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.
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.