The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the Smithsonian starts to reopen, a small team takes on a big question: how to keep coronavirus concerns from taking away accessibility?

Candice Jordan, who is blind and lives in Alexandria, Va., sits outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with her guide dog Allegro.
Candice Jordan, who is blind and lives in Alexandria, Va., sits outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with her guide dog Allegro. (Courtesy of Candice Jordan)

To see museums in the same way as Beth Ziebarth requires stepping out of what you know.

For her job at the Smithsonian, she has to think about how exhibits are experienced not only by people who can study them with their eyes, but also by those who have lost their sight.

She has to consider how people will move through a room not only on their feet, but also in wheelchairs, behind walkers and with the help of human or canine guides.

She has to assess what a child in their formative years might take away from a visit and what an elderly person with dementia might.

In other words, Ziebarth has to look at museums through many eyes — and right now, that unique perspective has her worried.

Ziebarth, who is the director of Access Smithsonian, which offers guidance on accessibility issues within the institution, has spent a lot of time lately talking to colleagues across the nation and in the Washington region about how the coronavirus could change how people with disabilities experience museums and other cultural arts centers.

People are concerned that those with disabilities will be left behind in whatever “the new normal” becomes, and they are right to be. In April, before D.C. officials started publicly posting how many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were dying in the city, disability service providers were pleading for more protective equipment. And when schools closed because of the pandemic, parents whose children were receiving special education services, were suddenly left on their own.

It’s easy to hold open doors during comfortable times, but people who work on accessibility issues have seen how quickly those doors can close during other times.

“Probably one of my biggest fears is that short-term strategies to preserve health and safety will become long-term strategies that will take away some of the gains we have made in accessibilities in museums,” Ziebarth says when we speak on a recent afternoon. “As one colleague at the National Park Service who has worked on accessibility for over 40 years and is blind said, ‘People with disabilities were the last ones in, and we don’t want to be the first ones out.’ ”

Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which has altered the nation’s landscape in subtle and unmissable ways. It has changed how sidewalks are constructed, how building entrances are designed, and how cultural and educational experiences are delivered.

But even as people celebrate the progress that has been made under the law that was signed by President George H.W. Bush, a behind-the-scenes look at Ziebarth’s role at the Smithsonian shows the slippery nature of that progress.

She and the two other people who make up her team are dissecting the difficult questions that may not even occur to others to ask.

On Friday, the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., opened to visitors. They are the first Smithsonian sites to do so since the start of the pandemic. Other museums are still working on their reopening plans, and Ziebarth says, some of those will involve reconfiguring or placing off limits the many touch screens, 3-D displays and exhibits that have allowed children and adults to learn through tactile experiences.

That means when the National Museum of American History opens, the Spark!Lab that invites people to become inventors will probably remain closed. And when visitors return to the Deep Time exhibit that takes them up close to dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History, they likely won’t find the hands-on learning activities that were once offered.

Ziebarth, who uses a wheelchair as a result of a spinal injury when she was a teenager, says she recognizes that these actions are needed to keep visitors and staff members safe at a time when a vaccine has not yet been made publicly available for the coronavirus.

She also knows how for some visitors with disabilities touch is critical to their museum experience.

They are deaf and blind, and social distancing has now taken their ability to touch

“The main thing I’m hearing about and that I’m worried about myself is that we want to continue to have multisensory experiences,” she says. “We don’t want to go back to just glass cases with objects in them.”

How different people use spaces are important considerations, not just for the Smithsonian, but for public places across the country that are right now putting together their post-pandemic plans.

People who spend their days thinking about accessibility issues are having these conversations. They are doing the hard work. They are sounding the alarms. The rest of us just have to decide if we want to listen, or if we’re okay with allowing accessibility to fall victim to a virus that has already taken too much from us.

“Over the past 50 or so years, the Smithsonian and museums across the country have progressed from providing no accessibility for people with disabilities to offering segregated programs with limited choice for people with disabilities to designing for full inclusion,” says Jan Majewski, who worked at the Smithsonian from 1978 to 2001 and founded the program that Ziebarth now directs. “But progress hasn’t always been in a straight line. Access is too often vulnerable to budget cuts, design choices, other priorities, and discrimination.”

Majewski was behind the development of the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design, which have guided museums around the world to think about designing for accessibility and inclusion.

“The Smithsonian is one of the most wonderful places in the world to work and to visit,” she says. “I hope the Institution never forgets, even in times of covid-19, to keep people with disabilities within the conversation.”

Candice Jordan, who lives in Alexandria, Va., has been drawn to museums since she was a child and remains a frequent visitor of them. She is also blind. She has photos of her visiting the Smithsonian’s museums with her old guide dog Austria and her new guide dog Allegro.

Jordan serves as an adviser to the Access Smithsonian team, a role that helps them see in a way that is not their own.

You know those arrows that have appeared on grocery store floors? She and Allegro can’t tell which way they point. And those circles that indicate where someone should stand in line to maintain social distancing? They can’t detect those either.

And, yes, if museums eliminate the ability for visitors to touch exhibits and keep that practice in place, Jordan will lose access.

“Tactile experiences for me are incredibly important,” she says, “That increases my ability to interact with the exhibits, and it brings meaning to my experience.”

She agrees safety precautions are needed but believes creative ways can be found to put those in place, whether that is having people wear gloves, using material that is more resistant to the virus or placing hand sanitizer near certain interactive exhibits.

“I understand mitigating measures have to happen, but my fear is — does it end?” she says. “If we give an inch, and we say ‘we understand and we give up,’ do we just lose all that ground that we worked so hard to cover? Is all that lost?”

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