For Museums

Why should you ensure that your museum is accessible to people with disabilities? There are three good reasons:

  1. The law requires it.
  2. Making a workplace accessible to individuals with disabilities increases your business opportunities.
  3. Welcoming a diversified audience that includes people with disabilities enhances your educational opportunities.

Help-Your-Self offers information and examples of museum accessibility programs here below; you will find information on laws, benefits of diversifying, audience, exhibits, archives, technology issues, books about museum accessibility, museum accessibility issues, helpful organizations, examples of museum access policies, and examples of virtual museums. For more resources on workplace accommodations, audience development, outreach, statistics, universal design, and technology issues, please see our other pages: Accommodations, Etiquette, Organizations, and Technology.

The Law

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forbids employers and organizations that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive programs, benefits and services. The law defines the rights of individuals with disabilities to participate in, and have access to, programs and services in museums (if receiving federal funds).

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published their 504 compliance regulations in 1979. These regulations, known as "Regulations for Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Handicap, 45 C.F.R Part 1151," define and prohibit acts of discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive financial assistance directly from NEA or indirectly from granting agencies such as State Art Agencies (D.C. State Art Agency, VA State Art Agency, MD State Art Agency).

An important part of these regulations is often forgotten and or ignored, subpart D. This section stipulates that museums should make use of an advisory board composed of community members with disabilities to assist NEA grantees to conduct self evaluations of their compliance with section 504, and to help identify policies and practices which may be discriminatory. This subsection was not introduced to complicate museum management, but, to help administrators diversify their staff and reach out to a broad audience that includes people with disabilities. What makes museums accessible to people with disabilities also makes museums more welcoming to others; instead of questioning what barriers should be removed, one could think about how to make a visit more enjoyable to anyone.

Benefits of Diversifying

All people, with and without disabilities, should have the same consumer options; it simply makes good business sense. Museums should welcome the opportunity to employ people with disabilities as members of their working team as well as their audience. By doing so, the organization empowers the community, enhances business growth and increases overall worker satisfaction.

What part of your museum needs to be accessible? People with disabilities should have access to the exhibits, the archives, electronic information, printed materials, multimedia, lectures, film series, excursions, and any public space.

Although people are often afraid of creating an accessible work environment, it is not always difficult to accomplish. For information on workplace accommodations see our Organizations web page.

Exhibits

Many individuals with disabilities are not able to visit exhibits because of varying life circumstances such as: poor health, transportation problems, physical, mental, hearing or visual limitations, fatigue, or low income. Often times people are afraid to confront their own inability to understand an exhibit and, instead of asking for assistance, they shy away from the experience all together. Curators and museum educators go to great lengths to ensure that their exhibits and programs are designed so that the public appreciates what is on display. Factors such as exhibit flow, lighting, sound, and availability of trained docents all play an important role in the educational outcome of an exhibit.

It is also important to consider the comfort and accessibility of an exhibit in order to reach the widest audience as possible. Following is a list of features that could make an exhibit more pleasurable for people with disabilities (in alphabetical order):

  • After hours exhibition tours should be available.
  • Docents and staff should receive sensitivity training.
  • Doorways should be sufficiently wide for the passage of large wheelchairs.
  • Either provide parking spaces or staff assistance with parking a vehicle after an individual is dropped off at the entrance.
  • Elevators (avoid steps).
  • Indicators to warn people who are hearing impaired about an audio component.
  • Mobility: Ease of maneuverability and ability to approach objects up close.
  • Photographic representations should be made available to visitors with disabilities when part of your exhibit is not accessible.
  • Printed material should be available in alternate formats including: Large print, Braille and electronic media.
  • Provide docents to accompany individuals with disabilities through the exhibit.
  • Provide narrated transcriptions of printed information.
  • Provide narrated descriptions of video presentations.
  • Provide open captioning and closed captioning for all video presentations (for details see Resources towards the bottom of this page).
  • Provide printed transcripts of audio clips.
  • Provide reduced fees for individuals who are low income due to disability or who need personal assistants.
  • Ramps and handrails should be provided for accessing and comfortable navigation through an exhibit.
  • Seating locations for wheelchair users in auditoriums should not be in the front or back row only.
  • Seating locations should be provided throughout an exhibit for visitors to rest.
  • Service animals must be allowed.
  • Sign interpretation should be provided upon requests, however, this information must be clearly advertised in advance.
  • Signage to indicate an exhibit direction.
  • Sufficient lighting should be provided when low lighting is not required for preservation reasons.
  • Touch tours should be schedules and clearly advertised in advance.
  • Wall captioning should be easily viewable at a distance by wheelchair users.
  • Wall captions should be accompanied by Braille transcripts.
  • Wide open spaces should be incorporated into an exhibit.

Archives

When part of your collection is hidden from the public eye, you can still make it viewable. Archived objects and information can be made available through microchip film and computer databases. When using such technology, ensure that the descriptions are easy to understand, the print can be enlarged and the content can be transferred to an audio file.

Even historical sites can be made accessible to people with disabilities. It is often easy to add a ramp or a wheelchair lift to a location without ruining architectural preservation; benches, handrails and accessible bathrooms can be installed without altering permanent structure. Gardens and outdoor exhibits that often lie on uneven terrain can be made accessible by adding decorative stone paths.

Individuals with disabilities are challenged everyday to improvise and find creative solutions to accommodate their limitations. The best way to approach a renovation or an accessibility project is to form an advisory board of committee members that have disabilities and make use of their talents.

Books About Museum Accessibility

  • Accessible Exhibition Design Published by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    This is a guide for exhibit designers, curators, registrars, conservators, collections managers, educators, and other exhibition team members.
  • Accessibility Planning and Resource Guide for Cultural Administrators Published by the National Endowment for the Arts
    This Guide is provided in electronic format. It is a guide for cultural administrators on how to achieve accessible and inclusive programming for everyone including individuals with disabilities and older adults. It is designed to make access an integral part of organizations.
  • Art Beyond Sight A Resource Guide to Art, Creativity, and Visual Impairment. Published by the American Foundation for the Blind
    This book summarizes a decade of research and practical experience. This is an educational resource that offers insight into the psychological background of tactile perception, offers guidance on utilizing verbal description, and knowledge about how to make art accessible to visitors and students.
  • Art Beyond Sight (VHS) A Demonstration of Practical Techniques for Teaching Art to People with Visual Impairments. Published by the Museum of Modern Art
    This is a 23-minute VHS video companion to the book Art Beyond Sight.
  • Design for Accessibility A Cultural Administrator's Handbook. Published by the National Association of State Arts Agencies
    This is a how-to reference about integrating older adults and people with disabilities into all aspects of an arts organization; the book steps you through the processes of planning, designing, marketing and technical assistance. This book is also available in electronic PDF format.
  • Everyone's Welcome The Americans with Disabilities Act and Museums. Published by the American Association of Museums
    This is a manual for museum professionals and designers to help them better understand the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is available in the following alternate formats:
    Audio Version
    Book/Video Combination
    Braille Version
    Video Version
  • Part of Your General Public Is Disabled A Handbook for guides in Museums, Zoos, and Historic Houses. Published by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    This is a combination book and video that is a strong training package for docents.
  • Regulations for Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Handicap, 45 C.F.R Part 1151
    These are the 504 guidelines published by the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • The Accessible Museum Model Programs of Accessibility for Disabled and Older People. Published by the American Association of Museums
    Insights into how institutions are successfully dealing with issues of accessibility, making adjustments to policy, programs, and facilities, in order to reach out to people with disabilities and older adults.
  • Time For Art Art Projects and Lessons for Students with Visual Impairments. Written by Gail Showalter
    This handbook gives teachers and parents some suggestions on art projects and lessons for children who are visually impaired.
  • Trace Crenter Bibliography
    This is a complete list of publications by these experts on Assistive Technology.
  • What Museum Guides Need to Know Access for Blind and Visually Impaired Visitors. Published by the American Foundation for the Blind
    This handbook covers aesthetics and visual impairment, legal requirements for accessibility, offers resources, contains a training outline for museum accessibility, and contains photographs taken at the High School Museum of Art and the Atlanta Historical Society.

Museum Accessibility Issues

  • Applied Leadership for Effective Coalitions Published by the National Council on Disability
    This is a report talks about leadership development, building effective coalitions, community mobilization and implications, to better unite persons with disability with the rest of society.
  • Association of Science Technology Centers
    This organization provides easy to follow guidelines for museum accessibility including information on: legal obligation, access advisors, access policy, and a comprehensive list of resources on practices and technology.
  • Museum legal accessibility obligations
    This is a list compiled by the Association of Science Technology Centers.
  • Over the Horizon Potential Impact of Emerging Trends in Information and Communication Technology on Disability Policy and Practice. Published by the National Council on Disability
    This report discusses barriers, challenges, and issues faced by persons with disabilities.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act General Service Administration website
    "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 7(20), shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service."
  • Section 508 Regulations General Service Administration website
    This is a link to Federal requirements governing electronic information. This act requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public, access to information that is comparable to the access available to others. Here is another detailed explanation on Section 508 provided by the U.S. Access Board.
  • Universal Design Resource List from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Helpful Organizations

  • Accessible Arts An organization that promotes full inclusion, access, and cultural opportunities in the arts for people with disabilities.

  • American Associations of Museums This association helps develop standards and best practices, gathers and shares knowledge, and provides advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community.

  • Archives & Museum Informatics This organization offers information on the use of technology in culture and heritage, virtual libraries and archives, multimedia and interactive publishing, intellectual property management, the management of electronic records, and standards for the production of electronic information.

  • Australian Museum Audience Research Centre This website offers a vast amount of information on museum audiences with disabilities.

  • Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) This is a recognized organization that promotes the presentation and preservation of digital heritage content.

  • CARE This is the Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation for the American Association of Museums.

  • Disability History Museum This museum chronicles the historical experience of people with disabilities.

  • Emergency Preparedness This website, offered by DisabilityInfo.gov, has a helpful list of information related to egress and evacuation.

  • Global Museum This organization offers a wide variety of information for museums.

  • ICHIM This is conference that explores policy, legal, social, economic, technological, organizational and design concerns of digital culture and heritage.

  • Museums and the Web To facilitate the exchange of information Archives & Museum Informatics organizes an annual international conference devoted exclusively to Museums and the Web.

  • Museums Computer Group This organization provides a forum for discussion between museums, galleries, archival, and heritage professionals who work with computers and technology.

  • Museum Computer Network This organization supports the greater computer community by providing opportunities to explore, implement, and disseminate new technologies and best practices in the field.

  • Museum Documentation Association This organization located in the U.K. is well known for providing documentation and information management for museums.

  • Museum of Disability This is an online interactive virtual museum on disability history.

  • National Arts and Disability Center (NADC) This organization's mission is to promote the full inclusion of audiences and artists with disabilities into all facets of the arts community.

  • National Center on Accessibility (NCA) This center is a collaborative program of Indiana University and the National Park Service. They offer information on access for people with disabilities to parks, recreation and tourism.

  • National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) This site links to the Office of Accessibility at NEA. They provide a vast amount of expert advice on issues related to accessibility and arts, and a link to other Accessibility Coordinators.

  • State Arts Agencies D.C. State Art Agency, VA State Art Agency, MD State Art Agency

  • The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) This association is dedicated to the preservation, collection and use of moving images. 

  • The Library of Congress The Library of Congress has a well organized website that details their accessibility guidelines.

  • Trace Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison This is a research and development center  for technology as it applies to people with disabilities. They are the experts.

  • Very Special Arts (VSA) This is an international organization founded to create a society where all people with disabilities learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts.

  • Virtual Library Museum Pages This is a website that offers links to museums around the world. It is a good source for policies in museums internationally.

Examples of Museum Access Policies

Virtual Museum

  • CHIN This organization offers information on creating digital content for museum collections.
  • The Guggenheim collection online This is a good example of a collection presented on the Internet.
  • Virtual Museum This is a wonderful example of how to make a museum accessible via the internet. It is provided by the National Museum of Science and Technology, Milan, Italy.
  • Virtual Museum of Canada This is an example of a virtual museum and how collections posted on the Internet can become accessible to a very large audience.