Tales of a Museum Studies Grad Student Part 2

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!). 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 won’t always get it right. This month, she explores how attitudinal barriers can impact our work towards a more accessible museum.  

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In my first blog post for the Incluseum , I talked about one of the major lessons I’ve learned as a Museum Studies student specializing in accessibility: the importance of being proactive and taking initiatives to remove barriers to museum experiences. The next major lesson I want to share with you is that barriers go beyond the built environment. After becoming a student, it occurred to me that physical and communication barriers are easy to recognize and resolve, as they tend to be predictable and well-defined. Attitudinal barriers, however, tend to be more complex.

What is an attitudinal barrier?

Attitudinal barriers are related to the way we think about access and disability.  This doesn’t mean people have negative attitudes, or purposely work against accessibility. It just means that stereotypes, assumptions and lack of information can affect a museum professional’s judgment when considering the needs and abilities of visitors.

1. Stereotypes and Assumptions

I’ll put myself in the hot seat first and describe a specific instance when I was confronted with my personal attitude towards access and disability. At the time, I was volunteering in art classes where most artists were people with a developmental disability affecting mobility and/or cognition. I naturally gravitated toward individuals who needed a little more guidance or prompting to complete each week’s project. During these classes, a specific artist helped open my eyes to the fact that I was very guilty of making the general assumption that people with developmental disabilities aren’t as aware of what’s going on, or are less responsive to the world.

This young man is non-verbal and dependent on a caregiver. I routinely stopped and checked on the progress of his projects. At first, I didn’t realize I talked to his mom more than him, until I caught him laughing at one of my jokes. I decided to be more observant of him making art and  speak directly to him in every class. It didn’t take long for me to realize I had underestimated him and other artists too.

Thanks to my increased awareness towards my previous attitude, I can now make better decisions about how I engage with the artists. I also feel more confident  I’m helping them discover their full capabilities in class—not limiting them to what I think they can do.

2. Lack of Information

Next, I’ll describe a case where a lack of information potentially contributed to creating the assumption that applying accessibility measures to an exhibition component would negatively affect educational outcomes for visitors without disabilities. As part of an informal accessibility consultation at a hands-on science center, I made some recommendations about the use of light and color to enhance visibility of clear liquids in tubes set up in a display about viscosity. When visitors press a button in front of each tube, air bubbles are released, and visitors can observe the speed at which the air bubbles travel through liquids of different viscosity.

Adjusting lighting and color is a common practice in addressing the needs of people with low vision.  For example, I have observed and interviewed a science teacher at a school for the blind who uses food coloring to make water more visible to students. Moreover, the Smithsonian’s guide to accessible exhibit design gives very detailed information related to exhibit lighting and use of color for visitors with low vision. My recommendations consisted of changing the background color of the wall behind the display, increasing illumination of the viscosity tubes, or adding color to the liquids.

A staff member responded that changing the color of the liquids would “compromise the educational integrity” of the exhibit, which confused me because I couldn’t think of a reason why. This person did not explain how the conclusion had been reached, but I suspect it was a general knee-jerk reaction to change like I had already encountered in the past.

I’m often at a loss on how to respond when asked, “Where do we draw the line in increasing accessibility while ensuring it doesn’t take away from the experience of everyone else?” …That’s a difficult question to consider. I usually end up offering my own spin on the question:  “How do we erase that line and start thinking about how accessibility can add to everyone’s experience while avoiding further segregating and isolating people with disabilities from their families and other visitors?”

These kinds of attitudinal barriers are the hardest to fight because people aren’t usually aware of them. Dispelling stereotypes and breaking assumptions is a process and doesn’t happen overnight.  Each of us, in the way we approach our work, should always challenge the way we think about the needs and abilities of all of our visitors, including those that can be labeled “disabled”.  When making decisions, we should always ask ourselves:  “Am I acting based on my own assumptions?  Have I gathered the most accurate information available?  Am I underestimating people’s abilities?”

Stay tunned next month for lesson #3!

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.

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How have you seen attitudinal barriers played out in your work or organization? How did you address them? What did you learn from them?

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One comment

  1. […] 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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