Roundtable Panel Summary
Leaders from across the United States participated in a round table discussion on making access and equity a priority in terms of securing funding and support, identifying best practices, facilitating community involvement, and developing policies and guidelines.
- Katy Menne (moderator), North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport
- Ryan Saglio, Attleboro Enterprises
- Meredith Peruzzi, National Deaf Life Museum, Gallaudet University
- Christine Reich, Museum of Science, Boston
What got you started with inclusion and accessibility in museology?
- Katy: "Working in formal classrooms to get my master's degree, I worked with students who needed extra assistance, and in working with them one-on-one, I realized that we weren’t approaching teaching the best way. When I got into museum work, I wanted to look at different ways we could offer educational experiences, which helped bring about the Certified Autism Center certification. From there, we launched options for tours using American Sign Language (ASL) and tactile maps for visually-impaired patrons."
- Ryan: "I originally wanted to be an English teacher, but I stumbled into a job in human services working with students with disabilities who come from a diverse background. In graduate school, I realized from a community integration standpoint that there was such a need for community spaces to learn more about being accessible, inclusive, and equitable—grad school was an opportunity for me to kind of hone that."
- Meredith: "I was more focused on history, but so many people wanted me to teach about making museums accessible to the Deaf community. I realized so many of the resources were written by able-bodied people and not by the Deaf--so I started studying accessibility in museums so that I could help provide some of that perspective."
- Christine: "My first job in a museum field was as an intern for a woman who used a wheelchair, and she was a strong advocate for inclusion for all; she taught me the importance of museums as places that can send a message of belonging; Belonging not just to the organization, but to the community as a whole. At this time, I was also leading our party program, and I was asked to throw a party for a deaf student, and I worked hard creating an experience that was accessible for all party participants, including staff and volunteers that gave directions in ASL–including some that were Deaf themselves–with translations to English and graphic signs and instructions created for activities. I learned this event was one of the first times the student had interacted with deaf adults. I quickly realized from these experiences the difference we can make when we do things right and make sure things are inclusive."
What are some barriers that have come up during the pandemic, and how have you overcome them?
- Christine: "We had audio labels that were delivered through a phone device on the exhibit. When the pandemic hit, we realized that the system was problematic, and would need to be sterilized after each use. We commissioned a service, Aira, which provides audio description for people when they're walking through any public space. Simultaneous to that, we're working on a new app that will be using specific location-based awareness through Bluetooth triangulation, provide an auditory description of each individual exhibit component that you're standing in front of and also provide navigational aids. We did maintain our tactile models by showcasing they were not a primary carrier for COVID, and we implemented more cleaning protocols."
- Ryan: "There is often thought to be a right or wrong way to experience something. I often push back on this idea, and I think the pandemic has really opened up people to this idea that there are a lot of different ways people take in information. I do also think people have gone too far during the pandemic as well–I recently went to a museum where they had removed all of the benches and places to sit in the name of safety. For anyone who needs to take frequent breaks, this took away their opportunity to enjoy the whole museum, since they would have to leave as soon as they needed to sit down."
- Meredith: "We quickly had to learn how to pivot our museum to be online. This was severely difficult for our Deaf-Blind community. It was completely inaccessible to deaf-blind people; they lost the entire tactile experience. We had to figure out how to provide an alternative experience. So our museum focused on health and safety, but we also highly prioritized how to make our museum as accessible as possible and inclusive by creating an equitable experience for those who are deaf-blind and rely on a tactile learning experience."
- Katy: "We became the first certified Autism Center a week before we got sent to work from home due to the pandemic. While this was hard, this also gave us the time to evaluate how to make sure everything was accessible for all."
Is there any movement to get more deaf artists included in mainstream exhibits?
- Meredith: "I have seen some deaf artists who have done solo shows, and I have seen some deaf artistry in museums. I’ve also seen a lot of mainstream examples, including a show of deaf artists in 'hearing' museums. I think there is still a lot of space to grow in this area though–there are some grassroots movements to grow this space."
How do you move from personal passion to institutional priority? How do you build that into every aspect of your strategic plan and departments?
- Christine: "I’ve done some studies looking at museums that have continued accessible practices–what is it that helps them to integrate accessibility into all that they do? When universal design is framed as being better for everyone (instead of just for people with disabilities), it often sticks better. Also, the more often people with disabilities are actually included in the work, especially hiring people with disabilities, it helps everyone see how the work impacts more than just a theoretical community–it is already helping their friends and colleagues. It is also important to recognize that the work is never done. It is not just a one-time initiative that you get a grant for and you’re done. It has to be something that you keep at the forefront in every single project that you do."
- Ryan: "There is a real strength in actually knowing and defining the words you’re striving for. There is a big difference in just getting people in the building–just following basic ADA protocols–compared to getting people actually engaged in the exhibits. I am a firm believer in the idea that you can start small and give yourself the permission to not get everything right the first time or even the second or third time. People’s needs are always changing, so focusing on the community and continuing to ask for feedback provides an ongoing opportunity to grow and be more inclusive."
- Meredith: Just a reminder for disability rights: “Nothing about us without us.”
How does your work intersect in other diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work or efforts?
- Ryan: "I don’t see any distinction between other DEI work and the work I’m doing. We talk about all of these intersectionalities while we plan, write grants, and create spaces. We are always trying to create a united front for inclusion for all."
- Christine: "As we are trying to do more DEI work, so many of the lessons we’ve learned from disability do cover other groups, but some of the lessons don’t. It’s good to recognize that disability brings with it its own culture, its own backgrounds. I will say that from a universal design standpoint, many of the strategies we use for inclusion of one group ends up working for many other groups as well."
- Meredith: "A lot of my research is based on disability learning theory, and my research focus isn’t on other demographics. However, it is important to remember this work is always intersectional, and it is important to think about intersectionality as we do any DEI work. There will always be people of color with disabilities–people from a variety of backgrounds and demographics with disabilities."
What is a final piece of advice you have for those here?
- Christine: "I’m at a point in my career where I’m recognizing where we generally need less research and more doing. I spent 15 years as a researcher, and I’m realizing there is so much we already know about making museums welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities. A bulk of the work of what we don't know can come from involving people with disabilities in our work. I think the time for action is now (well, really, it was years ago)—we have what we need to make our environments more inclusive, we just need to get working."
- Meredith: "My big message is always that we need to include people with disabilities throughout the entire process, from the very beginning."
- Ryan: "There becomes a point where we can’t just keep talking about it, we have to be brave enough to do it. It is worth asking the questions and just jumping in and trying, because it’s better to be trying to make a difference and learn from that."