A look at accessibility at The Henry Ford on the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Signage welcomes guests to a sensory-friendly day at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
July 26, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark civil rights law seeks to guarantee equal access for people with disabilities to all areas of public life, including employment, government programs and services, public accommodations, transportation, and communications. Its purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
Before the ADA, museums in the United States had varying levels of experience with, and approaches to, accommodating people with disabilities. However, after the passage of the ADA, museums started more consistently planning, budgeting for, and implementing facility improvements and accommodations to enhance accessibility for people with a range of abilities. Additionally, and especially in more recent years, museums have also begun developing and implementing more specialized accessibility programming for a wide range of audiences, oftentimes doing so in ways that go beyond the legal obligations of the ADA. Though there have been great strides made for accessibility at museums across the country since the passage of the ADA, there is still much work to be done. This blog post focuses upon our work toward enhancing accessibility at The Henry Ford, particularly the strides that we had been making prior to closing for the COVID-19 pandemic and how our work has continued to evolve since that time.
A guest on a tactile tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation touches the Rosa Parks Bus.
At The Henry Ford, we are committed to providing the highest-quality visit for each and every guest to the extent that we are able to do so. Since the passage of the ADA, we have incorporated accessibility considerations and improvements in a wide range of ways, including: making facility improvements, such as the addition of ramps into several of the historic buildings in Greenfield Village; providing accommodations, such as sign language interpreters; and – more recently – developing more specialized accessibility programming. To help ensure that the work that we are doing is benefiting those for whom it is intended, we rely heavily upon the insights and expertise of people with disabilities and organizations serving people with disabilities.
A quiet zone set up during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village in 2019 included calming lighting and sensory toys/fidgets. Quiet zones such as this are designed for use by individuals with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder and their families.
The audiences that we serve through our accessibility offerings include people who: have limited mobility; are blind or have low vision; are deaf or hard of hearing; are on the autism spectrum; and are living with dementia and assisted by their care partners. Our offerings are both onsite (such as wheelchairs and motorized scooters, noise-canceling headphones and earplugs, and a resting room for anyone who needs a quiet space) and online (such as social narratives for people with autism and a Memory Walk for people living with dementia and their care partners to do together).
Participants to a program for people living with dementia and their care partners at The Henry Ford learn ragtime dance steps from Greenfield Village presenters.
We have also developed an extensive array of specialized accessibility programs. For example, we offer sensory-friendly events for individuals who are on the autism spectrum that include such offerings as designated quiet zones, sensory-friendly maps showing areas with loud sounds and bright lights, noise-canceling headphones and earplugs, and exclusive access times to some of our events and exhibits. We also have held tactile tours over the past few years for people who are blind or have low vision, with opportunities to touch artifacts and models of artifacts, and Deaf Days with presentations interpreted in American Sign Language. And, monthly for the past three years, we have collaborated with the Alzheimer’s Association on a program for individuals living with dementia and their care partners. With all of our offerings, we aim to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same opportunities as everyone else.
The front cover of a map created for a Deaf Day at The Henry Ford, which included the locations of sign language-interpreted presentations.
Adding New Offerings During the Time of COVID-19 Prior to the closure of The Henry Ford due to COVID-19 in March, we had a full slate of accessibility programs and events planned for the year. Sadly, as time went on, each of our scheduled programs was delayed or canceled. It became uncertain what these programs would look like when we reopened, particularly upon checking in with some of our audiences and hearing their hesitation about visiting in person. However, true to the spirit of the ADA, we aimed to still find ways to provide opportunities for people with disabilities even if the ways in which we would be providing these opportunities were different than before.
This is where virtual programming comes in, as joining the trend of other museums across the country, we began planning virtual accessibility opportunities in addition to onsite offerings. Our first foray into virtual accessibility programming was a program designed for people living with dementia and their care partners – an audience whose age puts them in a high-risk category, yet also an audience for whom isolation is prevalent, with few opportunities for enrichment and engagement. This program, which was themed around comic books and superheroes and designed to coincide with our new temporary exhibit, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, featured a string quartet of Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians playing superhero music from their homes, which was synced together after being recorded separately. Though it was our first virtual accessibility program, the participants really enjoyed it. Moreover, virtual made the program even more accessible by allowing people to join from all over the country while also being safe and comfortable at their own homes. And, even though it was virtual, the conversation with and between participants was still quite lively.
Following the success of this program, we now have other virtual dementia programs planned. Additionally, we plan to start adding virtual accessibility offerings for other audiences as well, thus expanding upon our offerings and accessibility in ways that we could not have foreseen before COVID-19, but which – true to the original intentions of the ADA – will allow for people with disabilities to have the same access and opportunities as everyone else.
At the same time that we are continuing to plan this array of virtual programs, we are also enhancing our onsite accessibility through infrastructure improvements. For example, while The Henry Ford was closed from March to July, two new “companion care” restrooms were completed in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. These restrooms each have a height-adjustable adult changing table – the first time that we will have such an offering, in addition to a power-operated door for entry, toilet, sink, shelves, and a wide enough space for mobility devices such as wheelchairs and strollers to turn around. These restrooms have been in the works for a long time and we are excited to have them open and available for your next visit to The Henry Ford.
Signage outside of a new companion care restroom mentions that the restroom is equipped with an adult changing table.
Looking Ahead As we move ahead, we look forward to continuing to grow (and regrow) our accessibility offerings – both onsite and virtually – for all of our guests, while also ensuring that our offerings benefit those for whom they are intended. In doing so, we aim to stay true to the spirit of the ADA and the important foundation that it laid for guaranteeing equal access for people with disabilities. On this 30th anniversary of the ADA, we reflect upon that foundation, while also reaffirming our commitment to continuing to enhance accessibility for all of our guests, both now and into the future.
Caroline Braden is Accessibility Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Assistive technology refers to a wide range of products designed to help people work around a variety of challenges as they learn, work, and perform other daily living activities. Certain assistive devices allow people who are deaf or hard of hearing to access technologies that many take for granted, like telephones, televisions, and even alarm clocks. For a young woman in the 1970s and 80s, these products -- now in the collections of The Henry Ford -- also provided greater independence, broader access to popular culture, and improved communication with family and friends.
Hal-Hen Products Vibrating Alarm Clock, circa 1975 (THF158135)
In September 1975, just before leaving home to begin college, a young woman named Shari acquired this inventive alarm clock. It included a bedside clock connected to a vibrating motor, which attached to the underside of the bed and shook intensely when the alarm was triggered. The eager freshman looked forward to waking independently, “rather than trying to rely on others who would have a different class schedule” -- so it’s easy to imagine her dismay when she arrived at her dormitory to find bunk beds! The alarm “would shake and rattle the whole bunk,” creating “quite a rude awakening” for her bunkmate. After a few nights, the students figured out how to separate their bunk beds into twin beds. Even though the new arrangement made the small dorm room even tighter, Shari (and, undoubtedly, her roommate) finally considered the alarm clock to have been “a definite advantage.”
Brochure, "Real-Time Closed Captioning Brings Early-Evening News to the Hearing Impaired, circa 1981 (THF275615)
In December 1981, with money saved from her first job after college, Shari purchased a television caption adapter. At this time, a few programs, like the national news, were broadcast with closed captions for viewers who were deaf or hard of hearing. This text was visible only when activated, at first through separate decoding units.
Shari remembered -- especially as more shows began to include closed captions in the 1980s -- that this decoder “opened up a whole new world of entertainment.” She associated closed captioning with independence -- as she didn’t “have to pester other family members to ‘tell me what they're saying’” -- and participation, recalling, “No longer did I resign myself to reading a book in an easy chair in the same room while the rest of the family watched exciting shows on TV!” The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 required televisions to have built-in caption display technology, decreasing the need for separate caption adapters and giving people access to on-screen captions almost anywhere they watched TV.
System 100 Text Telephone Unit, circa 1980 (THF173771)
In 1981, the same year she purchased her first TV caption adapter, Shari also acquired a teletypewriter, or text telephone, abbreviated TTY. This device connected to a standard telephone line, allowing communication via a keyboard and electronic text display. The technology was freeing -- Shari remembered that “it was wonderful to finally be able to independently make a few of my own phone calls” -- but also limited. At first, she could only communicate with someone else who had access to a TTY device. After she became a mother, Shari recalled loaning a TTY unit to a neighbor who also had small children, making it easier to “set up ‘play dates’ and just do the typical conversing young moms do.” In the late 1980s, some states implemented services to relay dialogue between TTY and non-TTY users. Eventually, spurred by state and federal legislation, relay systems improved nationwide, and TTY technology became more accessible and affordable.
In their time, these lifechanging devices represented the cutting edge of assistive technology. Ongoing research, technological advances, and new design approaches in the decades that followed led to improved products and more choices for consumers. Today, many users have adopted digital technologies. Email, text or instant message, and real-time video services enable communication, and digital devices, often connected to smartphones, offer solutions that address a range of user needs.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Learn more about assistive technology on an upcoming episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.
According to the 2010 Census, more than 56 million Americans, or over 20% of the U.S. population, have some type of disability. These numbers are likely to grow in the years ahead, as the U.S. population ages and as developmental disorders and diseases, such as autism and Alzheimer’s, affect an increasing number of people. When family members and companions of people with disabilities are included in these numbers, this becomes a significant audience – one that may have the desire and means to visit museums, but may not have their needs addressed sufficiently.
While the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provided guidelines for museums to become more physically accessible, there has been a growing trend in museums across the country recently to go beyond the legal obligations of ADA. This has led to an increasing variety of innovative new opportunities and programs for people with different physical, developmental and cognitive abilities.
Last week we were pleased to announce our partnership with the Autism Alliance of Michigan, a state-based agency dedicated to improving the lives of families with autism. Our goal every day at The Henry Ford is to make sure our guests have an outstanding experience while here on our campus, so calling out special information for guests with autism is something we’re very happy to do.
Providing specialized information for guests’ needs isn’t new to us. We’re always looking to communities to tell us what would make their visit here even better. When we created large-scale maps to hand out on site, we worked with special groups to make sure the printed materials were beneficial to those with vision impairments.
As part of our partnership with AAOM, resource guidelines are being created for families to review prior to their visit. Some of those guidelines will help guests with learning about our:
Environments and sensorial experiences
Areas for noise reduction
Key members of our front-line staff will also be receiving training in basic aspects of autism. We’ll continue to meet with the AAOM to learn more about autism and improve our offerings for those guests.
Whether you’re enjoying a walk around Greenfield Village or a visit inside Henry Ford Museum, The Henry Ford is a safe place for all families. Everyday our staff members continue to grow and learn how we can best serve the needs of all of our guests.