June 2020


Compiled by Abigail Diaz and Sarah Sims

It was just 30 years ago that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed on July 26, 1990. This monumental civil rights legislation made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal and helped move the US towards a more inclusive future. The Museum Education Roundtable has compiled a two-part Virtual Special Issue that illustrated the arc of accessibility work in museum education. We hope this VSI will help practitioners understand how far we’ve come but also inspire us all to continue to break down barriers to make museums truly places for all people. 

Part I consists of 13 articles that date to the days before the ADA was passed. These articles chronicle museums’ responses to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a precursor to the ADA. Highlighted articles discuss programs, accommodations, marketing, physical accessibility and staff training. 

It’s important to note that one of the most tangible changes over the years is the language we use surrounding disability. These early articles include language about and attitudes towards disability that are no longer considered appropriate. While offensive to many of us today, we cannot ignore past wrongs if we hope to continue progressing. 

Some articles appear in the former iteration of the Journal of Museum Education, called Roundtable Reports.  Most entries in the Roundtable Reports were not peer reviewed or cited like JME articles today, and some of them were more akin to a newsletter than a scholarly article. Nonetheless they provide an important historiography of museum accessibility. 

Part 2 includes 15 articles that date from 1993–2018 after the passing of the ADA. Many of the topics that were addressed in Part 1 reappear in Part 2.  What is noticeably different is language: both in its empathy and appropriateness as well as in its specificity.  For example, while some articles before the ADA reference general challenges older adults may face or barriers for children with developmental disabilities, after the ADA we see the emergence of articles that more specifically name Alzheimer’s, dementia, the Autism Spectrum, and Sensory Processing Disorders. We also see more writing about cognitive disabilities generally. Not surprisingly, in Part 2 we also see a call out to website accessibility and more inclusion of data and evaluation.

We also invite you to visit MER’s blog, where we’ll be publishing more about how we’re reflecting on this VSI–stay tuned!


Research: Pre ADA.

Article Author Issue Year
Museums and the Handicapped Sue Hoth and Alan Levitt 4 1973
Focus on the Handicapped R. Lynn Bondurant 3 1976
MER Members Discuss Programming for the Handicapped N.A. 1 1977
Discovering Rehabilitation in the Emerald City Joe Buckley 1 1978
Compel Them To Come In Alice Kenney 2 1981
A Question of Accessibility Janet Kamien 2 1981
Photography Aids Visually Impaired Museum Visitors George A. Covington 2 1981
About the Hearing-Impaired Audience H. Latham Breunig & Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl 2 1981
Private Museum Makes Accessibility Commitment Susan Page Tillett 3 1981
Docents Experience Museum Visit as Disabled Visitors Elizabeth Sharpe 3 1981
The Met and Mentally Retarded Museum-Goers Charles Steiner 3 1981
Sensory Changes in Older Adults: Implications for Museums Tamerra Moeller 4 1984
Why This Topic? Susan Nichols Lehman & Janice Majewski 2 1981

Research: Post ADA.

Article Author Issue Year
MER News Patricia Ann McDermott 18:1 1993
Museums and Aging: Reflections on the Aging Visitor, Volunteer, and Employee Nina M. Silverstein, Conrad Garcia & Abraham L. Landis 26:1 2001
Museum Visits Experiences of Special Education and Typically Developing Children Lorraine E. Maxwell & Jennifer Platten Killeen 27:1 2002
Walking with Janet Cardiff, Sitting with Massimo Guerrera, and Eating Apples with R. Murray Schafer Meaningful Museum Experiences with Participatory Art for Visitors with and without Visual Impairments Elizabeth Sweeney 34:3 2009
Access Is Not a Text Alternative Stephen Brown 34.3 2009
Who is Educating Whom? Two-way Learning in Museum/University Partnerships Fern Silverman & Bradford Bartley 38:2 2013
Museum Accessibility: Combining Audience Research and Staff Training Levent, Nina & Christine Reich N/A 2013
Accommodating Blind Learners Helps All Learners Wojton, Mary Ann, Joe Heimlich and Natalie Shaheen 41.1 2016
Art in the Moment: Evaluating a Therapeutic Wellness Program for People with Dementia and their Care Partners Livingston, Lucas, Gerri Fiterman Persin and Deborah Del Signore 41.2 2016
Engaging the d/Deaf Audience in Museums: A Case Study at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Martins, Patricia Roque 41.3 2016
Engaging Children with Autism at Historic Sites: Developing an Audience-appropriate Curriculum Lurio, Ansel 41.3 2016
Well-Chosen Objects Support Well-Being for People with Dementia and Their Care Partners Carolyn Halpin-Healy 42.3 2017
Supporting Transitions: Cultural Connections for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders Aliza Greenberg & Sheri Levinsky-Raskin 42:4 2017
Can Sensory Gallery Guides for Children with Sensory Processing Challenges Improve Their Museum Experience? Tina S. Fletcher, Amanda B. Blake & Kathleen E. Shelffo 43:1 2018
Constructing Knowledge Together: Collaborating with and Understanding Young Adults with Autism Sam Theriault & Beth Redmond Jones 43.4 2018