By Julyne Hahn Segar, Diverse Learners Midwest Museum Consultant & Chicago Hands-On Educators (CHOE) Director

As a veteran Chicago museum educator and a parent of a Down syndrome teenager, I have a personal and challenging museum topic to share with colleagues: access and inclusion.

I frequently find myself asking, how are we museum professionals addressing audience development, and what are we doing for audiences with special needs? What is your institution doing to include children and young adults with intellectual disabilities (I prefer to use the term “developmental delays”) in exhibitions and programs? Are you welcoming and inviting ALL children to participate? Do you have the appropriately trained staff? And what is your capacity to provide services that help everyone feel accepted?

This conversation can be tricky among museum professionals because resources may be limited, staff may be unsure of how to proceed, and everyone brings a different perspective to the table. I am proud to be an advocate and represent the voice for this population, and to offer advice to anyone tackling these issues.

The Chicago Public Schools categorize this population as “diverse learners”. This audience can be divided into two groups: physical challenges and developmental delays. The abilities of these two groups vary greatly, so when planning activities for a diverse group, it is essential to consider what the members of the group are capable of doing.

It is equally important to understand the age range of the group. Where a typical youth group may include ages 9-10, the age ranges within a group of diverse learners may be greater, ages 8-14, for example. This must be taken into consideration in order make the activities appropriate for the whole group.

It is also important to realize that many people with developmental delays crave structure and need a routine. Any program for this audience must be well organized. The facilitator can help participants by presenting a schedule at the beginning of the program and then at the completion of each activity, and show the group where they are on that schedule. This alleviates anxiety as it helps the audience follow along with the structure of the program.

Chicago Children's Museum
Credit: Chicago Children’s Museum

Many museums have embraced the challenge of inclusion in their programs and events. Some museums, such as the Chicago Children’s Museum, now offer “play for all” events for families with special needs children. In these programs, diverse learner audiences are invited to visit the museum or attend programming where special accommodations are made, based on the needs of the group. For example, a children’s museum may offer after-hours programming for families that have children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and provide a quiet room for children who become over-stimulated. Some museums have made efforts to include special needs children in summer camps or fee-based classes with similar aged, typical peers.

Some organizations provide volunteer “buddies” or trained para-professionals to assist special needs children attending regular programs, to help with numerous challenges, such as providing hand-over-hand assistance with crafts or activities. This approach can prove fun for both participants and lead to a meaningful social learning experience.

Chicago Hands-On Educators MSI
CHOE members engaging in hands-on activities at MSI

In order to move forward to create engaging programs and experiences, museums need to have trained staff and a budget to support these efforts. Some museums are starting to bring in experts to train staff in working with diverse audiences. They are also turning to local or national organizations, such as Easter Seals, Autism and Down syndrome societies, United Cerebral Palsy, and other organizations that serve the disability community, to help support efforts with funding as well as expertise. These partnerships can help close the gap in understanding how to serve diverse audiences.

In 2016, the Friends of Oak Park Conservatory, in Oak Park, Illinois, had a group of young adults with developmental delays visiting their Conservatory. The staff wanted to create a plant-based, age appropriate, and multi-sensory tour specially for them. I worked with them to develop a hands-on program that included smelling fruit from the collection and listening to the birds in the conservatory. Go to this article from the Oak Park Conservatory newsletter to learn about the program and its impact on the group. This program was a big hit with participants, who continue to talk about their experiences.

Credit: Oak Park Conservatory

As a parent choosing extra-curricular programs for a disabled teenager, I now have more choices. It is my hope that this article sparks interest to keep the motivation going to create inclusive museum programs for all.