Mapping ASD Inclusion: Navigating Information on Museum Websites
How do you plan a trip or a day out? If you’re like me, and the greater majority of Americans (Morning Consult, 2021), you use websites to help you plan your trip in advance. Websites are the go-to for learning about what adventures await us and if you are from a community who is differently abled, you may be looking to ensure that your visit is going to be inclusive and/or meet your specific needs. We know that those who are differently abled rely on websites as their most important resource when planning a day out (Carneiro, et. al., 2021).
Days out for many families include visiting a science museum. Yet, for those with an autism diagnosis that can mean a whole host of challenges. As part of the Building Capacity for ASD project our team has sought to support museums in enhancing their inclusive practices, especially for people on the autism spectrum. In proposing this work, we also realized it would be useful to understand how and to what effect museums communicated their offerings for those on the autism spectrum online. This National Inventory of ASD practices and programs will hopefully become a useful tool for museums and our visitors. In this post, I reflect on my research experience, share what questions I encountered in the process, and invite others to this ongoing, active discussion.
I set out to understand how various museums communicated their current offerings for people on the autism spectrum. I explored inclusive exhibit spaces, helpful visitor guides, and interactive program activities, on a variety of websites. For this project, our team certainly wanted to catalogue, celebrate, and incorporate the best practices already championed by individuals and organizations in the field. Spreadsheet at the ready, I was hopeful that my findings would meaningfully inform the project by broadening understanding the current state of autism offerings in museums.
During the Spring and Summer of 2021 with the help of Shreyas Hallur, one of our project’s advisory board members, we investigated over 250 museum websites from across the United States. With so many museums in the United States we began with a limited search of the 2 largest cities in each state, selecting 4 museums from each city. We quickly realized:
• Museum websites can appear very different from each other.
• Not all information related to accessibility was in one consistent place on all museum websites and there was little consistency across the field.
• Navigating museum websites was trickier and more time-consuming than we anticipated.
This led us to the question: How do these factors compound and affect the experiences of audiences looking for accessible options for themselves or others?
Intersectionality and Minding our Blind Spots
As a queer Filipino American woman, my experiences with privilege are specific to me and my intersecting communities. There are aspects of my identity and background that have conditioned my hyperawareness of racism, homophobia, and sexism. Likewise, I have internalized, implicit biases and ignorant blind spots. Working on this project, I realized more fully the extent of my ableism and the inequitable access that grants me but not all others.
Beginning the plans and data collection for this research in early 2021, the world had lived through the COVID-19 pandemic for a year. More than ever, we were connecting with others online and virtually. For me this also meant that within my social networks, I heard from friends and others that I follow about the pandemic’s compounding effect on their disabilities and mental health. They were reflecting on the ways in which more able-bodied, neurotypical people were experiencing challenges and accommodations more frequently.
More people related to the struggles of navigating in-person activities and had to determine whether they felt comfortable with varying levels of social distancing, attendance numbers, and sanitation. Simultaneously, more benefited from increased virtual programming that reached beyond local audiences. Many also faced difficult decisions based on where, how long, and with whom they would spend time. Moreover, the combination of these factors can sometimes outweigh the great desire to participate, learn, and connect with others.
These are not unfamiliar experiences for people with special needs, sensory sensitivities, autism, or other health-related differences. This is because society historically and systemically privileges able-bodied, neurotypical communities. It was through listening to these friends, creators, and advocates that I committed to reflect on my own blind spots and bring these lessons to the center of my work practices.
For this project that meant looking through museum websites not only as a researcher, but more as a whole person. Putting myself in the shoes of someone else searching for helpful information – anything to make those difficult decisions easier.
Call to Action
The question that followed me through the rest of the research was this: What can we accomplish when our goal is not just reaching audiences, but making all their experiences with our organizations easier and better?
Although our research process found information about accessibility and inclusive experiences on many museum websites, it was sometimes frustrating and time-consuming to find. My hope is that we utilize these collective experiences from the last year to reflect on how much we ask of our audiences and experiment with ways to ease these tasks. Whether they are learning about difficult topics in exhibits, knowing the locations of quiet, sensory-friendly spaces, or searching the website for accessibility information.
In the coming months we will be working to publish our results online. As well, we are currently seeking methods to create an interactive online map showcasing our findings for both museum goers and museum professionals. We hope to share these findings at both the Visitor Studies Association Conference and the Association for Science and Technology Conference.
In the meantime, personally, I’m developing a bit of a “To Do” List, or at least a list of things I plan to be mindful of, do more or do better.
My working To-Do (more) List
- Notice and note my own experiences. Consider the ease (or lack thereof) in finding the information I need.
- Actively seek out input from communities of all abilities and backgrounds. Implement their suggestions and share the credit.
- Creatively reflect on how to expand access. Question whether there are benefits to making accessibility information more visible and accommodations available to visitors of all abilities.
- Regularly recommit to learning and sharing better practices. Consider how we can work together to build on and support the accessibility initiatives of our local partners and others in and beyond our fields.
This list is likely to evolve and grow over time and I look forward to continuing my personal growth and discovery and to sharing more of our findings.
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Posted Feb 8, 2022