By Hilary Danailova

Accessibility once meant installing a ramp to accommodate the mobility challenged. But today, attractions around the country — from zoos and aquariums to museums and other cultural institutions — are broadening the term’s definition, extending accommodation to guests who require linguistic or financial assistance, as well as those with sensory challenges.
The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, for example, is architecturally barrier-free, with elevators, wheelchair accessible restrooms and drinking fountains on every level. But Michelle Steen, manager of Public Programs, noted that the museum also reaches out to other populations who might have difficulty accessing one of California’s finest art collections, such as Spanish speakers and deaf and blind visitors.

The Community Accessibility Work Group (CAWG) in front of the mountain goats at The Oregon Zoo. The CAWG is guiding the zoo’s development of an accessibility plan. Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo


“We now offer American Sign Language interpretation and captioning, as well as Spanish-language tours,” said Steen. “And for visitors who are blind or have low vision, we have Sensory Engagement Tours using scents, sounds, and tactile materials to engage with artworks, offering a variety of ways to experience the joys of art.”

An exterior view of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Low vision patrons appreciate tactile elements throughout the facility. Credit: Photo©2004 Judy Davis Hoachlander Davis photograph for the Smithsonian.


Steen said the Crocker Art Museum regularly updates accessibility on the advice of its Art Access Committee, which meets several times a year to consider the input of local disability advocates and educators.
One result: The Crocker is more financially accessible as well, with a monthly pay-what-you-wish day, thanks to a local sponsor. “We have had people come in for free, we have had people make donations of all sizes, and we have had kids who dug in to their piggy banks and donated a nickel or a dime,” said Steen. “This is another way we work to ensure that the art on view at the Crocker Art Museum is accessible for everyone.”


Most attractions follow regulations set forth in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which was groundbreaking 30 years ago when it established the first comprehensive set of federal guidelines for public accessibility.  

Children and adults photographed with an exhibit at the South Carolina Aquarium. The facility reaches out to families with small children, the financially struggling, and guests with sensory conditions like autism.


At the Palm Springs Air Museum in California, Fred Bell, vice chairman of the board, said ADA compliance means elevator access to the upstairs education center, as well as ground floor hangars to ensure all guests can see the main exhibitions. Like many museums, the Palm Springs Air Museum, which receives more than 100,000 visitors annually, provides wheelchairs for guests who need assistance navigating larger galleries.
ADA compliance has new dimensions in our digital era. Cameron Shaw, deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles, said that along with wheelchair-accessible entries and galleries, the museum is in the process of upgrading its website so that it, too, is ADA compliant.

Sensory bags are available to guests at the South Carolina Aquarium. The bags contain weighted lap pads, noise cancelling headphones, fidget tools and verbal cue cards.


With the website initiative, CAAM joins a growing number of organizations broadening access to the visually impaired. The museum, whose annual attendance exceeds 100,000 guests, has also provided American Sign Language interpreters for deaf visitors at public programs, Shaw noted.
“We keep accessibility front of mind when developing all of our experiences, from arrival in the parking garage, to feeding opportunities, behind the scenes tours, animal and outreach programs, just to name a few,” said Lauren McDaniel, director of Guest Services at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.


The aquarium’s outreach goes far beyond the disabled to include families with small children, the financially struggling, and guests with sensory conditions like autism.

California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles Gallery Attendants Dennis Jenkins and Therese Avedillo. Along with wheelchair-accessible entries and galleries, the museum is in the process of upgrading its website so that it is ADA compliant.


Parents can rent strollers for a nominal fee, and there’s a nursing area for new mothers. Mobility impaired guests will find complimentary wheelchairs and automatic admission for personal caretakers and service animals. For those who want them, the aquarium also hands out “sensory bags” equipped with weighted lap pads, noise canceling headphones, fidget tools and verbal cue cards; there’s also a modified map of the attraction that indicates quiet areas.

An exterior view of CAAM on Juneteenth, which is also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day. A website accessibility initiative at the museum will broaden access for the visually impaired.


A complimentary ticket program “helps remove the financial barrier that can make the aquarium inaccessible to some audiences,” said McDaniel. And a robust outreach program allows the South Carolina Aquarium to visit organizations that are unable to travel. McDaniel said that future upgrades include more automated doors and accessible bathrooms.


All staff undergo orientation and ongoing training on accessibility, including from KultureCity, an organization that raises awareness of sensory processing needs and that has certified the Aquarium as a sensory-inclusive establishment.

An atrium at CAAM. The museum has provided American Sign Language interpreters for deaf visitors at public programs.


The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., caters to all manner of language needs, said Public Affairs Specialist Marielba Alvarez. The floor plan and museum guide is offered in 10 languages, and a highlights brochure in English and Spanish; Braille and large print materials are also available, including gallery wall signs in Braille.

An exterior view of CAAM. The banner includes an image of Betty Saar, who is a legend in the world of contemporary art.


“The museum’s Lelawi Theater has a handheld captioning device that delivers the text of any program in multiple languages, as well,” said Alvarez. Low vision patrons appreciate tactile elements throughout the museum, which arranges “verbal description” tours as well.
Alvarez credited the museum’s extensive outreach to initiatives from the Smithsonian’s Office of Accessibility, which trains staff and volunteers throughout the year. “We also participate in the Morning at the Museum program, a sensory-friendly experience for families of children with disabilities offered through Access Smithsonian,” Alvarez said.
As attractions upgrade their accessibility, many rely on input from community stakeholders. The Oregon Zoo in Portland has spent the past year developing its new accessibility plan, said Patty Unfred, the zoo’s Community and Staff Engagement director, who is co-managing the initiative. “We have a community accessibility work group that is advising us throughout the process,” Unfred said.

Gallery space at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The floor plan and museum guide is offered in 10 languages. Credit: The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.


The zoo already trains staff and volunteers on ADA regulations as well as sensory inclusion; KultureCity has certified the Oregon attraction as sensory-inclusive for its free sensory kits and identification of potential sensory triggers throughout the zoo, Unfred said. Mobility-challenged visitors are welcome to bring service dogs, and will find rental wheelchairs and electric scooters, along with transport assistance to get up the zoo’s hilly exit terrain.

A sign at Charleston’s South Carolina Aquarium denoting a headphone zone. The attraction keeps accessibility front of mind when developing its guest experiences.


Once the new accessibility plan is presented this spring, Unfred hopes to unveil even more features that make the zoo navigable for everybody. “So far, we have conducted an ADA barrier assessment throughout the zoo, and we are currently evaluating all our programs and services to make them more inclusive as well,” she said.