Celebrating Deaf Culture: How 5 Leading Museums Approach Accessibility and ASL Year-Round | American Alliance of Museums

After I asked my husband to repeat himself multiple times in one conversation, he eventually turned to me and said, “You don’t hear anything I say. Please get your hearing checked.” I balked at his request and suggested that he speak “louder” and “clearer.” Hearing loss is not something one would experience in their thirties, right?

Fast forward some months, an otolaryngologist, and two audiologists later, and I found out that hearing loss can be experienced at any age. While age-related hearing loss, also called presbycusis, typically starts around age sixty-five, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), that doesn’t mean it can’t affect you when you’re younger. My doctors confirmed my hearing loss was bilateral, and the cause was probably genetics. They suggested I try hearing aids.

According to NIDCD, 15 percent of the US adult population (37.5 million people) experiences some degree of hearing loss, and about 3.6 percent (11 million) are Deaf or have “serious difficulty” hearing. A third of people between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four have hearing loss, and nearly half of people older than seventy-five do. Despite the size of this population, we are often underserved in many ways. It might surprise you, for instance, (as it did me!) that most health insurance in the US does not cover hearing aids or implants—even though mild hearing loss could be linked to double the risk of dementia, per this John Hopkins study, and is more common than diabetes.

As you may have heard, April was National Deaf History Month. But one month is not enough time to celebrate any community, so this article is a tribute to museums celebrating the Deaf community year-round. I wish to make this article a call for members of the museum community to consider how we can all acknowledge, welcome, include, and celebrate the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Here are some ideas from your peers to get you started.

Access to Exhibitions through Technology and Tours

New-York Historical Society emphasizes the importance of accessibility and proper accommodations for Deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors, especially through technology. This includes basics like providing open captions, film transcripts, and t-coil access for audio and video. In addition to this, the museum recently upgraded its auditorium to an FM-assistive listening system. “Our goal is to make the experience of visiting New-York Historical as seamless as possible for visitors who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing,” says Nick Mancini, Vice President of Visitor Services. “We’re always looking towards the latest technology that can remove or reduce any barriers to entry and enjoyment of our exhibitions and collections.”

Tours in languages other than English are a key component of accessibility. With some advance notice, New-York Historical Society can also provide an ASL interpreter to accompany adult and school tours on a complimentary basis. Katy Menne, Education Director at Columbia River Maritime Museum in Oregon, says her institution has started offering tactile, smell-o-vision, and ASL tours. “We wanted to be able to offer learning in other languages. I’ve had experience with incorporating ASL into my previous museum, so we hired an interpreter, published the event, and waited to see what happened. One family drove about three hours to come for the tour and were so excited that it was offered.”

Incorporating accessible practices into exhibitions is also an opportunity to involve Deaf children. In 2020, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis received a three-year Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that allowed staff to redesign the museum’s Dinosphere® exhibition and make it a more accessible and inclusive experience for families, especially those with a child with a disability. Museum teams and an advisory group of accessibility professionals worked together, resulting in the addition of ASL best practices to the exhibit. “Staff continue to apply those lessons, working through the best ways to integrate ASL into new projects and exhibitions,” says Betsy Lynn, Accessibility Coordinator.

Creative Programming for the Deaf Community by the Deaf Community

Expanding access to your current exhibitions and programs is important, but so is creating new ones specific to the Deaf community—with the community’s involvement. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, trained a cohort of Deaf educators in art-based tours, gallery-based learning, and other education initiatives, many of whom they continue to work with to develop programming for the Deaf community. Over the years, this programming has included a variety of ongoing tours: An Evening of Art & ASL, a social setting for the D/deaf community that includes refreshments and discussions of art; Met Signs Tours, exhibition-related tours presented in ASL by a Deaf educator with no voice-interpretation; and Met Signs in the Studio, a tour and artmaking program in which the participants head to the galleries for a tour and then move to a dedicated art space to begin to respond to the art they just experienced creatively.

One recent example was “Met Signs in the Studio—Richard Avedon: MURALS,” in which a group engaged in a tour of the exhibition before going behind the scenes to participate in a photography workshop and photoshoot. According to Emily Harr, Program Associate, and Rebecca McGinnis, Senior Managing Educator, Accessibility, “The group was inspired by the political nature of the exhibition and focused their shoots on messaging relating to Deaf President Now [a 1988 protest to appoint the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University], Deaf awareness and culture, and anti-audism.”

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