Book Review: Programming for People with Special Needs

Originally posted on Medium. November 23, 2016.

This week I am wrote a book review on Katie Stringer’s Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites which is about creating programs and exhibits that are accessible for all visitors especially visitors with special needs. I personally enjoyed reading this book because it gave me more insight on programming I am familiar with to an extent, and it made me reflect on my own experiences as a museum goer and professional. In my first blog post, I stated that as a kid museums have helped supplement my education whether I went during field trips or during family visits to various museums including Plimoth Plantation.

Each school year growing up, my educational plan would be adjusted since my summer experiences would give me various experiences that would change the way I learned from the previous year. My teachers understood that my mind was always changing so the lessons are planned accordingly and my Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P) was adjusted after each review. A part of my altering learning experiences I have always owed to my visits to museums. When I read the book, I saw the content from the perspective as a museum professional and as a former child with learning differences; I liked how Stringer handled the material and that she understood that programs would need to be adjusted to make sure all visitors get the full experience of what museums can offer. I recommend reading this book to at least get started on planning for your museums and/or at least to get to know how to address all audiences from all backgrounds including those with special needs.

Stringer’s book had six chapters dedicated to creating programs for every visitor especially for visitors with special needs. The first chapter introduces the book explaining museums as educational centers and brief history of disability in the United States. The second chapter shares details on etiquette on how to interact with visitors who have disabilities. The third chapter is dedicated to defining universal design and how museums and historic sites can benefit from implementing programs, exhibits, and spaces adhering to universal design standards. The fourth chapter reviews programs at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the New York Transit Museum, and explain what the programs are as well as the ways to adapt those programs for various audiences are explored. The fifth chapter is a case study from Tennessee of best practices for creating museum programs for all visitors especially those with special needs. The sixth chapter is the concluding chapter which ends with suggestions for museum professionals to make their own museums universally designed and accessible for audiences with special needs. Each of the chapters are divided into sections to explain certain aspects of creating programs for all audiences.

Chapter one discusses the museums’ roles as centers for education, disability rights and awareness, early exhibitions of people with disabilities. The chapter is divided into a couple of sections on museums’ roles in education and history of disabilities in the United States. The first section is called The Role of Museums as Centers for Educations which explained the history of museums and how they became to be centers for education as well as understanding museums’ roles in education. The second section is called Disability Rights and Awareness. Stringer explained the history of disability rights which began during John F. Kennedy’s presidency in the 1960s and led to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The third section was called Early Exhibitions of People with Disabilities in which she talked about when individuals with disabilities were part of traveling circuses, sideshows, and dime museums; she iterated in the section that museums today want to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, and explained the historical legacy of discrimination with focus on people with intellectual disabilities and other related cognitive and developmental disabilities. The last section was called Accessibility at Museums and Historic Sites and she discussed the ways historic sites and museums must do to adjust to make them more accessible.

Chapter two is dedicated to sensitivity and awareness of visitors with special needs and disabilities. The sections in this chapter include strategies and techniques for welcoming all visitors, workshops and training opportunities, and museums leading by example. Stringer explained in detail strategies and techniques to welcome all visitors, and emphasized that all museums should form partnerships and consultation groups that include community members who have disabilities. The workshops and training opportunities section reveals various examples for professional development for museum professionals such as information for staff training at the British Museum called “Disability Awareness Scheme”; it offers training for museum employees and volunteers through the SHAPE program, training for all visitor service and security staff by the access manager employed by the museum, and visual awareness training for visitor service staff. She also provided details about a few museums that are leading by example of innovative programs and opportunities for both staff and the public to learn more about disabilities and sensitivity including the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia which hosted an Autism Awareness Night in 2009. The Autism Awareness Night is a program for one evening the museum was open to families and children with autism, and the program was so successful that in 2010 the Please Touch Museum opened for a Disability Awareness Night for all children and families with disabilities.

Chapter three has examples of museums utilizing universal design successfully including the Boston Museum of Science, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Royal Ontario Museum. The Boston Museum of Science created accessible exhibits that every visitor can easily use. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a program referred to as “seeing through drawing” which is an activity for individuals with sight impairment. The Royal Ontario Museum offers Braille and large print booklets for visitors with sight impairments. There is a section about universal design in learning which focuses on the four essentials of universal design. The four essentials of universal design are to ensure that the lesson represents information in multiple formats and media, provides multiple pathways for students’ actions and expressions, provides multiple ways to engage students’ interests and motivation, and occurs in a safe environment. Stringer stated in the book that museum educators should remember these aspects creating lesson plans and programs for any groups. Chapter four has examples that are selected from museums that represent art museums, science and technology museums, and historic sites and history museums. The museums included in the book’s examples are MOMA, Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida, New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution Museums in Washington, D.C. The programs from these museums highlighted in the book vary from those offered to senior adults, to children with disabilities, and to families that have a member with a disability.
In the Museum of Contemporary Art’s program, Stringer stated the museum staff stress that their program is not a field trip experience but rather community based instruction. A field trip is a visit or an isolated experience that supplements the curriculum; meanwhile community-based instruction relates to goals in the school, ongoing instruction, and continuing reinforcement and can translate to the real world instead of only the classroom. When I was a kid attending museums with my school, I assumed that museums are all about sharing its space for school field trips and for families visiting the museum. With experience in the museum field as a museum educator, I saw that museums are more than field trips and family trips; museums have and explore many ways to reach out to the community to use resources that explain the shared relationship museums and communities have in our society. Stringer explained there are opportunities for adaptation and integration at small museums and historic sites.

Chapter five explores the process of creating educational programming for children with special needs and the elements that create successful programs. There are seven key elements for effective programs that were explained and visually displayed in a table with details about each key concept and their purpose. The seven key concepts are sensitivity and awareness training, planning and communication, timing, engagement, object centered and inquiry-based, structure, and flexibility. I agree with Stringer when she reiterates that flexibility is essential for any museum work because we can plan for any possible outcome in each of our lessons but something unexpected will always happen no matter which group we work with; we come up with as many backup scenarios as we can to make sure we can still have successful programs for visiting individuals especially visitors with special needs or disabilities. The chapter also discusses a survey that were given to educators working with individuals with special needs; this survey asked questions including do they take them on field trips, kinds of disabilities they work with, desired learning experience from trip, and educator references for programs. The results of this survey were displayed in pie charts giving museum educators an idea of what other educators’ expectations were from the museums. Stringer stated that the takeaway from the survey was some people still believe that museums are not places where all students are welcome because of noise or behavioral problems that students may cause. Our museums have a long way to go to create programs and exhibits that can reach to all our audiences but the result will be worth it.

In the last chapter, it discusses the future of adapting programs for each visitor especially individuals with special needs. I am personally glad that the book is honest by not saying museums have completely figured out programming for all visitors of various backgrounds. Stringer revealed that the book does not explore all the options in the relatively new field of programs for people with special needs, and the field continues to grow as the population becomes more aware of the growing population of individuals with disabilities. I believe this book is a good starting point for museums to adapt their programs for all visitors of various abilities, and we need to use the experiences the museums in this book had as references for our own museums to follow suit. If we do not continue to adapt our lessons for our surrounding communities, we risk alienating people who could enjoy the experiences as well as learn from them.

Stringer’s book opened my eyes to ideas and concepts that I’m already aware of as a museum educator and things I was not aware of at the same time. For instance, I did not know about the Museum Access Consortium (MAC) of New York City which allows museum staff, volunteers, community members, and educators opportunities to discuss strategies together and to develop successful programs. Since I am still new to the museum community in New York, I am not surprised that I have not heard about this organization. This looks like a great resource I would use as I create lessons for all visitors of various abilities. Also, I learned more about audiences I have not worked with before; as a museum educator, I have worked on occasion with students with learning differences and I have worked with adults with memory loss in various programs. I have very limited experience working with children with autism for instance; Stringer found helpful advice on creating activities for children with autism including plan for multiple levels of development, incorporate levels of sense involvement, activities build success at any level in process and/or product, provide visual cues in set up, minimize distracting incorporate areas for sensory down time, and always have a backup plan. This advice will be very helpful for me and for museum professionals when creating programs for children with autism.

The experience I do have, other than working on occasion with visitors with disabilities at the museums I worked at in Connecticut, is at the Long Island Museum I worked with adults with memory loss in the “In the Moment” program. The “In the Moment” program is a hands-on program that allows individuals with memory loss engage with LIM’s exhibits to stimulate their own memories. Each experience is different depending on what exhibit the day care service or Alzheimer’s Association group is interested in; a program is developed each time a new exhibit is installed. At each exhibit, the exhibit is viewed and a few items or sections are chosen as topics of discussion for the group; questions are brainstormed for them to answer; either music or objects are chosen to help connect with the exhibit and inspire discussion; and provide cookies, juice, and photographs of the featured items to bring home with them. At LIM’s Long Island in the Sixties exhibit, for instance, music of the 1960s was chosen that represented different sections of the exhibit and the pictures chosen were of a dress from the era, the set up for a girl’s bedroom in the 1960s, and the New York Mets section of the exhibit. From my experience, not every individual automatically start talking about what they see or what an item reminds them of but it allows them to be outside of their environments to experience something new or different; and it is always interesting to see what they enjoyed about the exhibit and what stimulated their memories. One woman was so moved by her experience that she started talking about all her life’s experiences including the fact that her family came from Italy and that she used to be a teacher. I always smiled whenever I get an opportunity to work with them so I can make a difference in their experiences. I wish Stringer’s book went into detail about programs for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other related memory loss, but someday there may be a book that will address more on how to create these programs if there isn’t already.

I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving! Be good to one another and be safe!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s