Sunday, December 17, 2000

Museums improve access for disabled

Changes in buildings, etiquette help institutions, visitors

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — When the Behringer-Crawford Museum embarks on a $1.9 million expansion and renovation early next year, accessibility will be a key issue.

        The museum showcasing Northern Kentucky's cultural and natural history occupies a converted 19th century home, with exhibits crammed in every nook of the sprawling two-story building.

        Because the museum doesn't have elevators, volunteers sometimes have to carry second-floor exhibits down to the main floor to show people who can't navigate the stairs. Occasionally, visitors in wheelchairs have had trouble maneuvering through restroom doors.

[photo] A ramp leads to the entrance of the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        And to enter the museum, visitors must make their way from the parking lot up a steep hillside, unless they know to drive around the narrow museum driveway, where a few more accessible parking spaces are located.

        Behringer-Crawford Museum's accessibility issues are not unique. Ten years after passage of the federal Americcans with Disabilities Act, many Greater Cincinnati arts organizations and cultural attractions are struggling to meet the needs of their more diverse audiences in facilities built decades before handicapped accessibility became a societal issue, said Sandy Kerlin, director of the private, nonprofit Inclusion Network.

        The network works with arts groups to enable people with disabilities to fully participate. When the Children's Museum moved to the Cincinnati Museum Center a year ago, the Inclusion Network advised its staff on how to make exhibits and programming more accessible to children with disabilities.

        As the U.S. population ages, Baby Boomers find themselves struggling with diminishing sight, hearing or mobility, and the number of people with disabilities increases, Ms. Kerlin said.

        “The selfish reason for accommodating people with disabilities is that you can expand your audience base,” said Cate O'Hara, associate curator of public programs and publications at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati. “People with disabilities are a huge part of our population.”

        The altruistic reason is the intrinsic benefit that increased accessibility offers visitors and the museums and arts groups themselves, Ms. O'Hara said.

        Since 1994, the Taft Museum has pioneered ways of making its exhibits accessible to a broader audience and groups of volunteers.

        “As ... more and more people fall into the category of people with disabilities, many of those people were active in the arts, or visited museums, or they were involved in various activities in their community, and they want to continue that involvement,” Ms. O'Hara said. “They're going to be looking for programs that are open to them.”

        A side benefit: museums and arts organizations become more creative in presenting their exhibits and programming when they accommodate visitors with disabilities, she said.

        Staff and volunteers at the Taft Museum became sensitive to accessibility issues six years ago, when a volunteer docent at the museum began losing her sight and hearing.

        Wanting to continue to share her love of the paintings and other exhibits, she researched accessibility issues and ended up teaming with Ms. O'Hara to write a training manual for museum workersand offering workshops on accessibility.

        Today everyone who answers the phones or meets the public at the Taft Museum is trained to provide information about museum accommodations for visitors with disabilities. Docents also are trained to interpret displays or exhibits for people with a variety of physical impairments.

        “You follow the lead of the people you're giving the tour to, and you think of new ways to describe or interpret things,” Ms. O'Hara said. “For example, you could say, "This painting is the size of the table, which you can touch. It's cool. You can hear and smell the cows.'”

        Some of the museum's sensory tours have become so popular the Taft has incorporated elements of them into its regular tours, Ms. O'Hara said.

        The challenge for the Behringer-Crawford Museum, said Executive Director Laurie Risch, is to correct the building's physical limitations while expanding and renovating, including adding an elevator, making restrooms handicapped accessible and making the parking lot level with the museum's main entrance.

        But to truly make it accessible inside and out, the Behringer-Crawford underwent a study by a consultant who has made a career of improving accessibility in public buildings.

        Tom Fricke has firsthand experience dealing with a disability; he was blinded in an accident as a teen-ager. Now as director of Comprehensive Educational Services, he evaluates the accessibility of schools. Mr. Fricke volunteered to evaluate the Behringer-Crawford Museum, and he has since joined its board of directors. His suggestions include everything from the proper etiquette for addressing visitors with disabilities, to the best ways to design and label exhibits so that the broadest range of people can enjoy them.

        Even before Mr. Fricke's study, the museum decided to lower its popular holiday trains exhibit so that it could be viewed by young children and visitors in wheelchairs.

        At the Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center in Covington, executive director Mary Ann Wehrend attended several accessibility workshops sponsored by the state and has spent much of her efforts securing federal and state grants, as well as foundation funds, to make the 99-year-old building accessible to all. She said the cost of making the Carnegie accessible is equal to the facility's six-year programming budget.

        “We've wanted to make improvements from Day One,” Ms. Wehrend said. “The problem is, you have to raise the money.”

        In March, Carnegie supporters plan to start work on a connector to make the building's three levels of exhibits and accommodations accessible to anyone.

        “We've been told by the Kentucky Arts Council that we have to address these issues, and we plan to,” Ms. Wehrend said.

        “Without these improvements, I cannot continue to go after state and federal funding. And ultimately, organizations that can't address these issues risk being closed.”


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