Designing Accessible Programs for Museums
This resource provides information on how to make your museum
program accessible for patrons with disabilities. It contains available
published information on museum accessibility. The information is
organized under the following topic headings: guidelines for designing
accessible services and programs, examples of accessible museums,
disability related resources and materials, examples of accessible
digital exhibits, resources on design and museum accessibility
(exhibition design, signage and labels). These resources are provided
for information purposes only, and do not denote endorsement by the
National Arts and Disability Center.
Guidelines for Designing Accessible Services and Programs
1. American Association of Museums. (1993). The Accessible
Museum: Model Programs for Accessibility for Disabled and Older
People. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums
Bookstore. Available at http://www.amazon.com
This publication profiles 19 American museums that have developed
innovative programs successfully addressing issues of accessibility.
Specific examples include ways museums have made policy
adjustments and programmatic changes to incorporate people with
disabilities and older adults into their outreach and in-house
2. Foundation de France. (1992). Museums Without Barriers: A New
Deal for the Disabled. (The Heritage: Care - Preservation -
Management) by Foundation de France, International Committee of
Museums (ICOM). Available at http://www.amazon.com
Essential reading for all professionals concerned with the architecture
and design of museums. This volume provides access to some of
the best practice in providing services for patrons with disabilities,
and sets out an agenda for future action in museums worldwide.
3. Gardner, L. & Groff, G. (1989). What Museum Guides Need to
Know: Access For Blind and Visually Impaired Visitors. New York,
NY: American Foundation for the Blind. For ordering information go
This resource offers practical ideas of how to best serve visitors who
are blind or visually impaired. A training outline for museum
professionals and guidelines for preparing large print, Braille, and
cassette materials are also included.
4. Majewski, J. (1987). Part of Your General Public is Disabled: A
Handbook For Guides in Museums, Zoos, and Historic Houses.
This resource is probably the most widely used resource of its kind.
This guide offers a progressive stance of how thoughtful preparation
for general accessibility can ease anxieties of staff and visitors, and
enhance the museums appeal to a more diverse audience. It is
particularly useful in offering no-cost suggestions of how to adapt a
tour to respond to the needs of certain disability groups. Each section
gives a brief description of the disability, effects of the disability to
consider, terminology tips, procedures in case of an emergency,
factors to consider and practice exercises to check if your tour
reflects careful adaptation in regards to a specific disability.
5. National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and National
Endowment for the Arts (1994). Design for Accessibility: An Arts
Administrator's Guide. Washington, DC: NASAA. Available at
This extensive working document offers suggestions on how best to
comply with Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It
addresses ways of making access an integral part of an organization
and provides successful examples of efforts made by regional, state
and local art groups. Major sections include: creating your
organization design for accessibility; access education; networking
and technical assistance; documenting, initiatives and resources.
6. National Endowment for the Arts. (2003). Design for Accessibility:
A Cultural Administrator's Handbook. Washington, DC: National
Endowment for the Arts. Available at
This resource is designed to help you not only comply with Section
504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, but to assist you in
making access an integral part of your organization's plan.
7. Salmen, J. (1998). Everyone's Welcome: The Americans with
Disabilities Act and Museums. Washington, DC: American
Association of Museums Bookstore. Available at http://www.aam-
This is a manual for museum professionals and designers to help
them better understand the requirements for the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA). It details the ADA requirements, and provides
recommendations for voluntary compliance with the law, to ensure
that museums communicate effectively with all visitors.
8. Siller, M., Joffee, E. (1997). Reaching Out: A Creative Guide for
Designing Cultural Programs and Exhibits for Persons Who are Blind
and Visually Impaired. New York, NY: American Foundation for the
Blind. For ordering information go to the Access and Advocacy
section at http://www.afb.org/store/
This video and accompanying manual is a creative package for
making information on cultural programs and facilities accessible to
people who are blind or visually impaired. Part 1 offers examples of
accessibility programming and shows the interaction between visually
impaired visitors and their environments in museums, libraries, and
other cultural facilities. Part 2 describes how organizations can
prepare and train their staff and volunteers to provide accessible
environments and programs.
Some Examples of Accessible Museums and their Programs
1. The Tactual Museum http://www.tactualmuseum.gr/indexe.htm
The Tactual Museum was founded in 1984 and gives the visually
impaired the opportunity to come in touch with ancient Greek Culture.
The Tactual Museum provides the opportunity for all visitors to touch
all the Exhibits that are copies of the originals displayed in other
museums of our country.
2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)
The MET is committed to making its collections, programs,
information, and services accessible and inclusive to all audiences.
For visitors with visual impairments, they offer touch tours, verbal
imaging tours, large print and Braille labels, and workshops. Touch
and Explore is an offsite program bringing art education to schools
with visually impaired children. A range of programs, including gallery
talks, lectures, and family programs, are Sign Language interpreted
on a regular basis. Lectures with Real Time captioning are also
offered regularly. Discoveries are a weekend family program for
people of all ages with developmental disabilities. The MET won the
2003 Museum Accessibility Award from the American Association of
Museums for its Picture This workshop, a museum program designed
for people with visual impairments.
3. The Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution publishes the Smithsonian Guidelines for
Accessible Exhibition Design (1996) a free guide for visitors with
disabilities with information on access features in each individual
museum. In addition to publishing exemplary books, the Smithsonian
Accessibility Program has done a superlative job of supporting
access in its many museums. They produce outstanding training
sessions throughout the staff and work closely with the development
of each exhibit. The Sakler Gallery at the Smithsonian was the 1998
winner of the AAM Access Award.
5. The Legion of Honor Museum
The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco can prearrange tours
with experienced Access Docents. Tours include one on one which
visitors who are blind may touch approximately ten of the museum's
works of art. For popular exhibits, Access Days are designated for
times when the museum is less crowded. For the permanent
collection, there is an audio tour and a printed edition of the recording
for deaf visitors. Audio tours are also available for many temporary
exhibitions. Sign language interpreters are provided with advanced
Queens Museum of Art
ArtAccess is a unique program of the Queens Museum of Art
designed specifically for visitors with special needs. Launched in
1983 at the Queens Museum of Art as Please Touch to provide art
education for the visually impaired, ArtAccess has since grown into a
nationally reproduced model program designed to allow audiences
with diverse abilities to enjoy a personal connection to works of art.
The museums commitment to working with children and adults with
varying abilities was recognized in 2008 when the ArtAccess program
received the Mayor’s Award to commemorate the 18-year
anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
7. The Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum of Fine Arts offers ‘Feeling for Form,’ a program that
provides access for visitors of all ages who are blind or have low
vision. Volunteers are trained to introduce participants to selected
objects in the Museum's collections. Listening devices are available
for lectures and films—no reservations are needed. Also available are
tours followed by art-making workshops and painting tours with audio
description. Presentations in American Sign Language are also
available for a selection of gallery tours, performances, and
demonstrations. They were the 1995 winner of the AAM Accessibility
8. The Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art won the 2000 Access Innovation in the
Arts Award. This award was presented by the VSA Arts and
Metropolitan Life Foundation to recognize the museum for its
innovations in developing programs to serve those who are blind and
visually impaired. In 2007, MoMA received the Ruth Green Advocacy
Award from the League for the Hard of Hearing. The museum offers
touch tours for blind and partially sighted visitors to experience a
selection of sculptures, paintings, and design objects from the
collection. Art courses for blind and partially sighted visitors featuring
the work of influential modern and contemporary artists are held
periodically at the Museum. Each class includes touch tours, tactile
diagrams, enlarged color reproductions, and hands-on activities.
9. Museum of Science
The Museum of Science offers Braille for specific exhibitions. The
Museum has launched a pilot program featuring talking Signs, an
infrared communications system which transmits audio messages to
help visitors navigate the museum.
Examples of Accessible Digital Exhibits
1. Dayton Art Institute for
The Dayton Art Institute offers an accessible internet museum tour of
the institute's permanent collection presented through a variety of
internet technologies for people of diverse abilities. Access Art
provides all visitors with an informative and absorbing experience
equal to or better than what they might have in the museum's
2. The Tate Digital Project IMAP http://www.tate.org.uk/imap/
The Tate Digital Project IMAP is an online art resource designed for
visually impaired people with a general interest in art, art teachers
and their visually impaired pupils. It incorporates text, audio, image
enhancement and deconstruction, animation and raised images.
Rather than examining the entire artwork at once, i-Map introduces
detail in a carefully planned sequence, gradually building towards an
understanding of the work as a whole.
Disability Related Resources and Materials
1. A Step by Step Guide to Building Accessible Arts in California
A Step by Step Guide to Building Accessible Arts in California was
designed by the NADC to assist the arts community as they make
their space, programs, and activities available to approximately 5
million Californians with disabilities. Topics covered in this publication
include: how the law applies to your organization, patrons, and
audiences; conduct an ADA survey of your facility; adopt a policy
statement about your organizations commitment to accessibility; train
your staff; implement your ADA plan; and promote and advertise your
2. Communicating with and about Individuals with Disabilities
http://nadc.ucla.edu/Communic.cfm is a resource listing that includes
books, articles, and videos that provide suggestions on how to
communicate with and write about people with disabilities in a
3. Universal Access http://ed-resources.net/universalaccess/
addresses issues related to access to museum web sites by people
4. Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers
d=DBT provide public awareness, technical assistance and referrals
on the ADA. Copies of ADA publications are available as well
5. The National Information Center for Children and Youth with
Disabilities http://www.nichcy.org/Pages/Home.aspx offers resource
sheets about disability related organizations in your state. They serve
the nation as a central source of information on: disabilities in infants,
toddlers, children, and youth, IDEA, which is the law authorizing
special education, No Child Left Behind (as it relates to children with
disabilities), and research-based information on effective educational
6. State Agencies and Organizations for ADA Compliance and
Technical Assistance available http://nadc.ucla.edu/states.cfm offers
directories organized by state that contain organizations and
agencies that provide technical assistance on the ADA and the Arts.
Information is included on disability agencies and organizations for
creating an access and advisory committee or conducting outreach to
the disability community.
Resources on Design and Museum Accessibility
1. Arizona Checklist for Assessing Accessibility
2. Association of Science Technology Centers provides access
3. U.S Access Board http://www.access-board.gov
They are responsible for developing the minimum guidelines and
requirements for standards issued under the ADA and other laws
addressing accessibility in facilities and communication.
4. Checklists for Existing Facilities
The goal of the survey process is to plan how to make an existing
facility more usable for people with disabilities
Signage and Labels
1. Edman, P. (1992). Tactile Graphics. New York, NY: The American
Foundation for the Blind. Order from http://www.afb.org/store
This comprehensive handbook is for anyone who needs to present
visual information to individuals who are visually impaired or blind.
The author demonstrates the production of drawings, tactile pictorial
signs, photographs, diagrams, maps, charts and Braille usage
symbols using tactile graphics.
2. How to Design with Colors that Contrast Effectively for People with
Low Vision and Color Deficiencies at
This Web page contains three basic guidelines for making effective
color choices that work for nearly everyone
3. Lang, K. (undated). Art for the Blind, Art a GoGo , at
accessed 4-22-03, is an online article that describes methods,
resources and examples of programs that make museums accessible
to people who are blind or visually impaired.
4. National Endowment for the Arts and the Graphic Artists Guild
Foundation. (1993). Disabilities Access Symbols Project: Promoting
Accessible Places and Programs. New York, NY: The Graphic Artists
Guild Foundation. http://arts.endow.gov/pub/pubAccess.html
his package includes 12 graphic symbols designed to assist
museums, state art agencies, performing arts facilities, and other arts
organizations advertising that their programs are accessible to senior
citizens and individuals with disabilities.
5. Smithsonian Institution. (1996). Smithsonian Guidelines for
Accessible Exhibition Design. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian
Institution. Download at
This guide is presented as a working document in which creative
resources are being tested in different combinations to find workable
solutions. It outlines topics and provides diagrams/illustrations that
serve to present the information in a clear and understandable
manner. Sections include: guidelines and tools (exhibition content
and items, label design and, audiovisuals, circulation route, furniture,
color, lighting, public programming spaces, emergency egress, and
children’s environments); resources; glossary; and appendix
(checklist for publications, language usage, access symbols, list of
illustrations, production notes).
Museum Visitors with Disabilities Scenarios
The following scenarios are based upon a real life experience of a
person using a wheelchair in a museum, but have been exaggerated
to illustrate the importance and benefit of staff training. As you read
the following scenarios think of how you would have been able to
address the requests of the visitor.
A person who uses a wheelchair goes to a museum to see a new
exhibit with a friend. When buying their tickets the staff member gives
the ticket and change to the visitor's companion even though the
visitor using a wheelchair paid for both tickets. Once inside the
museum, the visitor using a wheelchair asks at the information desk
for the accessible route to the exhibit on the lower level. The visitor
follows the directions offered to a nearby elevator but unfortunately
this elevator does not go to the lower level. The visitor returns to the
information desk where she waits fifteen minutes for the information
staff to find out which elevators go to that level. She is still unable to
get to the exhibit after finally getting to the lower level because there
are a few steps to the main exhibit area so she approaches a security
guard. The security guard is unaware of where an accessible route is
located. The visitor never sees the exhibit she had come to see, and
leaves with her friend feeling very frustrated. Next time she and her
friend go to a museum, they go to another one.
A person who uses a wheelchair goes to a museum to see a new
exhibit with a friend. The visitor with a disability is able to easily
approach the ticket office and the ticket sales staff member is able to
easily reach across and give the visitor a ticket and her change. Once
inside the museum, the visitor using a wheelchair asks at the
information desk where the accessible route is located. The person
working at the information desk tells the visitor using a wheelchair
that the exhibits and accessible routes change frequently. The
information desk worker goes to her supervisor to find out the
accessible routes and returns to explain where all the elevators,
accessible bathrooms, and ramps are located. The information desk
worker also tells the visitor and her friend to ask security along the
way if they have more questions about where to go. The visitor and
her friend follow the directions given and signage to the elevator.
Upon exiting the elevator they are told by a security guard how to
avoid the steps to the exhibit and enter from the side ramp. The
exhibit developer has thought about his visitors with disabilities and
made sure there was a ramp, that the exhibit had Braille descriptions
underneath, and that the history of the artist was written in large print
with easy to understand language. Both the visitor and her friend are
so impressed by the museum’s efforts to make the exhibit accessible
to everyone that they share their experience with others and return
many times to see other exhibits.
It is important to use language that is respectful and emphasizes the
person, not the disability. This is referred to as "people-first" language
and seeks to avoid generic labels such as “the disabled." The
following are examples of ways to communicate with and about
visitors, artists, and employees with disabilities:
Terms Not To Use People-First Language
Normal, healthy Visitor without a disability,
Crippled Visitor with a disability
Victim Visitor who has "______"
Special (i.e. Down syndrome,
Retarded, dumb multiple
Deaf sclerosis, quadriplegia,
Crazy, nuts Visitor with mental
Mute retardation, a learning
Dwarf, midget disability,
Visitor who is deaf or has a
Visitor who is blind or has a
Visitor who has a mental
illness, mental disability
Visitor who is nonverbal
Visitor of small (short)
Suffers from Visitor who has a congenital
Stricken with disability
Born with "_______"
Confined to a wheelchair
Wheelchair bound Visitor who uses a
wheelchair (or any other
mobility aid, i.e.
crutches, walker, electric
scooter, hearing aid)
Effective Interactions with Visitors with Disabilities at Museums
As disability awareness and sensitivity increases, museum
professionals are looking for a way to improve interactions with their
visitors with disabilities. To meet this need the National Arts and
Disability Center has designed these communication guides to
increase the ease with which everyone relates to each other. People
with disabilities should be extended the same common courtesies as
anyone else, but there are a few disability specific tips that can help
you and the visitor with a disability feel more comfortable.
Key points to remember:
Treat adults as adults.
Speak directly to the person, not his/her companion.
When offering assistance, wait to find out if they want your help
Before you help.
Adaptive equipment, such as crutches, canes, walkers,
wheelchairs are all part of someone’s personal space. Do not
touch or lean on them.
Service animals, usually identified by a harness, are working
animals and should not be petted or otherwise distracted. At a
minimum, you should ask the owner whether you might pet the
Ask permission before moving someone or any of their adaptive
Be familiar with the accessible features of your museum (i.e.
Don’t be embarrassed to use common expressions that may
relate to a disability, i.e. the picture you want to see is… to
someone who is blind.
Ask a person with a physical disability how you can be of
assistance, i.e. open a door, push them, or provide directions of
wheelchair accessible routes.
When talking with someone who uses a wheelchair for more
than a few minutes, try to find a seat for yourself or kneel so
that you can be at eye level.
Do not lean on someone’s wheelchair.
Ask permission to push someone; do not suddenly start moving
Do not move someone’s cane, crutches, walker, or other aid
Do not distract a working animal.
Introduce yourself when you approach someone who is blind
and let them know when you are leaving.
Allow the person with a visual disability to take your arm to
guide them. If you are taking them to a seat, place their hand
on the seat before letting go of their arm.
Describe the surroundings and the exhibits to a person who has
a visual disability.
Describe and give directions by using clock cues.
Offer large print materials if appropriate.
Do not pet or distract a seeing-eye dog.
Talk directly with the person who is deaf, not the interpreter.
Talk in your regular speaking voice.
Know how to arrange for a sign-language interpreter for tours.
Gain the attention of the person with a hearing disability before
talking by lighting tapping his/her shoulder or some visual cue.
Some people will read lips so it is important to face the person
you are talking to and keep food and hands away from your
Speak the way you normally do, not louder or slower.
Do not pretend to understand if you do not. Ask the person with
a speech disability to repeat himself and then paraphrase what
you think he said.
If possible ask questions that require short responses.
Avoid directional terms such as north, south. Use precise
language, i.e. follow the hallway through X gallery, the
bathrooms are to your immediate left.
If the visitor is having difficulty with your explanation or
directions, you may want to try different ways of giving the
Some people with cognitive disabilities may be easily
distracted. Be patient.
Some people with cognitive disabilities may be overstimulated if
there is too much to absorb at one time. Talk in a calm voice.
Tips for interacting with visitors with disabilities have been modified
Communicating with people with disabilities. (1992). Adaptive
Environments Center, Inc.
Majewski, J. (1993). Part of your general public is disabled.
Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
The Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with
(1994, Irene M. Ward & Associates)
1. Speak directly to the person rather than a companion
or sign language interpreter.
2. Always offer to shake hands when greeting.
3. Always identify yourself and others with you when
meeting someone who is blind.
4. If you offer assistance, wait for acceptance of offer
and for any instructions.
5. Greet adults as adults; avoid treating them as
6. Don’t lean on a wheelchair or aid. Do not distract a
7. Listen carefully to people who have difficulty
speaking; be patient. Repeat and paraphrase what you
heard and wait for their response.
8. Place self at eye level of someone using a
wheelchair or crutches.
9. Tap a person who is deaf on the shoulder to get their
10. Relax; don’t be embarrassed if you use phrases
that seem to relate to a disability.