A Public History Newbie's Thoughts on Everything and Nothing

Public History. Comments. Questions. Sarcasm. Maybe Some Hippie Rants.

ADA Service Animals and Museum Practices in My Own Voice

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Many of us do not think twice about our mobility, vision or hearing, or the capability to freely communicate. This essay is written to help museum administration not only be comfortable with visitors with disabilities but also be legally aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At a recent StEPs-CT program that addressed museum audiences, the keynote speaker shared the laws, ethics and expectations surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act. Please note that this is an interpretation of her talk in my own voice in order to share with my peers. Included here is her expert advice, literal ADA requirements and my personal experience with a parent who is recently visually challenged.

Here are the two parts from her presentation that struck me:

  1. Service Animals

At the museum I work at, there are many people walking their dogs around every day since the museum is located inside of a large town park. On occasion people ask if they can bring their dogs inside and I say no, of course. Luckily there has not been any trouble and people are mostly courteous. But I have asked myself, who is really allowed, and what two questions you can ask to clarify possible sticky answer?

Thankfully the ADA presenter explained this and brought a copy of the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Service Animal Standards. Here are some quotes that will easily help museum staff understand.

A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform certain tasks for a person with a disability.

Service animals are working animals, not pets.

*When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions:

-Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

-What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

I strongly suggest that all staff and volunteers read and understand the ADA requirements. I have placed the standards in a Staff Binder and the museum’s Operational Manual.

Do you, your fellow staff or visitors have allergies to dogs or miniature horses (which is the only other ADA approved Service Animal)? Oh well. Give the owners and the service animals the respect they deserve. Your discomfort is only temporary in that situation and the needs of those who have service animals will always trump the temporary discomfort of the staff or fellow visitors.

In my opinion only, the part where denying people with entry can get tricky is if the person insists that their animal is a “companion” or “emotional support” animal and that they must be allowed in. Sorry, but that line only works if the dog is a trained service animal for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If someone gives you or your staff a hard time about admission simply refer back to the two questions above: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

  1. Websites

One question. Does your website have a tab or section for information regarding accessibility or even special programing?

The website for the museum that I work for certainly did not. I assumed, perhaps like many others in the StEPS-CT class, that we did not have to since many of our locations have Handicap parking. That’s effort right? Well now I know that it is not enough.

When creating an ADA section on your website, do not put up a description along the lines of “please let us know if you need help getting around and one of our helpful staff will be there to open doors or assist you in anyway.” This is patronizing. Instead, frankly explain the accessibility and offerings your museum does have and what you do not have. This can include widths of doors, how many handicap parking spaces are available, ect…

How you present the information on your website is important too. What I mean is that, many people have visual impairments and they have specific needs to be able to see the screen and the text.

My mother (who has given me permission to share her story) has had very poor vision her entire life. The vision was correctable up until a few years ago when it became clear that she has macular degeneration at a very young age. The surgeries do not work, she does not qualify for stem cell research and it is irreversible. So, as of the Fall of 2014, she has lost her driver’s license at age 55. To step into her shoes, imagine being able to see shapes and colors only (those of you with glasses- just take them off) but not have facial recognition or be able to see what’s on your own book shelf unless you are about one foot away from it.

She is blessed to be able to work from home now and have friends & family who drive her to where she needs to go. She has lost her independence but gained support.

The point of telling you this is to understand vision impairment in an approachable way. My first step was to call my mom. After explaining why I needed her help she was happy to take a look at my museum’s website and offered these simple changes:

Less subtle colors: Visually impaired people often need contrast to see the words clearly.

Larger Font: While she has been given many screen modifications, it would be better with big font size.

In conclusion, we should look at our websites and think how someone who is visually impaired needs to see this in order to have an easy experience. Post your accessibility on your website and have your staff brush up on Service Animal guidelines.

Links:

ADA on a Page

Service Animals

Maintaining Accessibility in Museums

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Author: greengoddesshistory

Public History Masters Student. Museum Director. Trail Runner. Gym Lover. Dove owner.

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