The access programs for people with disabilities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The access programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - The Met - are conceived to move beyond accessibility to the inclusion of visitors with disabilities. Current US Laws require public institutions to provide appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities to be able to work, receive an education and participate in the cultural life of their communities. It is common practice in art institutions to offer accommodations including assistive listening devices, or sign language interpreters, and to have accessible bathrooms. However, those services are often not integrated within an institutional-wide effort to establish accessibility standards at all organizational levels. Too often institutions fall short of understanding that accessibility and inclusion require rigorous thinking and meticulous designing.

Since the 90’s, Universal Design (UD) has served as a framework while thinking about accessibility and inclusion at The Met. We adapted the principles that UD provides for a museum setting, keeping in accordance with the goal to "design products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design". (Center for Universal Design, 2007).

I will briefly highlight ways we adapted those principles.

When I mention to people what I do, I often get the "oh that’s good work!" It is, of course, important work; but that phrase often underlines a charity perspective. Part of designing programs for visitors with disabilities means to challenge assumptions and expectations that we, as people and a society, have internalized over the centuries. I cringe when I hear people use "differently-abled" when referring to people with disabilities, even more so than when people use "handicapped". At least with the words "handicapped" or "wheelchair-bound" or "crippled", I can briefly explain that it is not politically correct and that’s the end of the conversation. With "differently-abled", I have to explain what a euphemism is and that the term is not empowering but on the contrary damaging. As a person who is legally blind, the term, to me, insinuates that I, my body, automatically can figure out ways to compensate for the fact that I can’t see well. It is forcing me to make things ok: I can’t see but I can do something else. Implicitly, this something else should be extraordinary. 

This is refuting the challenges and frustrations that having no peripheral vision represent. Disability happens on a continuum. This is the only minority than any of us can join at any time in their life. Denying the experience of disability is, ultimately, denying the complexities of being human. This is once again putting the onus on the person with a disability rather than acknowledging that disability is "a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. [And that] overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers". (World Health Organization).

How is all of that relevant to programming at The Met? Because designing programs for people with disabilities requires museum educators, like myself, to pay attention to the complexities of being human and to collaborate with their audiences. This is not about serving people even because it is "good work", it is about being in dialogue with our visitors. As Paulo Freire said: "One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding". (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968). 

In that effort, the Met hires several staff and educators who have disabilities to develop and teach programs. For instance, all of the programs for the deaf community are taught by deaf educators. Every time we conduct formal or informal surveys, participants tell us how crucial it is for them to attend programs taught by a native speaker. It is as much about making the museum more reflective of its visitors as it is about challenging expectations. One of the deaf educators also regularly teaches adult gallery talks that are voice interpreted for the public. Most recently, two artists, one who is totally blind and another partially sighted became contractual educators. They are teaching access programs as well as adult gallery talks and drawing classes for all visitors.

We also collaborate and partner with organizations and colleagues across the New York City area to think with them about how the museum can be a more welcoming, comfortable and relevant place. One of the Met’s most longstanding relationship is with the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at Lighthouse Guild. For the past 20 years, The Met has been hosting the Lighthouse Guild Concert at The Met during which singers and musicians who are blind or partially sighted perform music inspired by the museum’s collection and exhibitions. These connections are mutually beneficial. They place visitors as the main inspiration for our programs and help us reach new audiences.

The Met’s commitment to making its collections and buildings accessible to everyone is based on the belief that "everyone has the right to participate fully in the cultural life of their community" (UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). People with disabilities, like nondisabled visitors, come to museums in search of educational and/or meaningful experiences with art. As noted in Speaking out on Art and Museums (2011) by a participant: "Most of the time I go alone, or even if I go with someone else, I tend to walk around by myself because that way I can really focus on the art". Others come or/and people wish to meet with friends: "For me it‘s usually socializing and talking with friends about the exhibit and the artist", shares another participant. 

As the quotes illustrate, different visitors have different preferences. For example, a visitor who is blind or partially sighted can participate in a scheduled gallery program or a drawing class, or can also request a one-on-one descriptive tour of a specific exhibition or collection. We also strive to provide access to information and works of art in alternative formats; large print label booklets are available at the entrance of special exhibitions or visitors can pick up an audio-guide. While the programs are welcoming of all visitors, we tailor them to meet the diverse needs of our audiences. Visitors who are partially sighted and blind can experience the collection through touch tours, verbal descriptions or handling sessions. All of our programs encourage the use of the senses to access and make connections with works of art. Although multisensory strategies have long been used in science museums, art museums are only recently exploring their potential and redefining learning opportunities for all visitors. As research in neuro and cognitive sciences have helped us to understand sensory perception in art, The Met continues to experiment with multisensory strategies with all audiences.

I would happily talk at length about programs and initiatives to increase accessibility and promote inclusion at the Met. We’re constantly fine tuning our programs, keeping in mind the changes in demographics, semantics, law making, cultural shifts and technology advancements, as well as other factors. Access Programs are only one aspect of the work. It is as crucial to work at the institutional level and to think of inclusion from the inside out.

Marie Clapot is Museum Educator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and worked as Access Coordinator at Indiana University Museum of Arts. She has master's degree in Art Education from Indiana University Bloomington and in Heritage Development from the University of Occidental Brittany, Quimper.

© Rodrigo Mendes Institute. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.5. The copying, distribution and transmission of this work are free, under the following conditions: You must credit the work as authored by Marie Clapot and licensed by Rodrigo Mendes Institute; the use for commercial purposes is forbidden; the change, transformation or building upon this work is forbidden, except with express permission of the licensor.

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