In recent years, there has been a growing trend among museums to place more attention on audiences with special needs. This has increasingly involved museums creating and implementing innovative programs and opportunities for people who have mobility limitations; are blind/visually impaired; are deaf/hard of hearing; are on the autism spectrum; and have developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities, including dementia.
For the past year at The Henry Ford, we have been increasing our focus upon our guests with special needs, starting with two audiences in particular–guests who are blind or visually impaired and those on the autism spectrum. For guests who are blind or visually impaired, we have created tactile tours for Henry Ford Museum. These tours not only provide background and context on our collections, but also include opportunities to touch various artifacts and models of artifacts located throughout the museum. While some of the artifacts included on the tours (i.e. the Rosa Parks Bus, Allegheny Locomotive, and Build a Model T interactive activity) can already be touched by any guests, the tours also include special opportunities for guests to touch a pre-approved list of cars in our “Driving America” exhibit while wearing gloves. Working with organizations serving individuals with visual impairments (such as the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan and the Greater Detroit Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired) and testing the tours out with guests with visual impairments have both been instrumental in the continued development of these tours.
For our guests on the autism spectrum, we held two sensory friendly days during April 2016. These days included: maps showing areas in Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village with loud sounds, bright lights, and designated quiet zones; loud sounds turned down or off in Henry Ford Museum; quiet areas for hands-on activities; and even some sensory-friendly movies in our Giant Screen Experience theater, in which the lights were turned up and the sound was turned down. As with the tactile tours, working with organizations serving individuals with autism (in this case, the Autism Alliance of Michigan and The Color of Autism Foundation) helped with the development and implementation of these sensory friendly days. The autism organizations that we worked with had resource tables set up with information for families, helped get the word out about the events, and assisted us with the creation of a social story (pre-visit planning guide that uses pictures and text to walk families through their visit) of Henry Ford Museum. We also planned and coordinated these sensory friendly days in collaboration with other Detroit-area museums, sharing resources and publicity.
From these programs, there is much that I have learned about creating and implementing offerings for audiences with special needs. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:
1.) Involve individuals with special needs and organizations serving these individuals in the development, testing, and implementation of your programs. Doing so can help you ensure that you are aware of needs and interests and serving your intended audiences effectively.
2.) Observe other programs for individuals with special needs. If other museums in your local area have created programs for these audiences, see if you can observe the programs and talk to the people who have helped create them. Perhaps you could even collaborate on a future program or at least share resources and experiences.
3.) Be flexible. This could be the first time that you or others at our institution are working with a particular audience. Know that it is ok to be flexible and to go with whatever happens, even if that may not necessarily be what you have intended.
Over the past year, I have found that working with audiences with special needs and opening up new worlds for these audiences never grows old. Recently, on one of our tactile tours, one guest who was blind stated, “I’ve said before that I don’t like museums. What’s the point of being here if you can’t see? But this was different. I liked this.”
To learn more about innovative work being done at history museums for audiences with special needs, check out the session “Accessibility for the 21st Century: Welcoming All Visitors to History Museums and Historic Sites” at this fall’s AASLH Annual Meeting in Detroit, where I will be joined by accessibility specialists from the Minnesota Historical Society and New York Transit Museum.
During The Henry Ford Un-Conference, Annual Meeting attendees will have an opportunity to learn more about and participate in our tactile tours. And watch for information about an informal accessibility meet-up during the AASLH meeting.