For the most part, when you mention disability access in a museum context, the first discussion to come up is around ramps and lifts. Ramps – there's no room! Lifts – there’s no room and no money! The conversation, and excuses, then quickly turn to how tough it is to balance requirements of the Resource Management Act with the Code of Rights under the Health and Disability Commissioner Act (spoiler alert, the RMA generally trumps human access rights whenever you are adapting heritage listed buildings). But access for people with disabilities constitutes a huge range of strategies and considerations – ramps, while important, are the stereotypical tip of the iceberg. What else are our museums doing to become more accessible to their diverse visitors, who may have specific access needs? What opportunities exist that might be a tad more instantly achievable than adapting architecture? What will stop disability access being put in the 'too-hard’ basket?
Before we go too much further it’s useful to re-define the popular idea of disability. The social model of disability is an approach proposing that disability is a social construct; exclusion by society, negative attitudes, and widespread barriers are instead the primary disabling factors for individual people. It developed in response to the medical model, which viewed disability as physical issues requiring a cure in order to conform to normative standards. At its core the social model highlights the barriers put in place by cultures and societies so that practices and policies can be built to dismantle these obstacles. It’s useful to bear this in mind when thinking about accessible museums and galleries, because we can be playing our part in getting some of those barriers knocked down.
One in four New Zealanders identified themselves as disabled in 2013, up from 20% in 2001. This included 27% of the adult population and 11% of children who stated they were limited in their daily activities by a varying range of impairments such as physical, sensory, or learning. As the New Zealand population ages and the number of people aged 65+ constantly increases, this figure will likely rise in the not too distant future. In 2014 the Museums Aotearoa National Visitor Survey found that 41% of museum-goers interviewed were above the age of 60, with significant numbers of that 41% identifying as living with a disability.
Are museums across the country doing enough to cater for these sizeable audiences? There is a massive group of people out there with varying access needs, and if we want to make sure they’re included in our visitor stats, and having positive experiences in our museums, then it’s a good idea to look at ways we can meet their needs. Given that people with disabilities form such a significant proportion of our population, it’s pretty surprising how little evidence exists on the ways museums in Aotearoa New Zealand are working to engage with these visitors in particular. In the USA and UK, the topic of disability access in museums has been investigated by a range of researchers, with museums consulting more and more with these communities.
I’ve spent 2015 researching for a Museum and Heritage Studies dissertation on the current state of disability accessibility in Aotearoa New Zealand museums. In doing this I’ve come across a bunch of exciting and innovative projects that museums around the country are working on, which take into account some of the many different access needs of diverse visitors. Some of these are highlighted below.
Te Papa ‘Insightful’ Audio Described Tours
In August 2015 Te Papa ran a pilot tour specifically for blind and vision-impaired visitors, designed around its seasonal exhibition Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa. Through consultations with Arts Access Aotearoa and the New Zealand Blind Foundation, Te Papa developed a tour set-up that included both audio description and a highly tactile experience. Prior to the public programme potential participants took part in a walk-through of the exhibition to identify key works likely to be of interest.
Judith Jones, a Te Papa host trained in audio description, led the tour itself. Her descriptions were supported by purpose-made props (such as frame mouldings, painting samples, and 3D printed scale models), as well as real tīvaevae. The ability to touch these objects allowed for an in depth understanding of form and structure, and an insight into the process of the creation of works in the exhibition. Customising props designed for tactile use is one way to increase access to collection objects without compromising their conservation. Alternatively, many museums have existing tactile collections that complement exhibition content.
A fantastic blog post was written about this pilot programme by award-winning journalist and accessibility expert Robyn Hunt, one of the participants: http://www.lowvisionary.com/?p=731 .
This tour’s success has meant future audio-described tours of Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa will likely be held with each changing season of exhibitions.
Auckland Museum ‘Visiting the Museum Together’
In 2014 Auckland Museum developed and ran a six-week programme designed for people living with dementia and their carers. Each week volunteer guides ran themed visits involving object handling, gallery visits and afternoon tea. Scheduling of sessions was flexible which meant there was time for socialising before and after material was delivered.
Visiting the Museum Together aimed to address the wellbeing and social needs of carers and the people they care for, as research has shown that the mental health of carers has a direct impact on the person they care for. Combatting the isolation and loneliness this group had voiced was a priority. This programme was developed in partnership with Alzheimers Auckland and the University of Auckland.
City Gallery Wellington NZSL Tours
Sign language tours are a tried and tested format that a number of overseas museums and galleries employ, and in 2013 and 2014 (or perhaps more often but online records are patchy) City Gallery Wellington ran free one-off signed tours of exhibitions led by a local member of the Deaf community. Much like any tour offered for speakers of languages other than English, this presentation format allows for increased access to details and insights about artwork.
Canterbury Museum Outside In Exhibition
Access to museum spaces to share artwork and cultural material is another facet to consider around disability accessibility. In early 2015 the exhibition Outside In included work by around 60 artists with a range of backgrounds, including artists with intellectual disabilities, artists with sensory disablities, local practising artists and art tutors, prisoners, and art students. These diverse backgrounds were not the focus though, with no artwork labels present to indicate the practitioners’ particular individual barriers to access.
While these assorted projects approach increasing accessibility in different ways, all demonstrate commitment to a broader understanding of access. Not only are collections and exhibitions being made more accessible through targeted programming, there is also an increased understanding that it isn’t enough to just amend the physicality of museum spaces, or design inclusive public and education programmes. There are many opportunities for exhibition content to be more representative of communities of disabled people, and for museum workplaces to be more accessible to potential staff members with disabilities. A museum’s digital presence also has enormous scope for increasing access to stories, objects, and discourse. Key of course is a determined commitment to consult and partner with communities of people with disabilities, and engage advocacy groups.
It’s no news to any of us in the field that museums and galleries are generally under-funded and extremely time-poor places. It can be daunting to look at the topic of disability access because it can seem so broad, so all encompassing, and so rife with opportunity to go wrong. But consider the gains of becoming accessible institutions. There is an enormous untapped audience out there just waiting to be included. There are people with expert knowledge who can contribute to cultural institutions as artists, researchers, and volunteers. They have whānau and friends who will benefit from increasing accessibility. Importantly, the work done on upping access makes for better-designed exhibitions, programmes, buildings, and services for everyone to use according to their self-identified needs and values.
So just start somewhere and build on the things you try out. Reach out to your communities of people with disabilities and get some dialogue going. See what’s wanted, what doesn’t work, what is practical for your particular institution or context. Think of these increases in access as a long-term project and not just one-off bits and pieces. Go on… chuck out those ‘too-hard’ baskets.
Riah King Wall
For a really helpful practical guide check out Arts Access Aotearoa’s ‘Arts for All’, a publication designed to help cultural organisations increase access to their institutions. There’s even a whole section on museums! It’s available digitally at http://artsaccess.org.nz/introducing-arts-for-all or by you can get hard copies by contacting them directly. They’re also a great support organisation for if you need info on anything cultural-access-related.