by Sofia Rivero Borrell S. (MA, 2017)
From February to May 2017 I was an access intern at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I worked with Cecile Puretz, the Access and Community Engagement Manager. My main tasks included research and community outreach. My research focused on best practices surrounding access tools, programs and activities for museum visitors. I explored topics such as LGBTQIA inclusive pronouns, policy and practices in verbal descriptions for the blind; I learned how museums interpret and adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Something I really liked about the CJM’s location is that it is very accessible; it is not hidden and is easily recognized when you walk along downtown San Francisco. Even if it is not a large museum, the CJM knows how to use unique architecture as a branding tool.
In regard to outreach, I assisted during several events the CJM organized for visitors with disabilities, such as the Humor and the Disability Experience: A Stand-Up Comedy Show and the Family Access Day.
Humor and the Disability Experience: A Stand-Up Comedy Show was an event where the museum invited a group called the Comedians with Disabilities Act to perform and participate in a panel where they could share their experiences with the audience. Members of the troupe included Nina G, Michael Beers, Mean Dave, and Loren Kraut.
The Family Access Day is a regular event the museum holds at least once during the run of each of their exhibitions. It takes place on a Sunday, and allows families with children with disabilities (or other members with disabilities) to participate in several activities throughout the day. The Access Day I worked in was organized around the annual Jewish celebration of Purim. Besides art activities and a concert with the Bug Family Band, an important part of the event was what we call the Calming Corner in the Wornick Room. This is a room that was mainly built for big staff and board meetings. The lights in the room are dimmed, the blinders closed, and there are several quiet activities to help people, mainly children, relax. These activities include building blocks (wooden and magnetic) and picture books. Staff also place multiple chairs and large pillows to sit. The Calming Corner is the only room in the museum where visitors can eat and drink; staff often provides coffee and tea, juice boxes, muffins, and fruit free of charge.
When addressing disabilities, people often forget the incredible variety of known disabilities. They also forget that many disabilities are invisible or only apparent after long interactions. The idea of the calming corner is to provide a quiet place for overstimulated people to relax and re-center themselves. People with mobility disabilities can sit or rest for a while before proceeding with their visit, and parents with autistic children can bring their kids in to settle them down.
I personally loved the room because, as someone who is hearing-impaired, the noise in public spaces and big gatherings often bother me. The Calming Corner is a place where I could sit for a while to stave off a headache, to regroup before continuing with my work.
I also attended several orientation sessions regarding compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and best practices which are held regularly at the City of San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Disabilities; the workshop is hosted inside the offices of an organization called LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired (10th Floor on 1155 Market St). In these meetings, we discussed topics such as prejudice towards disability (ableism), best language usage, policies and current issues surrounding disability. Some of the people attending were representatives from housing services, veteran services, and caretakers for the elderly.
Social Justice is heavily implied in Jewish thought, so the CJM’s work around accessibility is something I believe to be very important to their mission of aiding their visitors to live the Jewish experience in a way that is relevant to the twenty-first century.
I perceived two main strengths/opportunities while interning at the CJM. Firstly, as a non-collecting museum, I believe the CJM has a great opportunity to offer different and unique exhibits. This could lead to changing museum visitors’ perspective on accessibility, disabilities, and disablism. An example of this would be an exhibit catering to disabled artists or even children. The CJM could use these exhibits and related programs as pathways towards building better awareness of people’s needs.
The second issue I thought a lot about is related to the museum as workplace. When I first arrived at the CJM office space, one of the things I found novel and very unfamiliar was a small room located across one of the meeting rooms. The room was always open, and equipped with a kitchen-styled counter and sink, plus a chair. When I asked about it, I was told it was a “quiet room,” a room where a woman can feed a baby if and when needed, a space for museum staff to meditate or have a private moment. It was something I found amazing, and something I later realized provided another kind of accessibility within the workplace. It allowed breastfeeding mothers a place to feed their child, let those with special physical or biological needs find a comfortable place to be alone. It was also a room where someone could retire for a few moments to relax during a busy work day.
During my internship, I came across a complex challenge that is not limited to museum access: it is the great diversity and complexity implied in “disabilities.” According to the World Bank, 15% of the world’s population has some kind of disability; that is one billion people who are often overlooked in public spaces, special events, architectural design, etc. Those numbers are most probably incomplete, because not all disability is diagnosed or can be diagnosed, and many people (such as the elderly) may not consider themselves disabled, even if they need or use accommodations. Disability is not quantifiable, and is often times intersected by other disabilities, by culture, by sexuality, or even religion.
These considerations left me with a huge question: How can museums be as inclusive and accessible as possible without overlooking the particularities of the needs of each one of their visitors?
Before I started my internship, I was unaware of the fact that Mexico, my own home country had any sort of laws or regulations regarding disabilities and disability prejudice. I was shocked when I realized that Mexico’s first law regarding disability rights passed barely six years ago, in May 2011. It made me realize that museums that actually think about accessibility as something fundamental to their visitors and staff can very well be considered to be avant-garde.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies MA Program, click here.