Part 1 | Access Beyond the Ramp

by John Rae | December 2008

Editor’s Note: In his article series for the OHS Bulletin, John Rae examines a variety of access issues for heritage organizations and institutions.

In the following article, he discusses the value of expanding your horizons by taking multi-sensory tours, not just for persons who are blind, but for all patrons. John, an OHS member and volunteer, has recently been appointed to the newly created Inclusive Design Advisory Council to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

This article first appeared in the December 2008 OHS Bulletin (Issue 167), and was revised in January 2014.

For many persons with a disability – even a life long history and museum lover like me – the prospect of a visit to a museum, art gallery or heritage property can be a rather intimidating event. To date, many of us assume such facilities will have little to offer us. However, times are changing and this need not be the case.

Many museums and art galleries began as institutions that were little more than a storage space for works of art and archaeological artefacts, aimed at satisfying the curiosity of upper-class dilettantes. Today, museums, art galleries, and heritage properties are the treasure houses of our civilization, repositories of our historical, artistic, scientific, and cultural heritage. However, today, they are much, much more.

Over time, the roles of these institutions have changed and evolved and these days they are involved in the more encompassing activities of: acquiring, conserving, researching, communicating and presenting exhibits, for purposes of research, education and entertainment for all members of the community. The key word here perhaps, is “all”.

Even today, too often access to these incredible heritage collections is limited for individuals with a disability. Thus, to open doors and welcome all members of our communities, museums, art galleries, and heritage properties need to adopt a more inclusive concept of accessibility which encompasses much more than just providing physical access to the facility.

What is True Inclusion?

Whenever you hear the words “access” or “accessibility,” what thoughts immediately come into your mind? Most people think of a sloping ramp or accessible washroom. This is understandable, since the International Symbol of Access is a stylized wheelchair.

Some of us look different, talk differently, learn in different ways, move around differently, or use adaptive equipment to acquire information, communicate, or perform our jobs.

True inclusion involves understanding and valuing differences. The disabled community in Canada is diverse and growing. It includes individuals who have both visible and invisible disabilities. It currently comprises over one in seven persons in our population, and that percentage is rising as our population ages. This figure does not include our friends and family members, all of whom are potential patrons of your facility.

The process of learning about access and inclusion is one example of moving from a “medical model” of disability to a “social model” approach. It started with the relatively simple idea of enabling people using wheelchairs to enter buildings, and unfortunately some institutions have never gone beyond this important element.

The next crucial stage was the transition from seeing the person using the wheelchair as an access problem to seeing the individual as a visitor with an impairment for whom the museum or art gallery posed an access problem.
Service providers had to learn to take responsibility for the barriers created by steps and other obstacles even if the building dated back many decades.

From this starting point, many museums, art galleries, heritage properties and wilderness facilities began to learn about other disabilities, including much less visible disabilities – like epilepsy, learning disabilities and mental health problems. This was part of a wider process of learning about, and responding to their increasingly diverse audiences in all their variety and complexity, a process which once begun can never end.

Accessibility definitely includes access to premises, but true “inclusion”
also covers the opportunity to participate in all aspects of your organization, its programs and what it offers. True inclusion must provide access to collections, educational programs, employment and volunteer opportunities, and to information about what’s on display and what’s happening in your facility.

Access to Premises

Getting in is key to taking part in what’s happening. Gaining access to and being able to easily move around a facility – the entire facility – is paramount. Providing parking spots close to the entrance, level entrances and walkways, counters at a height so wheelchair users can comfortably speak with staff, adequate lighting, non-slip floors, elevators, accessible washrooms, clear signage, minimizing surface glare, eliminating low hanging obstacles, accommodating staff and volunteers, and providing that occasional bench for a quick rest will make your facility more “inclusive” and inviting to a larger number of patrons.

The terms “Universal design” and “accessible design” are often used interchangeably, and this can be confusing. While universal design and accessible design share a common core of design principles and outcomes, they differ somewhat. Accessible design is legally mandated whereas universal design offers a worthwhile set of principles and practical approaches for making your facility accessible and comfortable to the widest range of visitors.

Today, a great deal of literature on making buildings and programs physically and attitudinally accessible exists, including check lists, that you can use to review accessibility in your facility and develop a plan for making improvements. However, a more inclusive approach to accomplishing this is to consult with a number of visitors with different disabilities, invite them to visit your facility, and ask for their input. This direct contact will give staff the chance to interact with the “real experts” on disability – persons with disabilities ourselves, and to develop links with organizations and individuals in your community who, in turn, can assist in publicizing your collections and programs to a wider audience.

Access to Programs

How do you promote your programs? Are they only advertised by print flyers at the entrance to your facility? Or do you also have a TTY with staff who checks it regularly? Do you provide brochures in plain language and multiple formats? Do you include information on accessibility? Do you put a message on your phone line, especially at night?

Using Technology

Most museums, art galleries, and heritage properties now have a website. Is your organization’s website fully accessible? Does it conform to current WC3 standards? Does it avoid flashing banners or other page elements that attract attention but may trigger seizures? Are videos captioned? Do links on your website include alt tabs so a blind person will not have to guess what the link contains? Are there text descriptions of photos, and are these descriptions in plain language?

Implementing universal design principles ensures that websites are more accessible, and usable with a wider array of technologies, such as mobile phones and adaptive devices.

Do you offer audio guides at exhibitions, and, if so, do they provide some description of all the items in the exhibit or only a selection of what is on display? Do you use interactive kiosks as a means for providing information to visitors? Are these usable by blind patrons, or are they operated by inaccessible touch screens? And are you investigating the introduction of other innovative technology that can transmit information directly to a visitor’s own mobile phone?

New technologies are increasingly being used to enhance the experience of museum goers. Through inclusive design practices and compliance with accessibility legislation and standards, we can ensure museum technology affords engaging experiences to a wider diversity of users.


How are staff and volunteers recruited? Do you rely solely on word of mouth, or does your organization have a more formal plan in place to reach out to various groups in your community to ensure a more diverse work force and pool of volunteers? Do you provide training on diversity issues, and have you developed a policy on providing needed accommodations?

Access to Programs

Do you offer public lectures. Are they held in fully accessible rooms? Do you ever provide sign language interpreters, and are these accessibility features mentioned when you publicize these events?

Do your lecturers provide enough detail during their talks so that non-experts can enjoy the presentation? Are they adept at describing what is on the slides that support their presentation, or do they assume everyone can see and readily understand what is being presented?

Do movies or films ever include described video? DV provides information on an additional audio track through a head set to fill in gaps in narrative content? Again, while this approach was developed to assist movie goers who are blind, sighted viewers often feel they also gain more from a movie when DVS is added.

Do you offer educational programs, where a patron can participate in classes, and would a person with a disability be welcome to participate in an art or sculpture class?

Do you offer special programs for school groups? Do you have some items that you take out to classes in your community, and how do you choose the kinds of items to include in these presentations? Do you have some items that students can examine by touch?

Access to Collections

How is your collection presented? Are items displayed solely in glass cases, or is it possible to touch some or most of what is on display?

When you are negotiating for visiting or special exhibitions, is access ever discussed with the artist or the facility providing the exhibition?

The Ontario Historical Society is trying to bridge gaps in access and understanding that still exist. Rob Leverty, the OHS’s Executive Director says “We developed ‘Accessible Heritage,’ an accessibility tool kit to make Ontario’s history accessible for all the people of Ontario.”

No Substitute to Tactile Access

For a patron who is blind like me, there is no substitute to tactile access! Being able to run my hand over a shiny surface, examine the contours of a statue, and feel the face and clothing makes history real!

I have traveled extensively, both in Canada and abroad. I have visited many museums, pioneer villages and historic homes and properties.

While in Copenhagen, I was asked to put on a pair of thin cotton gloves to prevent the oils from my hands from damaging any of the irreplaceable collection from ancient times that I was touching at the Ni Karlsburg Glyptotek. During a special tour on board Admiral Nelson’s flagship, they took down the rope and allowed me to wander his quarter deck. In the basement of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, I had the opportunity to examine some of the items they did not have room to put on display.

At Nelson Mandella’s former house in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, South Africa, I could touch much of what was on display, including Tommy “Hit Man” Hernes World Championship boxing belt, which was a great thrill for me.

At the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, I had the pleasure of examining their collection of replicas of artifacts from ancient times. At the Museum of Civilization and Man in Gatineau, I have had special tours, especially during the summertime when their staff is supplemented by archaeology and anthropology students and touched much from their extensive First Nations exhibition, and I have roamed around many pioneer villages and touched implements that were used to build this country.

Creativity, ingenuity and reaching out to various organizations in your community can go a long way to making your collections more “accessible” to a much larger number of patrons, who want to experience what the past has left us to learn from and enjoy what you have on display.

For further information feel free to contact the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians by e-mail at or by toll free phone at 1-800-561-4774.