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.

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