create high level literature. Consequently, BfE started cooperating with highly qualified authors, graphic novel designers, illustrators, and publishing houses in making new books.

The target groups for Easy Language books was broadened from people with cognitive impairments to everyone who will benefit. The primary target group determined the main adaptation approach applied. At the same time, these adaptations would most likely benefit other readers. Consequently, the universal design aspect of Easy Language was incorporated into the BfE framework.

It is interesting to note that in the last 22 years, Norway has embraced universal design across the built and digital environments. Consequently, it is no surprise that they are now applying the concepts more broadly. 

The processes and framework are described in more detail in the article, The Development and Production of Literature Within an Easy Language and a Universal Design Perspective. The article is open access.


Finding suitable books for pleasure reading is difficult for many people with reading challenges. Consequently, authors and publishing houses must consider user diversity when developing books.

Easy Language comprises an important component, which is closely related to other elements which together constitute accessible books, such as layout, fonts and use of images. Moreover, extensive user testing and involvement must ensure that the books meet the requirements of the readers.

This paper presents The Books for Everyone (BfE) Framework, which describes the process from initiation to publication and promotion of Easy Language books, using Norway as a case study. The BfE Framework is illustrated through examples from books and related to the reception and understanding of various user groups.

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