Whitney Museum of American Art

Prioritizing Access to Culture on Equal Footing with Education and Employment for Persons with Disabilities

It’s crucial for persons with disabilities to be part of an inclusive society that champions access to culture as equally important as getting a degree, seeking jobs, voting, and traveling writes Nilofar Shamim Haja.

Rereeti’s mission is to provide every museum visitor with a participatory, interactive and delightful experience of engaging with the collections, subject and history of the region. We do this through workshops, training, sensitizing the public by raising awareness, and partnering with cultural and scientific institutions to make their spaces more accessible to all visitors.

By “all” we mean senior citizens, children, people from the rural and small town segments, and most importantly, persons with disabilities. The latter are usually excluded from vast swathes of institutional access across the country, and securing their participation within a cultural setting is often a matter of priority (most times) and lack of awareness. With primary focus normally trained on education and employability (understandable), accessibility to other areas such as culture, arts, sports, and travel is often considered an afterthought.

Access to culture isn’t a zero sum equation where participation in one area of life (education, employment) needs prioritization over another (leisure, arts). There’s no need to choose between art and sustenance, or culture and business: they are all necessary components of making a person whole.

Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New YorkImage: Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York. Photo courtesy: Nilofar Shamim Haja.

India’s Responsibility Towards Inclusive Practices
Museums in particular need to transform themselves into inclusive and inviting spaces for visitors who identify themselves across the spectrum of disability. Why? Many of you might be aware that India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), which came into being in 2006 at the United Nations HQ in New York. The Convention follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension.

In particular, Article 30 of the CRPD mandates “Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport” as a pre-requisite:

States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to take part on an equal basis with others in cultural life, and shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities:

(a) Enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats;
(b) Enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural activities, in accessible formats;
(c) Enjoy access to places for cultural performances or services, such as theatres, museums, cinemas, libraries and tourism services, and, as far as possible, enjoy access to monuments and sites of national cultural importance.

What such Conventions and legal mandates do is define the scope and parameter for accessibility that is to be followed by government institutions and services, there by helping set standards for what an inclusive society is expected to function like. For instance, the National Museum in New Delhi “has installed monograms, signs and Braille inscriptions to make objects in the museum blind-friendly. The main passages, ramps, and galleries have also been reworked so that they are barrier-free” (source).

National Museum DelhiImage: In 2011, the National Museum became India’s first to install Braille signage and other accessible cues such as tactile diagrams and replicas for its visually impaired visitors. Photo courtesy Tejshvi Jain.

You may argue about the cost factor and resource intensiveness of implementing a feature for a group that might only comprise a few hundred visitors. But that’s precisely what inclusion underlines: being inclusive as a society necessitates that we take into consideration the needs of the minority, the disenfranchised and those who aren’t privileged in terms of geography (location), access (financial and educational background) and awareness (exposure to institutionalized culture).

In 2014, the Central Public Works Department published a useful reference on increasing access to public spaces and buildings, titled “Handbook on Barrier Free and Accessibility.” While there are no specific mentions of how museums can make their spaces more accessible, design professionals and museum curators can cull out important insights from every chapter. For instance, the chapter on Signage makes a case for the provision of Braille and high-contrast signs (an internationally followed convention). At the same time, readers are also cautioned about normative accessibility features that may need tweaking: Despite the design requirements of tactile guide paths and tactile warning strips to help orient persons with visual impairment, they can sometimes impose hazards to people with limited mobility, children and the elderly.

“A society in which the opportunities are the same for everyone is enriched by the diversity of its active and contributing members. A well-designed environment which is safe, convenient, comfortable, and readily accessible benefits everyone” – Dr Sudhir Krishna, Ministry of Urban Development.

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New YorkImage: Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Shamim Haja.

What Next for Cultural Accessibility?
As a profession, curation and heritage management need to think beyond physical and spatial access and engender debates and discussions on how we could make collections, exhibitions, art works and activities more engaging for visitors of all abilities. The aim is to break down mental barriers among museum staff in what they think they know about visitors with disabilities and their needs. Guided tours, tactile paths, Braille signage, and models of real collections are only the tip of the iceberg in making the collections more accessible.

The real change will begin when we empower persons with disabilities to take the lead and seek their inputs in creating environments that are accessible as per their needs. Visitors of all abilities should be able to access, interact and engage with cultural spaces with the least number of barriers by applying the principles of universal design.

Technology can play a significant role in reducing this gap between ability and accessibility, and we already have hugely successful programs and accommodations in place in the museums across United States, Britain, Europe, and Asia to reach out to for inspiration and collaboration. What stops us is the crippling question of “Do we really need to?” The answer is an unequivocal yes! No physical, emotional or historical barrier should stop you from being inspired by art and history. The same goes for the rest of us.   

About the Author

Nilofar Haja is Rereeti's communications officerNilofar Shamim Haja is Rereeti’s Communications Officer. She consults with the United Nations-Global Alliance for ICT (UN-GAID) initiated non-profit G3ICT – The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, promoting the rights of persons with disabilities in the digital age. Nilofar has a master’s degree in Ancient Indian History, Culture, and Archaeology from the Mumbai University. She tweets @culture_curate.

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