Intersection / Intervention: Museums and Disabilities

IMG_8046How do museums function as unique spaces to re-frame and expand conversations about disability? Likewise, how can Disability Studies and the disability rights movement offer insight for re-imagining, improving and expanding the core functions of museums?

The Jane Addams Hull-House and Museum and Exhibition Studies program at the University of Illinois in Chicago hosted a seminar to talk about issues of accessibility and museums through the lens of disability this past week. The program, part of the Bodies of Work festival, brought together museum professionals from all over the country to take a look at what is (and is not) being done to make our institutions open to all visitors.

So, how can we work with the environments of museums and cultural spaces to make our institutions accessible to the widest range of audience members as possible? There doesn’t seem to be just one answer to this question. In general, museum professionals, as advocates for our communities, need to think more holistically about the multiple identities that impact us. Race, class, sexuality, gender, disability… we each have our own web of identity (and so do our visitors). Take a moment to consider your web and how it colors the way that your interact with the world.

The vocabulary we use when talking about visitors who have disabilities sets the tone for a visit. Language is important (all you exhibition developers are nodding your heads in agreement with me right now). It’s how we communicate thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in person AND on a wall panel. Dr. Carrie Sandahl, director of Bodies of Work, explained that people first language is important. Here are a few tips:

  • Able-bodied; what people with disabilities call people who are non-disabled
  • Retard/retarded; an inappropriate term for “intellectual” or “cognitive disability”
  • Section 504; the section of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which protects disabled people from discrimination due to their disabilities
  • Special; Every human is special (this is an inappropriate term for disability)
  • Wheelchair bound; an inappropriate term for a wheelchair user. Wheelchairs enable mobility and freedom to move from one place to another.

In some ways, it seems like the conversation about access in museums is just heating up. Be a part of the movement to open up museums and other cultural institutions to all visitors by paying attention to the language that you are using inside and outside of exhibitions and acknowledging the web of identities that frame each of our understandings. I’m going to open up this post to some comments, since this is a topic I’m just started to discover. What has your institution done to be open and accessible to people of all abilities?

Source: User/Thomas/disability awareness/the importance of language, definitions/descriptions.wpd


About catebay

Informal educator working in the world of art. Interests in public programming and community advocacy. Loves learning about people, collecting blue mason jars, and consuming Swedish fish.
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