The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's "Milestones of Flight" exhibit features a tactile model. (Photo by Beth Ziebarth)
OPINION
Beth Ziebarth: In reopening, we must expand — not retreat from — progress on accessibility
By Commentary on Jul 31, 2020Last updated Jul 30, 2020
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We recently commemorated the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Having spent the past 30 years working to ensure the Smithsonian museums and National Zoo are inclusive and welcoming to all, I am proud of what we have accomplished there and at cultural organizations around the country since Congress passed this landmark legislation. Now, as museums begin to reopen during the “new normal” created by the pandemic, my hope is that we build on the progress of the past three decades rather than retreat from those efforts. In the words of the National Park Service’s longtime accessibility specialist Ray Bloomer: “People with disabilities were the last ones in. Let’s make sure they aren’t the first ones out.”

Beth Ziebarth is director of Access Smithsonian. (Photo by photo by Motoko Hioki)
In the years since the ADA was signed into law, we have made great strides: 
  • improving access to our physical spaces; 
  • developing new programs for all ages; 
  • introducing groundbreaking technology and tactile experiences that, in the words of one user, “revolutionize the way people who are blind or have low vision experience museums”; and
  • creating a culture that makes all visitors feel welcome. 
Over the years, we’ve heard from parents of children on the autism spectrum who felt they could never take them to a museum, people with dementia who were previously left out of the museum experience, and many others. Their testimonials speak to how long people with disabilities have been on the outside looking in.
Yet our work is far from over. As museums reopen, we must take critical steps to ensure that visitors, volunteers and staff are safe during these unprecedented times while also making sure they continue to have full access to all that our wonderful museums have to offer. We can do this by taking a few essential actions:
Respect the law
While life has changed in many ways, nothing has changed relating to civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability (both the ADA and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act). Museums and other places of public accommodation have the same legal obligations to be accessible as they had before the pandemic.
Include people with disabilities in planning
Important decisions are currently being made about the best practices to put in place before museums reopen. How do you communicate about social distancing with visitors who are blind? How can we continue to provide tactile and other multi-sensory experiences to visitors in a post-COVID-19 era? It’s more important than ever to invite people with disabilities not only to be part of these conversations, but to test out new protocols.
Share lessons learned
The pandemic has presented challenges — but also opportunities, as museums and other cultural institutions grapple with how to best reach their audiences while their buildings remain closed. Among the lessons: Some people actually prefer virtual programming. When we moved our “See Me at the Smithsonian” program for people with dementia and their companions online, we saw a spike in participation. The virtual program eliminated what may have been barriers for some participants, such as getting to the museum, standing in line to get in and going through security. In addition, participants beyond the DMV are now able to attend. Another lesson: Parents, teachers and students learning at home have discovered the rich array of free online resources offered by museums on such topics as art, history and science.
Recognize the intersectionality of this work

Ray Bloomer of the National Park Service explores a National Air and Space Museum “Milestones of Flight” tactile model. (Photo by Janice Majewski)
Disability, race and other characteristics intersect to make up an individual’s identity. It is past time to respect and value all aspects of identity. We must acknowledge and work with colleagues addressing racism and other forms of bigotry — a commitment that is reinforced by Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III across the Smithsonian Institution. By understanding how interconnected issues of equity are throughout history and in this moment in time, we are better able to move forward as an institution and as a country.
At a recent meeting of disability advocates, Nefertiti Matos, who is blind, shared her experience of growing up in a family that didn’t understand the value of a person who is blind going to museums. Recalling her first museum field trip, she said: “It woke up this feeling in me like, ‘I do belong here.’ Since then, I’ve made it my business to go to everything: museums, theater, dance performances. I can’t imagine life without these experiences.”
In this time of great uncertainty, it will be tempting to undo the progress we have made around accessibility. But, as Nefertiti says, “Not only must we keep these efforts alive; we must work to make them even better.” As we reflect on this anniversary, let’s recommit ourselves to building on the promise of the ADA by working to make museums accessible and inclusive for all visitors.
Beth Ziebarth is director of Access Smithsonian.
About commentaries
The DC Line welcomes commentaries representing various viewpoints on local issues of concern, but the opinions expressed do not represent those of The DC Line. Submissions of up to 850 words may be sent to editor Chris Kain at chriskain@thedcline.org.
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