Access Indy: Creating a Community of Practice

We’re delighted to host Kris Johnson on the Incluseum again! Over the last year, she blogged for us twice and shared her 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 (IUPUI) Museum Studies program and is now a museum accessibility consultant and manager of the Indiana Deaf History Museum.  Today, she writes about her experiences with Access Indy.

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This past summer marked the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and even though accessibility has improved a whole lot since then, many museums struggle with how to be more open and accommodating. Just getting started with figuring out how to identify barriers in your museum can be difficult, and deciding how to remove them can be an even more daunting task. What are the legal requirements? What are the most current and effective best practices for museums? What do we do if we don’t have the resources to meet requirements and follow best practices? What does the community need? These are just a few questions that come up when I talk with museum people about access for people with different needs.

As a student, I was fortunate to connect with many experts in the field of accessibility. Through these interactions, I quickly learned that they are as eager to share their knowledge, as museum people are curious to know more about meeting the needs of visitors with disabilities. I also observed what seems to be a lack of cross-over conversations about access and inclusion. I asked myself, “If there’s so much interest and readily available information, why aren’t people talking and sharing ideas?”I brought this issue up to my advisor, Liz Kryder-Reid, who suggested establishing a roundtable to spark that dialogue here in Indianapolis. I assembled a committee of advisors from the local museum community, and decided on a format and schedule of discussion topics.

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Access Indy was conceived. Five sessions took place during the year, which were sponsored by the IUPUI Museum Studies Department. We also created a Facebook page, where we post news and links to resources related to access, inclusion, and disability awareness. The goal of this project was to bring museum professionals, students, accessibility experts and people with disabilities together. We wished to raise awareness of how museums can create new opportunities that would allow people with disabilities to become active members of their communities through participation in exhibitions, programs, shows and other events.

Our kick-off session last fall provided an introduction to the types of barriers that affect visitor experience, an overview of the self-evaluation process to assess an organization’s current accessibility, and how to create an access plan. Ric Edwards, who is an ADA expert with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, was our guest speaker and explained state and federal accessibility laws.

In January, Sherrill York and Ray Bloomer of the National Center on Accessibility presented on the topic of Universal Design. Sherrill and Ray each have 30+ years of experience and are national leaders on access and inclusion in the fields of recreation and tourism. They provided many examples of universal design principles applied to museums from all across the US.

Kate Kunk of the Central Indiana Council on Aging (CICOA) joined us in February and introduced issues that affect the growing population of older adults. She spoke about ageism and apathy toward quality of life, and how those issues affect their ability to stay socially and intellectually engaged in their communities.The Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted this session, which coincided with the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lynn Walsh, Manager of Access and Inclusion at the Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM), made an exceptionally gracious contribution to the success of March’s session by traveling all the way from Chicago to talk about CCM’s “Play For All” program which addresses the many needs of children with disabilities, including autism. Gayle Holman, President & CEO of VSA—Indiana, welcomed our group to the VSA studios where community art classes are held, and Gayle provided some background information about VSA and working with people who have developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Our final event for the 2012-2013 school year was hosted by the Indiana Historical Society. I gave a presentation about where to find reliable data about disability, and how to connect with community partners who are willing to advise museums on building accessible programs. Methods and techniques that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of accessible programs were also discussed.

Attendees of the roundtables represented a dozen museums and non-profit organizations, and five IUPUI academic majors, which I feel is a huge success. General feedback has been very positive, and many attendees brought what they learned back to their organizations and continued conversations with their peers, or taken action to make their exhibits and programs more accessible. My hope is to firmly establish Access Indy as a permanent network of accessibility advocates who will work together to promote awareness, develop capacity building workshops, and create effective solutions to the accessibility issues that so many museums face. Recently, an Indiana Arts Commission grant was awarded to IUPUI’s Cultural Heritage Research Center to continue and expand the Access Indy program.

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Kris Johnson recently completed  her Master of Arts  in Museum Studies at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis. She is now a museum accessibility consultant.  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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