Did you ever think about how you perceive your environment? How you get through your day, maneuvering your body from A to B? How you absorb and process information? How you orientate in this world?
It is possible, that you are included in 85% of the world’s population that doesn’t have a disability or any physical or mental impairment. I do belong to that group, too.
However, 15% of this world’s population are disabled or impaired in some way – and that’s only the assured cases. They might need help, adapted public spaces or any other special needs in general. And those needs are totally normal.
The magic word that leads to “normal” is inclusion. It means, that every human belongs here naturally, no matter what. Everyone can join anything. The word “normal” could also be seen as relative. Either everyone or no one is normal. If you aren’t used to something, it doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse. Everyone should be accepted the way they are. That’s a human right. It hasn’t always been. History proofs that disabled people have been sorted out and murdered by the national socialists in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s for example. They were seen as inferior, weak and useless. Their death was meant to be their “salvation” from a life being “unworthy to be lived”.
In 2006 the UN passed a convention for disability rights which started in 2008. That’s not long ago. If you think that we are super progressive as well as close to “normal” and equality, I need to give you an example: The Dutch sign language has been taught in schools since the 1990s but was acknowledged as an official language in 2020. Let that sink in.
What does the UN do? A convention in general is an agreement that is being consensually held by humans or states. At the moment 178 countries confess to the UN’s disability rights convention and are therefore obligated to implement it. The progress is being controlled by the UN. The convention is meant to fight and eliminate discrimination and disadvantages as fast as possible. It is all about equality. Obviously, we still need to work on many topics. Accessibility – in public spaces, the internet, education and language. A self-determined life has to be enabled for everyone, which includes same rights for everyone. Especially when it comes to education and work. There are many projects, initiatives and developments that are trying to improve the situation.
In my opinion, one of the two biggest obstacles for non-disabled people still is to break the ice. We need to break down the fear of contact if we want to reach equality. The other one is to make sure, that we listen to disabled and impaired people - to their needs and opinions. Everyone has the choice how they want to participate in society – that has to be made sure and possible in general.
Something you might have never thought about: an example
As you walk into a museum, you get a ticket at the counter, get information from the employees and visit the exhibition. You watch the videos, listen to the audio guide and walk around in order to get information. Those standards do not include all people – blind people might have trouble finding the route without guiding lines and audio descriptions. Deaf people cannot listen to the information. They have to read everything, which takes a lot more time and is a lot more exhausting. Also, they might have trouble communicating with the staff if they do not know sign language. And people that have to rely on their wheelchair might not even get inside, if there is no elevator or a ramp as an alternative to stairs. I know those are very rough examples, but they are enough to show the main problem: special needs have to be made standard. Otherwise, we exclude a whole group from education and being an equal part of society. Not all museums are inclusive yet. Not at all.
Do’s and don’ts
Improving accessibility, many aspects need to be minded. Sandra ter Mijtelen, head of education in the Resistance Museum Amsterdam, collected Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to improving inclusion at a museum.
First of all, you need to determine your target audience and purpose. In this case we want to enable an independent visit for visually as well as auditory impaired people. Therefore, we need to ask the right people questions. Meaning: affected people that are interested in helping us to develop accessibility.
For visually impaired people guiding lines, tactile objects, a clamp for sticks, good light balance and contrast, explanations and directions in the audio tour as well as sticky buttons on the podcatchers turned out to be very helpful for an independent visit.
For auditive impaired people there is a video tour in Dutch sign language, which is accessible via one’s own phone or a tablet of the museum. Everything is accessible through the same activation points and system.
In general, you just need to keep testing. Several people have been invited to test these developments and to give feedback. It is a process. Starting with the kids’ exhibition, the museum has made the temporary exhibition the next test object. Using the feedback people give, not only the content of the main exhibition will be renewed, but the whole accessibility and design will be improved.
Train your co-workers in workshops which give insight in the lives of visually and auditor impaired people. There they learn how to help them properly when visiting the museum.
And never stop to learn from each other.
Regarding the don’ts there is one big aspect influencing every part of the process: Don’t think that you could please everyone. What might be useful for some can be very unhandy for others. There is no real “general solution”.
Concerning a museum visit for visual impaired people there are three don’ts which should be minded. Don’t use image descriptions, for example of historical objects that you cannot touch and that have no artistic value. Don’t lay the guiding lines and floor markings to close to the wall and avoid too many activation points. The latter actually affects all visitors but is mainly confusing for visually impaired people.
Communication is key
Talking to a tester of the new, inclusive exhibition in the Resistance Museum: Anne has a visual impairment but is practically blind. I asked her about challenges she has to face in her daily life, how she expects her fellow men to act and what her highlights in the Resistance Museum were.
Challenges depend on every individual, she says. Some people even become victims of their situation and are fully dependent on other people. Her biggest challenge is to be as independent as possible. It is her goal to travel independently, to visit a museum and to use public transport. How accessible is a visit in a museum, for example? It takes energy, she says, and a lot of curiosity. Accessibility starts with information about the visit. It is important to know if a museum has easily usable audio guides, that also explain the route through the exhibition and therefore allow her to use it independently. It is useful to have an informative website, where she can see what there is to expect, how she can buy a proper ticket and if she can get there easily. Often, she says, the phone numbers to ask for help are very small or hidden on the website. They need to be easily accessible, too. Otherwise, it is very discouraging to visit the museum before she even started to do so.
Anne hopes that people help when they see someone struggling with being independent. In a foreign environment she expects to receive help in order to find the right way, for example. She wants to be warned of danger and to get help in uncomfortable situations. Her experiences are positive - as long as you ask and thank them friendly, people will help. No matter if they are young, old, homeless or even junkies: she has never not received help and she never felt afraid.
Being a tester in the Resistance Museum she mainly liked encountering the people and to talk about the exhibition. She appreciated many things: the guiding lines, the tactile objects and also the clips for her stick, for example. Those seem to be small things, but they make the exhibition accessible for her.
The conversation with Anne shows, that everyone has the same longings: to do things one likes independently and to take part in society. To encounter people and to gain information. That is why everyone has the right to inclusion and accessibility. Because we are not the same and that is normal. Normal is relative, anyways.