Adapted labels written in language that is simplified are the best way to welcome and engage visitors with lower reading levels. This includes people with intellectual disabilities (I.D.), English language learners, children, those learning to read, and those with a reading level well below the national average. This may seem like niche groups, but together, these groups number in the several million in the United States.
It may seem daunting or impossible to portray information in a way that is interesting to adults and children, but I believe with some creative writing, it is entirely possible. Beverly Serrell and Nina Simon talk about labels in their books (Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach and The Participatory Museum, respectively). Nina Simon in particular talks about utilizing questions in label writing, stating “if there’s a right answer, it’s the wrong question.” Simon comes from the angle of encouraging participation, and it does, but asking questions encourages critical thinking that is beneficial for people of all backgrounds. Questions written in simple language don’t necessarily have simple answers.
Designated guided tours for those with I.D. or other similar disabilities are an easy way to provide a personalized experience that is understandable and appropriate. Please note that just because an adult has an intellectual disability, it does not mean that the template for the tour should be based on tours for children or teens. It is vital to treat this population using direct and age-appropriate language.
The tours may include a narrative about disability within the museum’s collection, though it is not absolutely necessary. Language should be simple but explain more complex concepts. Ask questions as you normally would in a tour for adults. However, you may have to change how you would present the question. Rather than asking general questions like, “what do you see in this painting?” ask “what do you notice about the colors?” It helps to have a concrete subject to talk about rather than presenting an individual or individuals with an abstract question. Offering questions with a yes or no answer can also be helpful in some cases, but it is not always necessary to simplify that much. Remember that each individual has a different learning style and thought process. Learn to consult companions about how to best ask questions, and be adaptable!
A suggestion made by an advocate (someone who works with or is a family member/friend of someone with I.D.) in the surveys completed was to create a guided tour with a self-advocate with I.D. This way, you are involving the community and learning about things that someone with I.D. may be interested in sharing – perhaps tips on how to navigate the museum.
Sensory maps and/or social stories
A number of the responses from the surveys indicated that there were sensory concerns when attending the museum. A simple solution to this would be to create sensory maps and social stories available online and in your museum alongside other maps, for visitors who have limited internet access or who didn’t think to look at your museum’s accessibility page.
A sensory map simply explains what type of sensory experiences a person might have in a given place of your museum. Indicate if you have a video or sound installation in one room, or what type of lighting each room has. Is it lit by natural light? Is it dimly lit? If there is natural light, is it filtered through opaque glass or are they non-opaque? Also indicate what areas of your museum are loud or can get loud – whether that’s because the room echoes, or because lots of visitors tend to congregate in a given area. It’s also a good idea to indicate which areas are quiet, and tend to get fewer visitors, and indicate it as a good area to take a rest if someone gets overstimulated. Mark areas where one can sit and rest as well, and be sure that your museum has ample seating, no matter how small. You never know what a person’s needs are or how long they’re going to stay, so assume they will stay for a long time and accommodate them accordingly.
Social stories, or social narratives, are a way to explain what to expect in the museum and how to behave in them. This tool is often used for Autistic children and teens, though, if written age-appropriately, can be useful for adults with I.D. or Autistic adults as well.
There are several resources and examples of narratives for visitors, but the ones I found most useful for myself can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accessibility page and the Museum Access Consortium’s page. Notice that there are options for children, teens, and adults, and that these are separate. The language changes in each story, but the content is the same. Tell the reader how to enter the museum. Is there a separate accessible entrance they can use? Does your museum require admission, or for visitors to go through security? Include as many images and as much detail as possible. Use “I” statements. For example, say, “I will go through the main entrance on x street and walk through the front door” rather than “The main entrance is on x street.” Be sure to include any sensory concerns – if the entrance is noisy or bright, indicate that.