Update on Accessibility at The Discovery Museums, on the 25th Anniversary of the ADA

Neil Gordon
July 27, 2015

Twenty-five years ago today, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed by President George H. W. Bush to insure the civil rights of people withdisabilities. The ADA has expanded opportunities for Americans with disabilities by reducing barriers and changing perceptions, and increasing full participation in community life. The Discovery Museums join in the celebration of this important milestone and rejoice that the Act has been a tool to help many, many people, including children, gain fuller access to the opportunities to lead full and successful lives.

When it comes to serving all, The Discovery Museums have both reason to celebrate what we've accomplished and disappointment about the limits on what we have done. Fortunately, we have great optimism about what we can do in the future.

Five years ago we created a program called Especially for Me to better serve more kids. Specifically, Especially for Me began as a way to help children on the autism spectrum and children who are deaf or hard of hearing to access the great experiences at the Museums. This year we added events to meet the needs of kids who are blind or have vision impairment. We are pleased with how Especially for Me has grown and flourished—from two events in 2010 to 25 events this year—and that many thousands of kids and their families have benefited. All of these events are free for the entire family.

We are grateful to the expert organizations that have supported our efforts through resources, staff training, and outreach: Autism Alliance for MetroWest, Autism Speaks, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Boston Children's Hospital, Massachusetts Alliance of Parents of the Visually Impaired (MAPVI), and Perkins School for the Blind. And we couldn't have accomplished what we have without the financial support of so many, including: Yawkey Foundation, The English Family Fund of the Foundation for MetroWest, Deluxe Corporation Foundation, 3M, DCU for Kids, Boston Bruins Foundation, Morgan Stanley Foundation, Adelard A. Roy and Valdea Lea Roy Foundation, Nathaniel and Elizabeth P. Stevens Foundation, Acton-Boxborough United Way Youth in Philanthropy program, and Not Your Average Joe's.

When Especially for Me began there were only a handful of museums around the country with programs specifically focused on meeting the needs of kids on the autism spectrum. We were happy to share our model with our colleagues in the museum field, and thrilled when many other museums began to create programs similar to our own.

Our pride in these programs is tempered by the recognition that we fall short in terms of the physical access to our buildings. They were constructed before the ADA guidelines existed—one of them was built 150 years ago!—and as a result, not all kids can visit. We are troubled by this, and it is been a focus of our planning for the future.

Over the past year we've participated in the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) UP program, which is focused on the growth and development of inclusive design and experiences at arts and cultural institutions. Along with input from other MCC UP participants and our own architects and designers, we have sought to understand what changes we can make here to broaden our access for all kids. Through this process we have learned a lot about best practices and what we need to do. We recognize that major access changes can come only with substantial renovation and improvements to our facilities.

This fall we will begin construction on a great new outdoor area called Discovery Woods. With the help of advisors from the universal design world and the support of many local organizations that serve diverse groups of kids, Discovery Woods will be a nature-based playscape designed to be inclusive. A centerpiece of the area will be a fully accessible tree house, enabling all to experience the joys of seeing the world from above. We have a very simple goal: to get all kids outdoors.

Also this fall, we will begin the second phase of our campus master plan, to design the renovation and expansion of our buildings and exhibits. Our facilities need many improvements, most importantly improvements focused on inclusion. When we complete this phase, we will be able to reach one of our major goals: to make the fun, interactive, joyful learning experience of The Discovery Museums more available to all. I look forward to telling you more about this in the future and will seek your input and support for what we're doing to welcome even more families.

With this focus, we are happy to sign the Proclamation to Recommit to Full Implementation of the ADA, as put forth by ADA National Network. We are happy to make public our full commitment to this important work. You can sign it too; learn more at www.adaanniversary.org/pledge.

I'm interested in any thoughts you might have about our accessibility work and our plans for the future. You can reach me at  ngordon@discoverymuseums.org.

photo of CEO Neil Gordon standing with treehouse in background
Neil Gordon

I joined The Discovery Museums in September 2009, and feel lucky to serve this terrific community of kids, families and supporters. After serving as Budget Director for the City of Boston, my museum career began in 1995 at Boston Children’s Museum, where I served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. My priorities for The Discovery Museums include supporting kids and families to play and learn together; expanding outdoor learning; increasing access for underserved populations; and building upon our 33-year history to create a museum for the next 30 years.

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