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Museum Experience: People with Cognitive Disabilities

Notes from discussion with agency staff who plan and lead museum visits for children and adults with cognitive disabilities, and from observing a visit to a small art museum visit for about 20 teens with cognitive disabilities.

General observations:

Multiple disabilities are common. Any group of people with cognitive disabilities is likely to include people with motor, mobility, and sensory issues as well, so accessibility issues of all kinds are important.

Museum visits are good not only for the stimulation from museum exhibits and activities but also for the opportunity to learn to deal with new situations and to relate to other people in public settings.

One of the goals of group visits is to encourage families of people with disabilities to visit on their own.

Making repeated visits to the same museum is helpful in learning how to negotiate the space and general conditions.

Crowded conditions aren't good, but visiting when the museum is closed to other visitors doesn't deliver the full benefit.

Interactive activities are more effective than just viewing exhibits. The visit I observed included a gallery tour, with a specially prepared handout suggesting things to notice (I wasn't able to observe this part of the visit), and a hands-on session of about an hour's length in which the visitors made collages using pictures from magazines.

Interactive exhibits, in which visitors can press buttons and see something happen, can be good.

Typical group size is about 10-15, with the visitors being accompanied by about one staff person per four visitors.

Visits are usually focused on only a part of a museum, rather than a general tour.

Planning a visit involves knowing a lot of specific things about the museum, including 
*wheelchair access to specific areas, 
*what exhibits can and cannot be viewed from chair height, 
*which galleries have exhibits that are fragile, 
*which exhibits (if any) can be touched, 
*parking, including how street crossings can be minimized in getting from a vehicle to the museum
*where a good place for a group to eat or have snack is, including outdoor locations,
*the layout of the museum, needed for planning the timing of a visit, eg after we spend X time in gallery Y we'll be near the snack room, so we'll plan spend Z minutes there and then move on to the project room at location Q... planners try to have a very well planned timeline for the whole visit;
*when the museum is likely to be crowded, say for the opening of special exhibit, so these times can be avoided

Attitude and responsiveness of museum staff are key. Some museums have staff who are very helpful, and will work with a group when it visits, for example by leading a special tour. Other museums are less welcoming.

It is very helpful when museum staff have a sense of how to interact with visitors, including what manner of discipline or direction is appropriate and effective.

Staff feel that interaction with handheld devices would work for many visitors. Some visitors are already users of this general kind of device as AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) devices. Provision for carrying the devices is important: not all visitors can do this; provision for attachment to clothing or to wheelchairs would help.

Audio tours work for some, but not most, visitors. 

Videos work well if they are not too long, say up to 20-30 min.

Some museum experiences, like IMAX shows, are too stimulating for some visitors.

Headphones are an issue for many visitors, because of concerns many have about being touched. As use of iPods grows, which is happening, headphone use may become less of an issue.

Cost is a factor for organizations arranging visits. It is much appreciated when a museum does not charge admission for the staff or volunteers who accompany a group visitors.

Symbols on signage (eg for restrooms) are helpful.

The materials on existing museum Web sites is often pitched at the wrong level. Kid-oriented materials, when presented, are too childish for older visitors, but adult-oriented materials often use too much specialist vocabulary.

Providing something for visitors to take home is valuable in promoting interactions with family or caregivers about the museum experience afterwards. Without a handout or similar aid it can be hard for visitors to convey much about the experience. Also, families like to know what their child or sibling has been doing, and organizations benefit from families having that knowledge.

Potential Fluid Applications

Here are three examples that suggest how Fluid technology could support good museum experiences.

Forum for visitors with disabilities.

A museum site could provide a forum in which visitors with disabilities, and those who organize visits, share information useful in planning a successful visit. 

The forum would serve both as a source of well-targeted information for visitors and planners, and as a source of feedback for the museum.

Because, as brought out in the observations above, the information needed by visitors and planners is quite specific, and different from that needed by typical visitors, museum staff are not as well able to provide it as visitors and planners themselves would be. Thus the forum to an extent shifts some of the work needed to accommodate visitors with disabilities from museum staff to people better able to provide quality information.

Some needed planning information is mapping based (where different facilities are, where accessibility issues occur, where touch-friendly exhibits are, etc.) Fluid's mapping components will have a role here.

Forum Scenario.

Pat, a staffer at an organization that organizes cultural activities for adults with developmental disabilities, takes a group to the Catt Museum. Looking for a place to park, Pat finds that there is parking behind the museum that allows visitors to enter the museum without crossing a street. In the museum Pat finds that the second floor snack room is more spacious and less crowded than the first floor cafeteria, and has large tables that can accommodate the whole group. Pat also finds that a new exhibit in the entry area of the museum contains fragile materials within easy reach of visitors, so care is needed in managing the group.

During the visit Pat posts to the forum, adding notes under forum headings "parking", "where to eat", and "areas where care is needed". The notes are linked to a map of the museum so that readers can easily see where the features Pat is describing are located.

Shawn, a staffer at the museum, has a feed from the forum, and sees the notes Pat posts. Shawn checks the situation in the museum entry, and sees that there is a risk of visitors damaging the new exhibit there. Shawn arranges changes to that exhibit to provide better protection, and posts a note to the forum indicating that that problem has been dealt with and thanking Pat for calling attention to it.

Devin, a staffer at a different organization, is planning a trip to the museum. Devin consults the forum on the museum site, and finds the notes Pat and others have posted very helpful.

Interaction Opportunities for Visitors

As mentioned earlier, some visitors will be able to manage a handheld device, and would enjoy and benefit from opportunities for interacting with exhibits.

Fluid technology could make it fairly easy for a museum to offer interaction opportunities via a handheld device. Details of how the opportunities would be found and exploited would differ in location-aware and non-location aware situations. In a non-location aware situation a visitor or someone with them could initiate the interaction based on an exhibit identifier or from a mapping screen that shows the location of interaction opportunities.

As suggested in the scenario below (which is based loosely on the printed materials from an actual visit) the interaction opportunities can be quite simple. An extension of this application idea would make it possible to visitors or volunteers to create and contribute interaction opportunities.


Devin has brought a group of adults with developmental disabilities to the Catt Museum. The group is issued handheld devices. A map on the devices shows that there is an interaction opportunity in the Persian Gallery. The group goes to that gallery, and Devin helps the visitors start the interaction opportunity by selecting a symbol on the map. Devin explains that the handheld devices will show pictures of catts in the gallery, and that the visitors should find them. He also explains that when they have found one of the catts they should press the green button under the picture to see another catt to look for.

Pat, one of the visitors, enjoys looking for the catts and pressing the button to get the next one. Shawn, another of the visitors, finds it hard to understand the overall activity, but enjoys seeing the pictures change when the button is pressed.

Something to Take Home


When Devin's group is issued its handheld devices, each visitor also receives a card with a url and password, and the explanation, "Go to this URL to remember your visit to the Catt Museum. You will need this password ________ to access the information."

During their visit, things that they do, like the interactive opportunity just described, leave traces on the museum site. There is also a photo opportunity in which the visitors are able to take pictures that are stored on the site. Pat, one of the visitors, takes a picture of a favorite catt in the Siamese Gallery.

When Pat gets home, Pat gives the card to Shawn, a caregiver who comes in in the afternoon to help Pat with household tasks. Shawn helps Pat to access the URL on the card, and enter the password. The site shows the first picture from the interactive activity in the Persian Gallery, and the picture Pat took in the Siamese Gallery. Pat enjoys looking at the catt pictures shown on the site, and talking about them with Shawn. The site also shows a map of the museum, with the Persian and Siamese galleries marked as places Pat visited. Shawn asks Pat about one of the other galleries, but Pat can't say whether she visited it or not. Nevertheless, Shawn likes knowing something about Pat's visit.

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