Inclusion: More Than Mere Access

By: John Rae

This Presentation was originally delivered at the Collections, Connections and Communities Conference, Ottawa, Ontario, October 2, 2009. It was revised for presentation at the University of Toronto, February 3, 2010.

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. However, 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 artifacts, 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”. But too often access to these incredible heritage collections is limited for individuals with a disability. Thus, to open our 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 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 about 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.

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 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 that wheelchair users can comfortably access, adequate lighting, non-slip floors, elevators, accessible washrooms, clear signage, minimizing surface glare, providing that occasional bench for a quick rest, and accommodating staff 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. Accessible design is legally mandated whereas universal design is merely a worthwhile set of principles.

Today, a great deal of literature on making buildings 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.

Publicizing Your 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 operate 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 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 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 descriptive narration? DVS 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 Information

Is information about items on display presented only by notes in tiny print on a display case? Or does your facility offer replicas, audio guides, tactile drawings, or information sheets in multiple formats, including large print and braille?

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.”

War, One of the Greatest Causes of Disability

In his article, “Celebrating Slaughter: How War Memorials Help Us Forget the Horrors of Violence,” Chris Hedges writes:

War memorials and museums are temples to the god of war. The hushed voices, the well-tended grass, the flapping of the flags allow us to ignore how and why our young died. They hide the futility and waste of war. They sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq into hellish bonfires. … War, by the time it is collectively remembered, is glorified and heavily censored.”

Hedges continues: “War memorials are quiet, still, reverential and tasteful. And, like church, such sanctuaries are important, but they allow us to forget that these men and women were used and often betrayed by those who led the nation into war. The memorials do not tell us that some always grow rich from large-scale human suffering. They do not explain that politicians play the great games of world power and stoke fear for their own advancement.”

These memorials, while they pay homage to those who made “the ultimate sacrifice, dignify war and thus contribute to the inevitable slaughter that results. They perpetuate the old lie of honor and glory. They set the ground for the next inferno. What do your collections say about war, and how it adds significantly to the numbers of persons with disabilities worldwide?

Representation of Persons With Disabilities

What material exists in your collection that pertains to disabled people’s lives and history? Persons with disabilities do have a history, though it may not be as well documented as it should be! At a time when museums are increasingly concerned to research and present “hidden histories,” why is disability rarely, if ever, exhibited?

A UK project, “Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries,” identified a wealth of material in museum and art gallery collections. However, these researchers discovered that much of this material was in storage, and not on display. Where objects and artworks were displayed, their connection with disability was rarely made explicit or interpreted to visitors.

Representations of people with disabilities in displays and exhibitions, when presented, most often conformed to prevalent stereotypes found in other media – in film, literature, television and charity advertising. These stereotypes included people with disabilities as freaks, as passive and dependent recipients of charity, Biblical miracle cures; and as heroes who somehow transcend their disability by overcoming the challenges presented by their impairments. Depictions of people with disabilities in everyday life were practically non-existent.

Interviews conducted with curators helped to explain this situation. Many who were interviewed were open to including representations of people with disabilities in exhibitions and displays but were concerned how this might be achieved. Many expressed a fear of causing offence, of making mistakes. Curators were anxious not to promote freak-show approaches through displaying “difference” in ways which might encourage staring or other inappropriate forms of looking.

Other questions emerged during the research. Should we tell (and if so how should we tell) the difficult stories surrounding disability history – of asylums, industrial and war injury, holocaust, freak-show history, people’s personal experiences of pain, discrimination and marginalization?

In what circumstances should an object’s link with disability be made explicit when it might not otherwise be obvious to the audience? How can the material in collections be presented in ways which incorporate perspectives and insights from persons with various disabilities themselves that will help to confront and alter outdated and stereotypic attitudes about disability?

The social model of disability provides a powerful lens to challenge and counteract such negative representations by highlighting the environmental, attitudinal and social barriers that people with various disabilities face in struggles for equality and basic human rights.

“Out From Under”

Last year, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) hosted “Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember,” a powerful exhibit that briefly explored Canadian disability history. This exhibition of 13 diverse objects was produced in collaboration with students and alumni from Ryerson University.

Participants were invited to identify an object representing a particular era or moment in Canadian disability history, and explore its significance.

Each of the pieces unfolds from a one word title, for example: – Labouring draws attention to the unpaid labours of three women inmates at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane during the early 1900s.
– Dressing features 16 identical sweat suits that were typically worn by inmates in Ontario’s 16 residential institutions and brings attention to the thousands of Canadians with intellectual disabilities currently living in conditions equally drab and formless.
– Packing presents a trunk sent with a seven year old boy to the Orillia Asylum for Idiots in the early 1950s. Between 1876 and 1950, almost 10,000 lives were crammed into trunks as people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized.

Docents and Guides

Docents and guides are important to the museum or art gallery experience for all visitors. How much verbal description do you offer visitors? How much background on a particular object or painting should you impart? How much about a particular piece should you point out, or should you leave all of this to the visitor to investigate and experience on a strictly personal level? These questions, if discussed with a number of docents and guides would likely draw out a variety of responses.

Tours for blind patrons will inevitably involve more time and a greater amount of verbal description to provide mental images of what we cannot see. I hope that those who lead these tours will gain something from this experience, gain a deeper appreciation of the pieces they are looking at, and appreciate their important role in a way they may have not previously considered.

For example, Doris Van Den Brekel, Coordinator in the Education and Public Programming Department at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says, “My experience in giving tours to people with a vision impairment has opened me up to new ways of experiencing art. When I use my eyes to explore art, I often go too fast and sometimes make assumptions about what is there. Describing an artwork to someone who can’t see takes time and attention to detail – but deepens the art connection for both of us through shared discussion.”

Gloria Temkin, a docent at the AGO observed:
“Guiding you and your friends, has greatly enhanced my own gallery experience. I became very aware of my responsibilities and reactions to my role as guide. As you carefully touched the various works, you slowed down my looking so that I became so much more aware of and engaged in details which I had not previously noticed). 

In preparing and delivering the descriptive elements of our tours together, I found myself looking so much more carefully and analytically at the paintings searching for ways in which to communicate with you, the visitors. I look forward to continuing to enhance my skills as a guide and to achieve personal growth through my involvement in this program.”

Alison Benjamin, a nondisabled Masters of Information student at the University of Toronto, who accompanied me to the King Tut, the Golden King and Great Pharaoh exhibit at the AGO, commented on our discussion about lapis during our tour:

“I hadn’t noticed that colour, even though it was represented everywhere. But after you mentioned it, I started seeing it everywhere and describing it. I guess the point I was trying to make is seeing isn’t knowing, but that by doing describing, I picked up all sorts of details I wouldn’t have thought of. It was a very synergistic experience, and I walked away knowing more… it was also great fun.”

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo – housing over 120000 statues, papyrus, mummies, and gilded relics – offers an unparalleled journey into the visual splendour of Ancient Egypt. The Museum’s prize exhibit are the over 3,000 pieces on display from King Tutankhamen’s tomb, including the boy-Pharaoh’s famous golden mask. Now a program offering guided tours by blind tour guides provides the blind with access to these treasures from the times of the Pharaohs.

The Museum’s Director says the tours, and museum classes on Ancient Egypt for blind children, are designed to cater to a neglected section of society.

The program began five years ago and now offers weekly classes for children and has four guides on staff who use Braille guides for their tour groups. Blind tour guides are trained not only to convey important historical information about the antiquities they are describing, but are also given special permission to allow blind visitors to touch the exhibits in order to feel what they cannot see.

Trainee guide Adel Naguib says that it is easier for a blind guide to communicate to someone who experiences the world in the same way.

No Substitute to Tactile Access

I have traveled extensively, both in Canada and abroad. My feet have walked through many marvelous places from the past. I have visited many museums, art galleries, castles, maritime facilities, nature reserves and historic homes and properties. I have roamed around many pioneer villages throughout Canada, and touched many implements that were used to build this country. I was particularly impressed by how much could be touched at Fort William.

While there are a variety of ways to convey information about items on display, for a blind visitor, there is simply no substitute to tactile access to your regular collection, no substitute whatsoever!

Over the past several months, I have had the great pleasure of working with the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is in the process of developing its first Accessibility Plan under the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA). This work has included the opportunity to touch a growing number of items on display.

My initial efforts at the AGO were ably assisted by Jen Rinaldi, a doctoral candidate at York University, who is as passionate about visiting museums and art galleries as I am!

When I asked for her reaction to our first “touch tour” at the AGO, she commented:

“I also had the opportunity to touch art while on the tactile tour. While I am not blind, I like to experience the world through touch. For this reason, the tour was almost mystical for me. Being able to reach out and gently run my fingertips along Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman was a very intimate, beautiful moment for me, a memory akin to my memories of touching the pillars of Chichen Itza and the Pantheon in Rome. It was as if I crossed a chasm that has always separated me from that statue that I have admired from afar for years, every time I have visited the AGO. Through touch I was able to connect with the woman, and the artist. I will never forget that experience, and I am so grateful to the AGO for providing me with this opportunity.”

If she was so moved by her experience, can you imagine how much more important the opportunity to touch objects on display is to a history buff who is blind like me! Being able to run my fingers over a shiny surface, feel the material that was used, examine the contours of a statue, and feel the face and clothing, this is what makes history real for me! Again, let me emphasize that while there are various ways of conveying information about your collections, there is simply no substitute to tactile access, no substitute whatsoever!

As Doris Van Den Brekel at the AGO has observed, “I have learned that using touch to explore works of art requires patience and thoroughness, but that touch misses nothing.”

The Ultimate Experience in Tactile Access

The ultimate experience in tactile access might be going down into the pit to touch the Terracotta Warriors outside of Xian, China. Andrew Spridgens from the UK, my room mate on last year’s Peru tour, had such an experience in 1996.

“Going down into the pit to touch the Terracotta Warriors was a very special moment and one I shall never forget. It was very special because not many people have had the privilege to do this.

It was great touching something so old. They felt dustier than I imagined they would. Quite a few of them had parts missing. I would say it was one of the two great moments of the holiday, the other being walking on the Great Wall of China.”

If museums and art galleries in such diverse places as Peru, South Africa, the UK, Turkey, Xian and beyond can provide tactile access, then museums and art galleries across Canada can make their collections more accessible to Canadians with various disabilities who wish to learn more about our past and participate in present day culture.

Replicas, however, can assist.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of paleontology, houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs. I suggest any visitor start in its Gift Shop, where you can examine dinosaurs in various forms, from stuffed animals to key chains, and gain a better appreciation of what you are about to see in the collection itself.

The Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, established July 28, 1926, is housed in an 18th century vice-royal mansion built over a 7th century pre-Columbian pyramid. It boasts one of the world’s largest collections of pre-Columbian art including Moche, Nazca, Chimú, and Inca.
It also is well known for its gallery of pre-Columbian erotic pottery, and was one of the first museums in the world to put its entire 45,000 piece collection in an electronic catalogue.

The Museum’s Gift Shop contains many replicas that were cast from pre Incan vessels from their collection. During my recent visit, as part of a specialized tour with Traveleyes of the UK, Museum staff organized an opportunity for us to touch about 20 examples of these vessels, and they even gave each of us one to take home.

At the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, I had the pleasure of examining their collection, which consists mainly of replicas of artifacts from ancient times. Begun in 1974, the collection began as a small group of replicas purchased from the Louvre, but grew to include replicas from other museums and workshops, as well as some original artifacts.

These replicas are created directly from, and are practically indistinguishable from the originals. Most are not crafted from the same material as the original. Most are casts made of plaster or resin, not marble or bronze, for the obvious reasons of expense and weight. The replicas by large workshops–such as those at the Louvre, Paris, the British Museum, London, and the Gipsformerei der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin—are created from moulds taken directly from the original pieces. They therefore replicate exactly any damage in the original. After the plaster cast is unmoulded, it is painted and given a surface finish which matches the original.

Special tours can also help.

After an individualized tour of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, I had the opportunity to touch many items they did not have room to put on display.

At the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, I have had special tours, especially during the summertime when their staff is augmented by archaeology and anthropology students and touched much from their extensive First Nations exhibition.

But tactile access to items in the regular collection is paramount.

At Nelson Mandela’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.

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 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Their collection includes artifacts from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, the Ancient Mediterranean, and Imperial Rome. The Egypt portion of this collection alone contains more than 1800 works, including statues, reliefs, paintings, decorated mummies, painted mummy coffins and a wealth of tomb treasures. The oldest is the hippopotamus from around 3000 BCE.

Some Other Ways of Removing Barriers

Access can also be provided by taking down existing barriers.

During a tour on board Admiral Nelson’s flagship, they took down the rope and allowed me to wander his quarter deck at will.

While at the Museo Inca in Cusco, Peru, the security guard took down the barrier and allowed me to examine models of two Incan cities, including Machu Picchu, which I had visited the previous day. This experience gave me an even better idea of the so called “lost city of the Incas.”

But tactile access to items in the regular collection is paramount.

As Maya Jonas observed: “Touch misses nothing, whereas vision can sometimes miss or misinterpret what is there. By touching you can feel the reality of the piece.”


Conservators are often worried over potential damage that touching items can cause. These concerns are understandable. We must all do our part to preserve the irreplaceable remains from the past, but these concerns can be overcome.

Having these items on display at all, exposed to light, air, and flash photography, can pose some damage. However, we take these minor risks, because while preservation is a priority, these works are on display so we can all appreciate and enjoy them.

The more objects that you have available in your collection that can be touched, the less each individual sculpture will get handled. Elizabeth Sweeney reports: “At the National Gallery we have about 15 touchable sculptures. We at most do a tactile tour once every 2 months – so each work gets touched maybe once or at most twice a year.”

Serving Your Various Publics

To be able to imagine that other people’s life experiences are different from yours is an essential trait of anyone providing a public service. Recognizing that other people may experience the world differently and speculating and imagining what that might be like is, however, only the first step. No one can imagine another’s life well enough to develop services for them without involving them directly.

This fundamental principle, embodied in the axiom, “nothing about us without us,” may appear obvious, but when this issue is raised, staff at all levels – curators, conservators, educators and front of house staff – often feel somewhat threatened. However, the opportunity to learn more about an artist, an object, or to gain new skills to better serve a particular target audience should not be seen as a threat, but rather, as an exciting opportunity.

Looking to the Future

Museums and art galleries are repositories of the world’s historic, artistic, scientific, and cultural heritage. As we move beyond the idea that disability equals wheelchairs and access equals ramps, and engage with groups of visitors who are not so visible – and who do not give the illusion of being so easy to understand – your work may become somewhat more complex, but hopefully also more rewarding. It may require a more in-depth exploration of how your programs are delivered, experienced and how they need to be modified to be genuinely inclusive for all visitors.

The need for awareness and the complexity of issues multiply when the question of representation of disabled people’s lives within museums and art galleries is addressed. In a society pervaded by stereotypes and unrepresentative images, it is difficult to avoid absorbing the prevailing attitudes in our wider society. To date, it has generally been far easier to not deal with us at all, and where representation has occurred, the depictions have too often been stereotyped or clichéd.

Changing this understandably involves anxieties about “getting it wrong.” But anyone who has engaged with disability seriously over recent decades has found that service improvements put in place for people with disabilities improve programs for all visitors, and in most cases accommodations for people with a disability will require more imagination than expense, more creativity than equipment!

What is a Museum, heritage property or art gallery? What is its real purpose?

Do museums really want to leave out a sizeable portion of society as history has attempted? Or, do museums of today want to invite all patrons to explore and learn from the past and help society forge new attitudes of true inclusion by opening doors to all members of your community and encouraging all to come, explore, learn, participate and grow?

I believe these are places of learning, information and entertainment that should be enjoyed by more members of our communities, including persons with various disabilities. They are designed to provide a window on the past, and offer valuable insights on the present and the future. As such, all members of our communities can and should be encouraged to come in, participate, and benefit from what art galleries, heritage properties, wilderness facilities and museums offer.

This starts from a real belief in true inclusion. As Margot Whitfield, a student at the University of Toronto recently observed: “I wish we lived in a world where culture was considered a right and people prioritized bringing culture to life for each and everyone of us no matter
how we communicated or looked or acted or felt.”

I have walked through many impressive historic sites both in Canada and abroad, marveled at the accomplishments of many societies, and touched the remains of many cultures. And I want to visit many more places, experience more civilizations, and explore more artifacts from the past, and do so in the best way I know, by touch.

I believe that today “access for all” in experiencing the past through our many senses is our shared goal. We in the disabled community look forward to working collaboratively with you to make this goal a reality in all our communities across Canada.