Tales of a Museum Studies Grad Student Part 1

Kris Johnson is a Museum Studies graduate student from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). She came across our blog a few months ago and contacted us to see if we’d be interested in sharing her experience on the Incluseum (you can do the same!). We were very impressed by the work she’s doing to help museums become more accessible to people with disabilities (see her bio below). Over the next few months, you’ll get to learn more about her and her work as she’ll be a regular contributor. 

* * * *

I’m Kris Johnson, and I’m deaf. I wasn’t always deaf though. In a weird way, losing my
hearing actually prompted me to return to college and get a Master’s degree in Museum Studies.
Around the time I became deaf, I wanted to change careers, but wasn’t sure which direction
to take. My experience with disability quickly opened my eyes to many issues of access, as I
tried unsuccessfully to still enjoy visits to museums. I found the MA program at IUPUI, quit
my job, moved to Indiana from Connecticut, and jumped face first into the world of museums,
accessibility, and inclusion.

My first year in the program passed in quite a whirlwind. I talked to tons of people about
museum accessibility, hoarded extra-curricular experiences to learn more about disability, and
completed my first internship at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Those conversations
and experiences collectively shaped five major lessons I learned about accessibility last year.
I’m going to leave you hanging on #2-5. I’ll be writing about each lesson individually, but
here’s #1:

“You won’t always get it right, but you have to try”

Here’s how I learned this lesson: In conversation with a science educator at the Children’s Museum, he told me that he was at a loss for how to communicate program content to Deaf visitors. Occasionally, Deaf kids drop in for science programs in the lab, but he doesn’t have a way to communicate with them to make sure they get the full value of the program. Since my main interest is accessibility for people
with hearing loss, he asked, “Do you want to be my intern, and take a crack at addressing the
issue?” I responded, “Yeah, let’s give it a shot.”

A standard lab program runs in two parts–an introduction to a science topic and a hands-on
activity. The educator talks about the main ideas of the topic, while referring to images or
diagrams in a PowerPoint show, which usually has about 4-6 slides. Right off the bat, I knew
that the slides needed help because there were only images, and nothing to read. I added simple
text to express the main ideas of each slide (see images below). I also reorganized, labeled, and replaced some images, so they strongly connected to the main ideas. These changes provide at least a basic understanding of the program content for people who might not be able to hear the educator. I
also created written instructions of the hands-on activity with photos of materials and key science
vocabulary (see downloadable document below).

Initial Science Program slide without words. Image credit Kris Johnson.

Initial Science Program slide without words. Image credit Kris Johnson.

Edited Science Program slide with words–better suited for Deaf visitors. Image Credit: Kris Johnson.

Edited Science Program slide with words–better suited for Deaf visitors. Image Credit: Kris Johnson.

At that point, we had prototypes to test. Yay! Unfortunately, I recruited only one family with a
Deaf child to test them. Boo! I had no idea it would be so difficult to connect with the Deaf Community, so my evaluation plan pretty much fell flat as I neared the end of the internship period. Even though I hoped to recruit 10-15 families, my interview with that one mom yielded some great feedback about the format of the print materials.

I still went into panic mode because I needed more data to analyze. With the help of a couple of
referrals through a contact with the Indiana Association for the Deaf, I got in touch with a Deaf
teacher from the Indiana School for the Deaf and an ASL interpreter with a background in Deaf
Education. We got together with the museum educator, my academic advisor, and another staff
member for a focus group. I moderated a group discussion of effective communication, using
the prototype materials as the basis of the discussion.

I got positive feedback from the Deaf Education experts on the readable and visual information
in the PowerPoint slides. They also gave feedback that the printed instructions for the hands-on
activity may work better in a different format, possibly a one page handout with vocabulary
and definitions on the back, instead of a binder with multiple pages.

The end result wasn’t exactly what we planned, but it laid the groundwork for more inquiries
about how to improve that system. Also, it created much more staff awareness about the needs
of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. As new programs are created, they’ll follow the
standards set for print and visual materials established during this project. That’s a huge step in
the right direction of being proactive about inclusion and being prepared to work with visitors
with different degrees of hearing ability.

What’s the moral of the story? Because we tried something new, that lab space will work better for people with hearing loss. Is it a perfect solution? No, but it’s a foundation for future improvements in the museum.

Kris Johnson is completing her Master of Arts degree in Museum Studies at Indiana University-
Perdue University Indianapolis. Her work is focused on issues of “effective communication”
for visitors with sensory disabilities. Kris has been an intern at the Children’s Museum of
Indianapolis, working on projects related to evaluating accessibility, promoting disability
awareness, and drafting a museum-wide access plan. She has established Access Indy, a
roundtable for museum professionals in central Indiana to discuss current topics and trends in
museum accessibility. You can contact Kris at kmj20@iupui.edu.

* * * *

Kris kindly decided to make some of the materials she developed during her internship available to Incluseum readers: a guide to making Powerpoint slides and activity instructions for people with hearing loss and an example of activity instructions.

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  1. […] be interested in sharing her experience on the Incluseum (you can do the same!). Last month, in Tales of a Museum Studies Grad Student Part 1, Kris talked about the importance of attempting to address accessibility issues…even if we […]

  2. […] experiences as a grad student working on issues of access in museums (read her other contributions here and here). She recently graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’s […]

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