USF's Museum Blog

Alumni Connect: Kathleen Schlier and the Accessibility Learning Collaborative

by Ivy Young, California Association of Museums

Editor’s Note:  The Accessibility Learning Collaborative is part of the California Networks for Collaboration, funded by the Institute of Museums and Library Services and coordinated by the California Association of Museums.  Its goal is to share best practices for accessibility and professional practice with museums across the state.  In this post, we share an interview with Kathleen Schlier (MA, 2016) about disability justice, conducted by CAM’s Ivy Young.  –MS



Kathleen Schlier is a Grant Writer at the Chabot Space & Science Center and a consultant at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. Schlier entered the museum field from her background in disability advocacy and this lends her practice both a foundational perspective and clear motivation.

In 2015, Schlier participated in the California Networks for Collaboration as an Accessibility Learning Collaborative participant. Over a six-month period, Learning Collaboratives or study groups were assembled in 10 different regions across the state to study museum accessibility issues, interventions, and practices. Nine months following the Learning Collaboratives’ conclusion, Schlier came together with a panel of other Accessibility Learning Collaborative participants from across the state to discuss their practices and reflect on their continued learning and practical interventions around issues of access.

To learn more about Kathleen Schlier and her museum practices for increased access, with sensitivity for children with disabilities and their families, we at CAM recently followed up with Schlier with the following interview.

Schlier is pictured here with the webinar panel, bottom left. You may watch a recording of this accessibility panel, here. (For excerpts only, an outline of the webinar and recording times are provided in the information section posted below the video.)

Ivy Young: To what do you attribute your interest in museum accessibility? What compelled you to develop your own practices for increased museum accessibility?

KS: My interest in accessibility in general began when my daughter was born. Long story short – because she has disabilities, I became an advocate for her well-being (healthcare, education, and social-emotional support). This led me to my former job at Support for Families of Children with Disabilities (SFCD) in which I created recreational services and events for children and youth with disabilities. Many of our events were created in partnership with local museums. I could see that the museum field benefits from people who really understand the needs of people with disabilities to make museums more inviting and accessible beyond just physical accommodations. After my five-year stint at SFCD, I went back to University of San Francisco to get my MA in Museum Studies. My Master’s capstone is on how to create ADA policies for museums. Every museum could benefit from one.

IY: Yes, in the webinar you opened up personally to share that you have a child with a disability. Thank you. In addition to inviting people to speak to the staff, as you mentioned then, what advice would you offer museum professionals for working with families who have a child with a disability or for working with the larger disability community?

KS: It is imperative that the front-line staff be trained to answer questions in caring considerate ways and know about the ADA and how to offer accommodations. This training is essential.

However, this is putting the cart before the horse! First things first: Forming an access advisory group and getting input from people with disabilities about the museum environment, exhibitions, programming and events by doing a self-assessment is helpful to identify areas that need change. The result can be that museums will see the need to do a better job of communicating their offerings. The bare minimum should include adding an access page on their website which can list services and accommodations (this can include sensory maps, special events, social stories) along with posting signage that includes universal design symbols at the front desk so people know that the museum is ADA compliant.

Ultimately, museums should consider implementing ADA policies. Here are some of the benefits:

  1. A policy will allow museums to serve all of their visitors and to include people who have disabilities in more significant ways.
  2. A policy will result in better internal communication. By providing a specific set of guidelines for staff to follow, visitors will feel more supported and valued and staff will be empowered to help in any given situation.
  3. It will increase community engagement. By reaching out to new populations in the community, museums, aquariums, and zoos can potentially serve entirely new audiences, potentially increasing attendance and diversity.
  4. When a key staff person leaves the organization, there will be policies in place for the new staff to follow. This will allow the museum to maintain institutional memory.
  5. If someone files a grievance, the museum will have a policy and procedures in place to handle complaints in a respectful way.
  6. The museum may be able to avoid legal issues.
  7. By implementing an ADA Policy, a museum may be better suited to receive funding and grants for projects to increase diversity.

IY: In the webinar, you shared about your background in working at Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, and how, through this organization, you saw the impact of collaborating with museums–– but from the other side of this relationship. What recommendations do you have for museums or museum professionals in partnering or collaborating with other organizations to deepen their accessibility practices?

KS: The relationships that were formed with museums while I was at SFCD were due to our desire to make these public spaces accessible to the families we worked with and museum staff reaching out to us for information to find out how to become more inclusive in their practices, a win-win. An organization within SFCD, called the Special Needs Inclusion Project (SNIP) was instrumental in identifying museums and cultural organizations that wanted to partner with us.

Two of the museums, The Contemporary Jewish Museum and Aquarium of the Bay, set up access days for families several times a year. These efforts were very helpful in showing families how museums and aquariums can be very welcoming. In follow-up evaluations, many of the families who attended these events expressed to us how they never brought their family member to a museum before for fear that it would not be a place that they would feel welcome. Many families feel this way. I certainly did when my daughter was young.

My recommendation is for museums to reach out to community nonprofits and listen to the needs of their clients to form successful partnerships. Getting museum leadership and visitor services and/or education staff on board from the beginning is key. The results from the two examples mentioned above were outstanding and continue to flourish. Here is an example of a recent event: Family Access Day at Aquarium of the Bay in which families of children with disabilities are invited to visit Aquarium of the Bay to explore cool exhibits, meet new friends, and enjoy breakfast snacks!

IY: Please share about the most impactful accessibility intervention that you have helped to incorporate.

KS: Helping Aquarium of the Bay create early entry days for children with disabilities and helping to train staff when they wanted to celebrate Autism Awareness Day were both impactful. The Aquarium continues to offer these events after the first we created years ago. Offering times when families can go to a museum, when it’s not so crowded and noisy, can really help children with sensory issues, such as children with autism. Here is a link to a blog that I wrote about the experience.

Reflecting on your current practice, what do you plan to learn about next regarding museum accessibility?

I would love to attend the LEAD (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability) conference hosted by the Kennedy Center, in Austin, this August. Highly recommended!

IY: Please share the resource/s that you find key in guiding your own work to incorporate and design for accessibility interventions.

KS: I’d be happy to share the bibliography I created as a part of my capstone paper, here.

Good resources can also be found in the San Francisco Learning Collaborative’s Presi Accessibility Spectrum, here!

For more information on USF Museum Studies, click here.

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