People with disabilities accessing a museum space with ease.

Museums Are Slowly Getting More Accessible To People With Disabilities

By Nick Beattie

Last summer, Ciara O’Connor, a woman who uses a wheelchair, made headlines for complaining about a gallery worker at Tate Modern’s exhibition of Olafur Eliasson. When asking for help to enter into a mirrored walkway installation, which is only accessible by steps, the attendant told her that to enter the tunnel, she would need to “go around the side.” When asked if they could bring her a ramp, the attendant said it was explicitly a curatorial choice not to have one. The museum later apologized for the inconvenience and stated that the walkway was ” too narrow to be made safe for wheelchair users.” Nonetheless, this debacle highlights the significant shortcomings in museums and cultural institutions towards providing people with disabilities adequate access to their spaces. 

Museums play a critical role in today’s society by educating the public and representing the diverse perspectives found in contemporary culture through worthwhile exhibits and thoughtful curation. Furthermore, as of the 2010 census, more than 15% of Americans live with some form of disability, underscoring the need for museums to be inclusive and accessible to people with diverse perspectives within the disabled community. 

A Difficult Conversation For Museums

The conversation regarding equal accessibility to disabled people within museums did not really begin until July 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed. The landmark legislation expanded the Civil Rights Act by including one’s disability as a characteristic one cannot discriminate against others. Further, it requires public entities, such as museums and galleries, to provide accommodations to disabled visitors. 

Yet, since the ADA’s ratification, museums across the country have been slow to make changes compared to other institutions. Any massive change like accessibility requires money, time, and resources. But it is not just about bringing the museum up to ADA standards, it’s about building up the community.

Taking time to understand disability and its many forms is critical for cultural institutions in addressing accessibility easily. In communicating with the disabled community, museums are being more cooperative and transparent with the disabled community in problem-solving.

Gradual Change

While it does not happen overnight, museums must work to provide up-to-date information on visiting their space to all guests. Moreover, they must ensure the appropriate resources towards creating worthwhile experiences. But there have been meaningful steps being taken within museums to help start the conversation about accessibility. Institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art view the disabled community as “part of [our] general public, not a fringe group of visitors.” Thus, the museum introduced a task force devoted to discussing the needs of disabled guests. But despite this, many within the disabled community do not see it as being enough. 

Many museums fail time and time again to uphold their responsibility of being easily accessible to all. Whether it is in curating or designing spaces, they continue not to be inclusive of disabled people. Even when an exhibit’s design has accommodations in mind, they might ignore the perspectives of disabled people. Moreover, they even go so far as to convey negative stereotypes of disability. This constant disregard has caused much of the disabled community to not feel welcome in these cultural institutions. As a result, they choose to go elsewhere to experience the culture. Such concerns are rooted in a desire for a design that ensures equal access to all visitors while being inclusive. Because making accommodations is not about providing equal access but equitable access. 

For instance, the Art Institute of Chicago has recently redesigned the museum to offer further accessibility. The museum now offers complimentary wheelchairs to those who request to traverse around the museum, as one can access each exhibit via a ramp or elevator. Additionally, AIC provides audio descriptions of their entire collection on assisted-listening devices and their mobile app, free of charge to hard-of-hearing visitors. But it is not early enough for those in the disabled community, as many who have other impairments must request accommodations before visiting. Even if they are available, likely, this information is not readily available. Nonetheless, it is a practical first step in the right direction.

Pandemic Accommodations

But in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum industry is reeling from the world’s large-scale changes. Some visitors are eager to get back into the museums but are concerned about their general safety. Thus, this has been the perfect moment for cultural institutions to change their design exhibits for guests. Many are not just making them safer to visit. Still, they are also taking the chance to make them even more accessible to everyone.

For instance, paradoxically, as the world went into lockdown, society appeared to have opened up to disabled people. With museums embracing virtual presences online, the disabled community has found it easier to participate in culture from their homes. Through offering virtual visits via their websites and social media, many museums are now more accessible in a different way.

Moreover, they offer revamped digital walkthroughs of their spaces and ensure that visitors can still engage with museum staff. For instance, the City of New York Museum debuted a series of curator talks on their Facebook page. It encouraged visitors to give their own experiences with hashtags such as #CovidstoriesNYC or #MyNYCPerspective. The Frick museum also launched social media initiatives on the museum’s Youtube page. One such initiative includes “Cocktails with a Curator,” a series where a curator discusses an artwork in the museum while also giving a cocktail recipe. 

While these may not be the same as walking the museum halls, it is an avenue that gives equal engagement to everyone. Much work remains on providing proper access to the disabled community when museums open back up. Museums must continue to be readily available to everyone, whether it be modifying infrastructure, promoting inclusion, or providing an engaging digital experience.