Students from the NYU Ability Project make history more accessible

Tactile Washingtons

NYU students designed tactile models of an aging George Washington for the visually impaired

In 1683 the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, (widely acknowledged as the world’s first “modern” museum), opened its doors to the public. Since then, museums have played a vital role in preserving history and connecting visitors to the past, and, pre-pandemic, approximately 850 million people visit American museums each year. What if, however, that fun and enriching experience were not accessible to you?

Students from the NYU Ability Project are trying to ensure that never happens. Thanks to a hands-on class specifically devoted to museum accessibility, students from NYU Tandon’s Integrated Design & Media program, Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and the College of Arts and Science’s Program in Museum Studies have developed a suite of tools to help museums and other such sites become increasingly inclusive for the more than 85 million people in the U.S. living with disabilities.

“Too often, museum visitors — especially those with disabilities — encounter physical, communication or sensory barriers,” Associate Professor Amy Hurst, who is jointly appointed to Tandon and Steinhardt and who directs the Ability Project, says. “But just as often, accessibility is not foremost in mind, since so many museums just don’t have the resources to devote to it because of budgetary and staffing issues.”

Additionally, when accessibility is addressed, people most often think of flooring surfaces, ramps, door widths, and other features that are especially important to wheelchair users. Access for people who are blind or have low vision and for people who are deaf or hard of hearing are also generally addressed to some extent. However, access for people with sensory processing issues (including but not limited to vision and hearing) or cognitive processing difficulties is a much thornier undertaking. The Ability Project took a big-picture approach.. 

A grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services allowed the class to use New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum as a laboratory for their ideas, and the result is an exhibit, “Making History Accessible,” which invites visitors to try out the prototypes on display and provide feedback so they can be further refined and tested at partner sites, which include the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum in Washington State, Fostersfields Living Historical Farm in New Jersey, the Louisiana State Museum, and the Minnesota Historical Society.  “While developing the tools, we consulted with a wide variety of  disability advocates, including those with mobility, cognitive, and sensory challenges, and personnel from the Smithsonian and National Trust for Historic Preservation served as advisors.” Anita Perr, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Steinhardt and co-founder of the Ability Project, explains. “Our ultimate goal is to provide guidance that any museum or historic site — no matter what its size, budget, or focus area — can use to increase accessibility and engagement for all its patrons.”  

Daniel Ryan Johnston, an Interactive Telecommunications Program student at NYU Tisch, was in the second cohort of the class and helped design a tactile experience based on a portrait of George Washington. “Every curator is going to want to stress different aspects of an object,'' he says. “One institution, for example, might want to focus on Washington’s socioeconomic status and another on his military rank. In this case, the idea was to allow visually impaired people to experience how Washington was aging, so to convey that idea, we honed in on the heavy jowls evident in the original painting and made a 2.5-dimensional model out of cardboard.” 

Johnston, who was among the group of students who gathered at the museum to install “Making History Accessible,” explains that he chose that humble material specifically. “The reality is that if these solutions are not affordable, they are simply not going to be implemented by smaller museums with limited operating budgets,” he says. “There’s still some expense involved, since this was made using a laser cutter, but we’re encouraging sites to reach out to people at local makerspaces, who would probably be thrilled to be involved in a worthy project like this.”        

Saarah D'Souza, now a recent alum, took many courses with Perr as she earned her degree in occupational therapy at NYU Steinhardt, and had already pitched in with an Ability Project initiative to help make the CitiBike program more inclusive. “That was a great experience because I got to work for the first time with designers and engineers, rather than solely with other OTs,” D’Souza recalls. As a member of the team, she provided insight into functional assumptions. “Those are things a designer might assume someone else can do,” she explains. “But just because I can easily turn a knob, for example, doesn’t mean that someone with cerebral palsy can turn their wrist in the same way.” 

When Perr announced the museum accessibility project, D'Souza was eager to take part and was assigned to a group that looked at the problem of overstimulation, a common issue for those on the autism spectrum, who can easily become overwhelmed by sights and sounds. They realized that pre-planning was key; if prospective visitors could access detailed exhibit information in advance, they could decide where to go and what to see. Visitors to the Intrepid can now consult sensory charts, which list noise levels and other important metrics for various spaces within the museum, and social narratives--pictorial stories that describe what a neurodiverse visitor might encounter. They can also take advantage of the Ability Project-created “Bring Your Own Accessible Device” (BYOAD) guide — a way of allowing visually impaired guests to access detailed descriptions of exhibits, spaces, and amenities on their phones or other devices; enabling those who are deaf or hard of hearing, have audio processing delays, or simply prefer not to play sound to instead read transcription and captioning; and other helpful uses. (The guide was inaugurated as the museum grappled with the logistical and operational challenges posed by COVID-19, since health and safety considerations meant that all users needed to avoid shared audio devices and limit high-touch experiences.) 

The BYOAD guide made an immediate, practical impact on museum-goers, a fact much appreciated by graduate student Nelson James, part of the Integrated Design & Media program at Tandon. “That chance to actually work with stakeholders was invaluable to me as a designer,” he says. “Sometimes I feel that accessibility in design is an afterthought, so learning to think about accessibility right from the start of iteration is key and leads to more accessible experiences for all.” He thinks everyone could benefit from the type of hands-on collaboration the Ability Project involves. “Even though there are frameworks, such as design thinking and Universal Design for Learning, working with stakeholders teaches you how those frameworks can fall short, especially within the accessibility community,” he asserts.