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State of the Field: Museum Accessibility

The Law

Why the ADA is Important for Museums

Traditional Approaches to Making Museums Accessible

Innovative Practices to Full Participation

Reasonable Accommodations

How the Field Has Responded

The American Alliance of Museums

Institute of Museum and Library Services

Department of Justice LogoThe Law

Any discussion of accessibility in museums starts with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Passed into law in 1990, it is one of the most significant civil rights documents of the 20th Century. It continues to have a wide-ranging impact upon museums and affects all aspects of a museum’s operations. Rather than seeing this act as one that imposes restrictions or obligations upon museums, it can be seen as a definitive statement about inclusiveness and highlights the importance for museums to build their capacity so that they can serve all audiences equally.

President Bush signing the ADA into law.

President George H. W. Bush signs into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990.


The ADA was an outgrowth of decades long lobbying efforts on the part of groups advocating for the civil rights of people with disabilities. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1975 Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (1984), among others, put in place practices and policies that led to the ADA. Several of these, particularly the Architectural Barriers and Rehabilitation Acts, had implications for access to museums.

(Please note that these resources are meant as background information only and should not be seen as legal interpretations.)

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA)

This law was one of the government’s first efforts to ensure that federal buildings would be accessible to people with disabilities, and established uniform federal accessibility standards  for the design, construction, or alteration of buildings.  It affects museums that use federal funds to design, construct, or alter a building.  It states that these institutions must comply with a minimum level of physical accessibility.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This law laid the groundwork for the creation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It specifies that cultural organizations, public or private, that receive direct or indirect federal funds must make programs, services, and activities accessible, including employment opportunities.

Section 504 of this law specifically speaks to the rights of people with disabilities, summarized in a US Department of Health and Human Services Fact Sheet.

Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage the development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The Section 508 standards define the types of technology covered and set forth provisions that establish a minimum level of accessibility.

Design For Accessibility book coverFor more on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, see this publication:
“Design for Accessibility:  A Cultural Administrator’s Handbook.”

National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA).  2003.



Recent Legal Updates to Access Issues

  •  The ADA does not mention websites or web services, since the World Wide Web didn’t come into being until 1991. Nonetheless, there is an expectation that web-based services should comply with the ADA. In January 2013, the Department of Justice publicly announced its intention to issue Notices of Proposed Rulemaking with specific regulatory language for both public entities and public accommodations to make their websites accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.

An article from the American Bar Association, “Website Accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act” (Accessed September 8, 2013). explains some of the barriers that people with disabilities might encounter when using the Internet.

And the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides strategies, guidelines, and resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities (Accessed September 8, 2013). See also Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act mention above..

  •  On September 15, 2010, the United States Department of Justice published revised ADA regulations in the Federal Register that update and amend some of the original provisions. The 2010 Revised Regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act includes revised accessibility standards which establish minimum criteria for accessibility in design and construction.

nealogoThe National Endowment for the Arts has published a Tip Sheet that is a useful summary of these revised regulations. This tip sheet highlights some of the revisions that have a specific effect on cultural venues, such as theaters and museums.

  •  Museums as employers. The ADA allows for equal employment access for individuals with disabilities. Here again, museums must provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that people with disabilities can perform their jobs or that individuals with disabilities may seek jobs for which they are qualified. The New York State Human Rights Law (Accessed September 8, 2013) limits the definition of disability in employment cases however, noting that the disability must be such that, upon the provision of accommodations, the individuals can perform in a reasonable manner all of the activities involved in the job or occupation sought or held.

Creating an inclusive museum is an institution-wide process and everyone who works in a museum, whether a staff member or volunteer, has a role to play. Module 6, Inclusive Practices by Museum Teams, treats this subject in more detail.

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Why the ADA is Important for Museums

Museums are public gathering spaces that become even more significant to their communities by being accessible to all. ADA Logo

Traditionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  provides a “clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” so that people with disabilities may participate fully in society.  This law applies to all public accommodations, including museums. It affects how museums operate regarding the public – providing both physical and intellectual access to its resources — and it has an impact upon a museum’s employment practices.

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  This includes people with “a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”  The law does not name all of the impairments that it covers. However, the New York State Human Rights Law states that the “term “disability” means (a) a physical, mental or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic, or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques or (b) a record of such an impairment or (c) a condition regarded by others as such an impairment.

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Traditional Approaches to Making Museums Accessible

Museums have responded to laws concerning accessibility for people with disabilities since the Architectural Barriers Act was passed in 1968.  With the passage of the ADA, the requirements for accessibility became much more widespread and all museums began to make accommodations to their facilities (both their buildings and their grounds) so that people with disabilities could enjoy equal access.  Providing access has become key to a museum’s success in serving the widest possible audience.   (In Module 1 Resources, see “Expanding Your Market: Maintaining Accessibility in Museums,” published by the U.S. Department of Justice, 2009.)

While museums constructing new structures routinely take this law into account, it presents more of a challenge for museums and historical organizations working in older, sometimes historically landmarked, buildings.

row of historic housesFor example, The Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, that combines 18th- and 19th-century buildings in their museum village, has a combination of structures, some which are easily accessible to all and some which are not. They provide extensive guidance for their visitors as they try to balance an authentic historical experience with contemporary needs for accessibility.

Another source of inspiration for US Park Service Logohistoric houses is a publication by The National Park Service. Preservation Brief 32 offers a guide for making historic properties accessible.



While some museums have been found wanting in their accommodations for people with disabilities, they have also been quick to respond to public comment and have made great strides in making their buildings and programs as inclusive as possible.

Spy Museum logoThe International Spy Museum provides an example of the responsiveness of museums to the need to accommodate people with disabilities. A person who was blind visited the museum with a group of people who also had vision impairments. They found that the Museum’s exhibitions and programs were not accessible to them – there were no guides or docents trained in providing accessible tours and none of the brochures or labels was available in an alternate format (e.g., Braille or large print). As a result, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the museum. The museum subsequently reached an agreement with the Department of Justice and found innovative solutions to a number of accessibility issues. Among other things, they agreed to provide tactile maps of the museum; regularly scheduled tours with audio describers; hired a qualified reader of exhibit labels; provided sign language and oral interpreter services and real-time captioning, on advance request, for all public programs; integrated wheelchair seating areas; and provided training about the ADA for supervisors and managers. In fact, the accommodations they provided made them a model for other museums.

This press release from the U.S. Justice Department spells out the details of the agreement with the Spy Museum.

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Innovative Practices to Full Participation

The ADA requires that public accommodations like museums communicate effectively with persons with disabilities by providing auxiliary aids and services.  For museums this might mean creating alternate ways of experiencing exhibitions and programs (for instance, audio describers and sign interpreters), special educational programs, and closed captioning of video content.

front of Minneapolis Institute of ArtsThe Minneapolis Institute of Arts has long offered a range of programs to ensure that it includes as many people as possible in its programs. In this video, Sheila McGuire, Director of Museum Guide Programs at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, MN describes on how the MIA works to provide access for all.

photo sheila mcguireAccessibility for All — Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Smaller museums often have more limited resources but have overcome challenges, found new resources, and often benefited from the resources of Art Beyond Sight to begin their efforts. Below are videos from three smaller museums.

front of Paris Gibson MuseumParis Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls, Montana

logo Paris Gibson MuseumAccessibility Challenges of the Small Museum — Paris Gibson Square



front door El Museo del BarrioEl Museo del Barrio in New York City

photo helena vidalAccessibility in the Smaller Museum — El Museo del Barrio



view of Woodson Art MuseumThe Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum thinks about how making projects more accessible benefits all of their audiences  and also demonstrates how partnerships in their community have helped it create specialized programs for people with visual disabilities.

 photo erin narlockAn Accessibility Program — Woodson Art Museum



photo andy mcgivernHow a Smaller Museum Presents Art for All — Woodson Art Museum




Exhibitions can offer the opportunity to interpret objects from a museum’s collections that are not usually seen. For example, a historical museum’s 19th-century wheelchairs, and they can explore traditional topics in innovative ways.

Museum of Science logo

The Boston Museum of Science was an early innovator in exhibitions and activities for people with disabilities.  Over 25 years ago they included tactile objects like deer antlers in their dioramas. In more recent years they have developed programs for people with autism as well as learning and cognitive disabilities. This article, “Boston Museum of Science incorporates unique accessibility experiment,” is a good summary of their philosophy and approach.


Royal Ontario Museum logo The Royal Ontario Museum exhibition Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting challenged the visitor to think critically about the relationship between function and fashion in our daily lives. It featured the work of contemporary fashion designer Izzy Camilleri who designs clothes for people who use wheelchairs.  The exhibition placed these garments within the context of historical 18th-19th century fashions also designed for a seated, L-shaped frame.

Old Sturbridge Village logoOld Sturbridge Village is a good example of museums that focus upon the 19th-century or earlier. Issues related to disabilities often are discussed in exhibitions about medicine, for example in Sturbridge’s exhibit A Pound of Cure: Health Care in the 19th Century.


For other examples of exhibitions see “Examples of Universal Design” in

Module 4, Museum Access: Accessible Physical Space.

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Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA does not require a museum to furnish any communication aids or services that place an undue burden on the museum. An undue burden is defined as “a significant difficulty or expense.” It is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, relative to the organization’s overall resources. When a communication aid or service would cause an undue burden, the museum must provide another communication aid or service that still is effective but is less difficult or costly, if one is available.  For example, it may be an undue burden for a small private historic house museum on a shoestring budget to provide a sign language interpreter for a deaf individual wishing to participate in a tour. However, providing a written script of the tour would provide equal access without resulting in an undue burden.

Drayton Hall front viewIn fact, some sites like Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, found that the best way to interpret their historic building for visitors with hearing impairments was to create a written tour.  Drayton Hall is a Georgian Palladian structure built between 1738 and 1742 and a tour of the house includes a discussion of its architecture.

The written tour allows for an explanation of all of the details of the house tour, including the architectural detail.  With assistance from their local advisory committee of people with hearing impairments Drayton Hall created an effective 40-page booklet with simple black and white illustrations and clear way-finding directions.

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How The Field Has Responded

The American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has supported all museums’ efforts to become more welcoming and logo American Alliance of Museumsinclusive places for all audiences. In 1991, Excellence and Equity: Excellence and the Public Dimension of Museums, a report on the centrality of education to museums’ missions, highlighted how important it is for museums to become inclusive and to undergo the institution-wide changes that creating accessibility for all requires. Based on the premise that museums exist to serve the public, the report calls for every museum to make its commitment to education central. Becoming an inclusive place that provide access to all is critical to that effort.

In the years since Excellence and Equity was issued, many museums have undergone significant changes to make the report’s principles a reality. Indeed, the Museum Assessment Program’s community engagement assessment , which helps museums understand how they can better connect with all audiences in their local communities, can be seen as a direct outgrowth of that report.

The American Alliance of Museums continues to express its commitment to diversity and inclusion and to encourage all museums to gain strength from adopting inclusive practices. To underscore this commitment, in 2014 AAM issued a Diversity and Inclusion Policy Statement with the goal of ensuring access for all. This goal of this policy is to make diversity and inclusion become embedded in how museums operate, transforming its status from that of a special initiative to an institution-wide business practice.

 Institute of Museum and Library ServicesIMLS LOGO

The Institute of Museum and Library Service (IMLS) is a federal agency that gives grants to support the work of museums. Their mission is to “inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement.”

In its “21st Century Museums and Libraries Skills Initiatives” (2009), IMLS identifies access in all of its dimensions (affordability; universal design principles; physical access; intellectual access; and technological access) as core principles of 21st century museums and libraries. IMLS also maintains a website page with up to date information about projects and publications.

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Museums are caretakers of our cultural heritage and provide primary learning experiences for all who visit them. These curriculum materials are designed to help make museums stronger by ensuring that they serve all audiences equally, for museums have found that when they appeal to a diversity of interests and learning styles, they create exhibitions and programs that are more effective for all of their visitors. We invite you to continue to explore these materials and to join us in making museums places where everyone can explore and learn together.

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