This week, I had the privilege of attending the Kennedy Center's Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference. I attended sessions on unviersal design/exhibit accessibility, ADA policy, audience engagement, and general best practices for operating an accessible organization. The ideas I was exposed to are still marinating in my brain and I'm excited to explore them more deeply in the way I approach my work in the field. But I thought it would be helpful to distill the most important concepts that resonanted across sessions:
If you're not sure something is going to work for the disability community, just ask. Use experts on your staff and consult regularly with a disability advisory board, or other visitors with disabilities to test concepts and exhibit prototypes at every stage. Working with PwD early and often can help your institution save time, effort, and money to make sure an exhibit works the the widest range of users from the get-go. Consulting PwD add values to your institution by not only ensuring your exhibits will be accessible, but also builds rapport and mutual respect between participants and staff.
Becoming an accessible organization is not a static set of programs and built features, it's a dynamic, on-going commitment to the needs of the disability community. Your relationship with the disability community should not end just because you've updated to ADA standards. Accessibility needs to be built into your core institutional values.
Accessible is not the same as inclusive. Just because a visitor can physically access something, does not mean that they are having the same experience. In the case of historical site/objects, physical access is not always possible, but built interpretation and interactives can help provide the same type of experience. In a conversation about how zoos/aquariums could be more inclusive for the blind, one attendee described his frustration at how the blind do not get to experience the animal in context: an eagle perched on a branch vs. touching a feather, and lion charging prey vs. petting a lion belt.
He said, "Try to keep in mind, it's common to get a pelt on a flat table.. but because most animals aren't flat, these isolated pieces do not make up an animal." and then comically noted, "You can't describe an American Bison in any way that makes sense to a blind person." Touch experiences are a great first step, but it's important to think more carefully about "what is a sighted person getting from seeing animals that a blind person is not?" How can we use tools such as audio describing and multiple layers of sensory experience to match this experience?
First-hand simulations and other illustrations of the visitor experience for a person with a disability can be valuable tools for building institutional support. For disability advocates who are trying to increase support within their institution, first-hand experiences, such as having staff and board members navigate their space in a wheelchair, or communication tools, such as experience maps or user experience models, can be helpful tools to build empathy and support for disability services. Make an appeal to colleagues' professionalism and desire to have their work communicated to as wide an audience as possible.
People with disabilities are not a small, special interest group. Especially as the core visitors of many arts organizations are aging, it is important not to think of PwD as a small isolated group. Whether the disability was from birth, or as the result of aging or an accident, disability is something that can affect all of our lives. Most of us personally know someone who is excluded from fully participating in arts and cultural organizations as a result of their disability. We must advocate for public institutions to become as inclusive of the widest range of visitors as possible. Only then will we have a thriving arts/cultural sector that is a reflection of our diversity of human experience.
Going to be chewing on all these ideas and more for a while, but looking forward to keeping in touch with all the thoughtful people I met this week. It's upsetting to become more aware of experiences I take for granted, that are daily frustrations for PwD, but I'm excited about all the work this group of people is doing across the country.