Accessibility at the JMM

Posted on April 8th, 2016 by

Creating a welcoming museum environment that takes into account visitor needs is an important ongoing goal at the JMM. Whether this means developing exhibition educational resources for school group visitors or offering programs designed to facilitate conversation among visitors of different religious or cultural backgrounds, we take pride in our ability to serve diverse audiences. Providing access for visitors with physical disabilities has always been a Museum priority and in recent months, our staff has taken steps to improve our services in this area.

Recognizing the need to consider the entire spectrum of accessibility issues, this past October, we hired Ingrid Kanics of Kanics Inclusive Design Services to conduct an accessibility audit of the JMM’s public spaces including both of our historic synagogues, galleries, restrooms and library. As part of her survey, she measured door openings, made use of a wheelchair to navigate spaces and considered all aspects of the visitor experience.

Improved signage

Improved signage

Ingrid then drafted a report with recommendations that she shared with Museum staff. We were pleased to note that our Museum facility scored high in many areas. Having recently added a push button option to open our front doors provides easier access for visitors with limited mobility. Many of Ingrid’s recommendations related to signage and our staff has already produced larger signs to help visitors identify public restrooms. At her suggestion, we have created a checklist of items for our visitor services staff to check on a regular basis to ensure, for example, that the mechanical doors are functioning properly and that doors and hallways are kept clear of debris that can pose tripping hazards. Other improvements, based on Ingrid’s recommendations, are slated soon for implementation and include adding covers to drain pipes underneath restroom sinks to avoid burn risks for individuals in wheelchairs and smoothing out the transition strips between the lobby and coat room/restroom area to make for easier navigation for wheelchair users.

Thanks to the contributions of docent, Robyn Hughes, for several years, the JMM has worked to improve our services for visitors who are blind or visually impaired. Robyn helps us create Braille text for flyers, exhibition text and programs (we have both Braille and large print exhibition text for Beyond Chicken Soup available at our front desk) as well as create tours and programs designed specifically for visitors with visual impairments including camp groups from the Maryland School for the Blind who regularly visit.

Large Print Brochure

Large Print Brochure

A priority for this coming year is to improve services for visitors who are deaf or have hearing impairments. While we currently make sure that all exhibit videos are captioned and hire sign language interpreters upon request, we do not currently have the ability to offer accommodations for visitors at public programs who have difficulty hearing speakers or presentations. Our staff recently met with representatives from a company that manufacturers assisted listening devices and learned about how this system can improve sound in our orientation space for program participants. We intend on purchasing a system in the upcoming year that would enable visitors to borrow a receiver from the front desk with an over the ear headphone that would amplify sound in our lobby. The same system could also be used by visitors participating in guided tours of our historic synagogues.

The biggest challenge we face for visitors with physical disabilities is the lack of an easy solution for gaining access to our historic synagogues. Many years ago we created a video tour of the synagogues that is available for visitors to view in our lobby as a programmatic equivalent for those unable to climb the buildings’ stairs. We have also started to video simulcast programs that take place in the Lloyd Street Synagogue for visitors to watch in our orientation space. Of course, we recognize that these steps are not enough, and we are exploring different ways for creating access through ramps and possibly an elevator. B’nai Israel is in the process of adding a chair lift to aid congregants (and Museum visitors) in gaining access to its main sanctuary. And we remain committed to continuing to investigate potential solutions for improving accessibility to the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

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Upgrades to the Visitor Experience

Posted on March 30th, 2016 by

As I was reading Creating Great Visitor Experiences: A Guide for Museums, Parks, Zoos, Gardens, & Libraries by Stephanie Weaver, it got me thinking how we could make improvements to the visitor experience at the JMM.  The book encouraged me to take a new look at the museum from the visitor’s point of view beginning with the moment that he or she decided to visit, through the orientation at the front desk to finding comfort in our facilities and finally leaving with both tangible (such as merchandise from the shop) and intangibles (knowledge and a sense of discovery).

book cover

book cover

I found that a lot of what was mentioned in the book we are already doing. For instance, we always try to welcome visitors with a smile, positive attitude and relevant information.  We also strive to have a clean work space, restrooms and fresh merchandise visible from the entrance. I will also continue to ask our security contractor if we may choose guards with outdoing, service-based personalities to work at our site. Our management has also doing an excellent job investing in the staff by encouraging us to attend relevant conferences and webinars.

Esther's Place - now with signage!

Esther’s Place – now with signage!

However, there were a few things that needed changing or updating. After listening through some of the recorded information on our phone system, I found some outdated information so I got that updated to reflect our current exhibit and upcoming programs. Stephanie Weaver emphasized the importance of having an inviting entrance. Partly as a result, next time you visit, you’ll notice that our front courtyard area has been re-landscaped to include more attractive shrubs and flowers.  I am also going to make some changes to front desk handbook so that all our front desk volunteers know how to effectively provide excellent customer service so that our visitors will want to come back again and again.

A little sprucing for spring

A little sprucing for spring

We have also made a few other changes that tie in nicely with our accessibility efforts. Large-print brochures and Braille text for the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America (http://chickensoupexhibit.org/) exhibit, are now available for check-out at the front desk. As I learned that wayfinding is important, we have installed a new ADA restroom sign and welcome sign for the Medicine exhibit in the lobby area. I have also installed new seating to allow our visitors, whether it’s a mother with small children or an elderly couple, to rest while they explore our exhibits.

Accessibility is important!

Accessibility is important!

There are also a few things which we may consider doing in the future such as visitor surveys, upgrades to our restrooms and new graphics by the front desk. As always, if you have any suggestions or feedback, don’t hesitate to contact me at ghumphrey@jewishmuseummd.org.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

 

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A Museum for Everyone

Posted on August 31st, 2015 by

Did you know that more than 56 million Americans (about 1 in 5) have some kind of disability? This month’s issue of the American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM) magazine focuses on Museums and Accessibility and got me thinking how the Jewish Museum of Maryland can better engage with our visitors. I was excited to read about new partnerships between museums and organizations that serve individuals who have autism and Alzheimer’s and efforts that have already been made in other institutions to increase access. For people with visual disabilities, museums are using audio guides, large-print labels as well as tactile tours. For those who are hard of hearing, institutions offer sign-language interpreted tours or assistive listening devices. I agreed with many of the points in Beth Bienvenu’s article such as the importance of incorporating universal design principles throughout the Museum, partnering with local disability organizations to develop new audiences, training all staff on how to provide proper accommodations and taking steps to recruit staff and volunteers with disabilities.

Cover of this month's AAM Museum magazine.

Cover of this month’s AAM Museum magazine.

Another article in the AAM magazine discusses how museums need to include a wider range of narratives in their exhibitions and programs to reflect a more diverse community of ethnic minorities as well as individuals with disabilities.  For instance, at the NPS’s Lowndes Interpretive Center located along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, there is a statue of Jim Letherer, a one-legged Jewish man who marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. The exhibit is about the march and voting rights, but also includes disability as part of the story.

NPS’s Lowndes Interpretive Center

NPS’s Lowndes Interpretive Center

I learned that accessibility does not have to be limited to those with disabilities. In Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance worked with local teens to form Students at Museums in Philly (STAMP), which provides free museum admission to Philadelphia teens. This program aims to increase access to all the arts and culture Philadelphia has to offer while removing any financial barriers that may prevent teens from visiting a museum.

At JMM, we have recently made some progress on accessibility issues such as adding automatic doors to our front entrance and by developing Braille program materials. Robyn Hughes has done an amazing job trying to make the Museum more inviting to those with special needs, such as by arranging a visit for the National Federation of the Blind’s Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning. We also have a wheelchair available for those who have mobility issues, can offer a closed-captioning video of the Synagogue tour for those who are unable to climb the steps of Lloyd Street or B’nai Israel Synagogues and have tactile elements within our exhibits.

Museum Educator and Docent Robyn Hughes hard at work.

Museum Educator and Docent Robyn Hughes hard at work.

We are about to bring on a consultant to conduct an accessibility assessment at the Museum to determine how we can enhance accessibility on multiple levels including physical and programmatic access. Other possible improvements include developing new tours for people with learning disabilities and improving Museum signage. We are committed to ensuring that JMM remains a place where all feel welcomed and that everyone is able to find a part of themselves here. We are eager to begin this dialogue. Please stay tuned for updates!

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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