During a recent conference call among museum educators, one participant made an obvious point. "Art museums are essentially visual institutions," he said. He wasn't laughed off the phone. And given that those on the call were there to discuss how to make the visual arts accessible to the visually handicapped, his point was actually fairly profound.
Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, museums and other institutions have been required to make their facilities "accessible" to everyone, regardless of their particular type of disability. For decades at many museums, this meant little more than providing ramps for people who use wheelchairs and Braille museum guides for people who are blind. But a landmark 2008 Department of Justice ruling forced museums around the country to grapple with what accessibility actually means.
" 'Accessibility' is not very descriptive," says Nina Levent, executive director of New York's Art Education for the Blind. "The issue is, do people come to museums to ride elevators and use bathrooms, or do they come to have a meaningful social and aesthetic experience?"
Michael Byington, the president of the Kansas Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, was seeking the latter when he filed a complaint in 2004 against Washington, D.C.'s Spy Museum, accusing the museum of being inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Byington, who is legally blind, cited a lack of docents able to provide a tour for blind customers; computer exhibits and terminals with speech outputs; and supplementary materials in Braille, large print, and audio format. The DOJ opened an investigation and, four years later, reached a landmark settlement with the museum, which has since spent more than $400,000 updating its facilities. But the DOJ's willingness to pursue the case, and to make it about more than just ramps and handrails, jolted museum educators across the nation.
"It's historic in that they went quite far and it became quite obvious that there is no sense of where the bar is or where the bar should be in terms of accessibility," Levent says. "I think they knew they were setting a precedent." Still, she says, museums need to change their way of thinking: the DOJ suit is not a legal threat but an educational opportunity. "The museums are very nervous. But them being nervous has not led to excellent programming. It became a legal issue as opposed to an issue of education and outreach," she says.
Following the letter rather than the spirit of the law is a problem that some people think has plagued the ADA from the start. Among them is Kareem Dale, President Obama's special adviser on disability policy, who himself is partially sighted. Dale, the first person to hold the position in the White House, views disability rights as civil rights. "We are working on all fronts to try to realize the promise of the ADA," he told museum administrators during the conference call. "It was a bill of rights for people with disabilities, but the original intent has been lost over the last two decades. We will restore the ADA to its original intent, and the Department of Justice has been turned loose to go after people who are violating civil-rights laws. We have a lot of work to do."
Dale has also convened an in-person meeting of museum directors to discuss best practices, and he's thrown his weight behind a forthcoming Web site, called Project Access, that will aggregate accessibility information about every cultural institution, stadium, theater, national park, and public venue in the country. "This is the first time the White House has taken this very aggressive stance," says Paula Terry, of the National Endowment for the Arts' Office for AccessAbility. "I'm not sure what to expect, but I welcome it." Dale's presence in the White House itself suggests that the Obama administration is going to focus on disability issues more strongly than ever before.
To be sure, many museums are already doing more than the bare minimum. The actual question of how to bring the visual arts to those without sight may seem both impractical and impossible. When we think of visiting museums, we tend to think of quiet, meditative places, where we keep our hands to ourselves and our voices down. But museums at the forefront of accessibility are beginning to offer touch tours, tactile maps, and extended verbal descriptions. Some are even incorporating scent into their educational programs.
But those museums are still the exception, not the rule. "We're not there yet," Terry acknowledges. "There's still a lot to be done." The American Academy of Ophthalmology estimates that by 2020, 43 million Americans will be at risk for significant vision impairment from age-related diseases. Millions of us stand to learn that "accessible" means a lot more than just ramps.