by Kathleen Schlier
It is early morning on the Embarcadero, at Pier 39 in San Francisco. It is oddly quiet this time of the day along the waterfront. A few tourists, coffee cups in hand sheepishly wander around the area. Like them, I need my caffeine at this hour in the morning. As part of my summer internship to assist with their Community Engagement Initiative, I have arrived early at Aquarium of the Bay to meet Jean, and her daughter, Tyler, a young woman with autism. Jean, a leader in the nonprofit field, has offered to talk with the front-line staff at the Aquarium of the Bay about the experiences that families of children disabilities have visiting museums and cultural institutions. It is Autism Awareness Day, and this is one of the events the Aquarium has planned to celebrate differences, reach out to the community and inform their staff about how to include people with disabilities in a more thoughtful way at the Aquarium.
The staff training has been set up early before the Aquarium opens to the public. My cell phone vibrates in my purse. It’s Jean – she is running late. Apologetically, she explains that her daughter had a hard time getting up this morning. I tell her not to worry and give her verbal instructions on where to park. Families of children with disabilities often struggle with time and transportation issues. What is commonplace for most families can be very difficult for these families.
This is a typical day in the life of a parent of a child or adult family member with autism. Families wanting to go out in the community to have fun together, but often encountering obstacles to prevent the joy and relaxation that every family wants to have with their loved ones when they plan an outing together.
Jean finally arrives with her daughter, introductions are made to the staff and the training begins. Tyler is familiar with her mom’s work in the community. She often joins her mother for these trainings, and she seems fairly comfortable in the setting; however she does not make eye contact with the staff or engage with them when her mom introduces her. She wants to play with her iPad, and Jean patiently explains how they need to talk with the staff first before she can play her game.
Jean tells the staff how every person with autism is different – how it is a spectrum disorder and each person’s ability to communicate varies widely. Some people are verbal, while others are nonverbal and communicate via sign language. Sometimes people with autism shout out to show their excitement. Others may feel over stimulated. Often people with autism can be sensitive in unfamiliar environments. They may also be easily frightened by bright lights, dark places, loud noises, or they may be surprised by the animals they see in an Aquarium or Zoo. They may need extra time to be able to feel comfortable in a museum environment. They may resist going into the aquarium or museum at all (often after the parent has purchased an expensive ticket). The most important thing that staff at these institutions can do is to make people feel welcome and supported. Jean explains how staff should reach out to families right away when they arrive and let them know if they need anything to let one of them know.
Often museums have quiet areas where a parent can sit with their child if they are having a difficult time. All this requires is for the families to ask one of the staff. If families know that someone is there to help out, it can make a huge difference in the outcome of their visit and whether they decide to return in the future.
There are ways to help a person with autism or special needs to ready to visit a museum or aquarium. The adult should explain to the children what they will expect to see and hear. Some museums offer social stories to share with children before a visit, which can be accessed on museum’s website or in a brochure at the front desk. These tools can be incredibly helpful to children and their families. They often include photos of the galleries and exhibits, allowing children to get a preview of what they will see. In a large museum, families can look at a map of the spaces and plan where they will take their children before their visit. This is often a great way to introduce the museum to a child with autism, or a person with developmental disabilities, to be able to break the experience down into smaller chunks, so the visit is not so overwhelming. There are museums that take it a step further and really look out for the needs of their guests by offering them sensory maps, which detail areas within the museum that have low lighting, are noisy or crowded, so families can avoid these areas if their children have a difficult time in these kinds of environments.
Purchasing a membership to a museum can be helpful to families, so they don’t feel like they have to do everything in one day, and to be able to go back and visit again. However, memberships can be expensive, and this is often prohibitive. Museums could really make a difference by offering discounted memberships to families of children with disabilities. Families should ask museums in their communities if this is an available option.
Museums and aquariums can accommodate people with disabilities in fun ways. One way is partnering with local nonprofit organizations to do special events for families. Aquarium of the Bay partners with a local nonprofit organization, Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, and together they offer a free early morning visit to the Aquarium one hour before it ordinarily opens, to allow families of children with disabilities to be able to visit the Aquarium when its is not so crowded. This has proven to be very successful, allowing families to network together. This also allows children to have a positive social experience with their peers.
The Aquarium of the Bay also offers free special events to families a few times a year. The Halloween party hosted for families of children with special needs has proven to be very successful and has been hosted by the Aquarium for the past five years.
This August, with support from USF, I attended the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference in Arlington, VA presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (LEAD). This annual conference is a gathering of over 450 professionals from around the country who want to share ideas about how to build inclusive cultural experiences, learn about best practices and to share resources. A highlight of the LEAD conference was the ability to meet like-minded museum professionals and make connections with others who have similar goals of opening up opportunities in the arts for people with disabilities. This year was especially memorable year to attend, with it being the 25 anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
At the conference, I learned how staff trainings are an important ways all cultural institutions are able to fulfill their obligation of being public entities that reach out to the community and welcoming people with disabilities. Feedback about the Aquarium of the Bay’s staff training on Autism Awareness was very positive. The staff seemed to really appreciate having a parent talk with them about their own personal experiences. This shows that the aquarium is committed to raising awareness and involving the community. Taking small steps to achieve a greater understanding is an important action toward making museums inclusive to all people and to embrace human differences. I hope this trend continues in the museum community.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.