Museums and science centers strive to be accessible to all people. In fact, they often exceed the minimum legal requirements for access to mentally and physically handicapped people. This is on the basis that access ramps, lifts, wider doors, handrails, lever-operated taps, and other facilities also serve the needs of able-bodied people, especially parents with prams or pushchairs.
Disabilities come in many forms. Physical disabilities cause a limitation on a person’s physical functioning, mobility, dexterity, or stamina. Other physical disabilities include respiratory disorders, blindness, deafness, and epilepsy. Mental disabilities represent significant disturbances to an individual’s cognition, emotional control and/or behaviour and include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the autism spectrum of disorders.
formula D_’s goal is to ensure that the needs of differently-abled people, especially accessibility, are always at the forefront of our design thinking. For instance, we always ensure that displays are wheelchair accessible, and that the scaling of displays is such that a wheelchair can move around it. We also ensure that our touch tables and games are at the right height so that are accessible for wheelchair-bound visitors.
formula D_ has also given careful thought to accessibility beyond wheelchairs. At the Mishkat science centre in Saudi Arabia, we have integrated full-body tracking in such a way that, if the prompt is running on the spot, we can also incorporate options, such as waving your hands for wheelchair-bound visitors. In order to achieve this, we also adjust the body height of the sensors to accommodate people in wheelchairs.
formula D_ has also been exploring the need to adjust the volume of sound on audio labels so that sound-sensitive children, including those with autism, can use the displays within their personal limits. As a rule of thumb, we also try to avoid using flashing images or strobing animations as we are conscious of the sensitivities of light-sensitive and epilepsy-prone children. In this way, we prioritize an understanding of the requirements of different children, their various sensitivities, and their abilities.
The Wonderdal Edutainment Centre for Children at the Hazendal Wine Estate near Stellenbosch, which formula D_ created, is another example of an intelligently designed facility that took into account the needs of differently-abled children. We included voice-over audio labels on the videos for teaching purposes and embedded captions in the displays so that children who are hearing impaired, are able to read the instructions and continue playing. We also included wheelchair-friendly ramps and enough space for children in wheelchairs to navigate the play spaces.
Other important considerations include providing adequate parking for vehicles driven by differently-abled people, easy access to and from public transport, and the height of furnishings in the museum, such as the cashier’s desk, information desk, audio label rental station, and shop counter. The entrances to museums and science centres also need to be designed in such a way that ramps for the differently abled are adjacent to the stairs used by able-bodied visitors so that differently-abled visitors do not feel alienated by having to use a back entrance.
A recent survey of facilities and services for differently-abled visitors to museums in Israel revealed that some blind visitors “felt that, because of their physical appearance, the staff approached them as if they were mentally handicapped’”. Proper training for museum staff on serving the needs of differently abled visitors is therefore imperative. Museum staff play a critical role in sharing information on displays with differently-abled visitors. It is very important that they do not show discriminatory behaviour when communicating, for instance, with the visually impaired.
Blind or visually impaired visitors require unique technology, such as audio or braille labels, to access information. Providing audio descriptions of artefacts that are on display, as well as touchable replicas of valuable display items, are other practical steps that museums can take to make their displays more accessible to visually impaired visitors. Most museums do little to cater to the needs of the deaf or hearing impaired. Sign language interpretation of displays is an expensive but highly beneficial option, but the provision of carefully crafted text labels is the usual solution.
All children have an inherent sense of creativity that grows and stretches as their minds develop but children with autism tend to have more fertile imaginations, a higher sensitivity to visual cues, stronger logical thinking skills, and well-developed technical skill sets. As a result, many of them develop into innovative thinkers, scientists, musicians, and artists. Sensory hypersensitivity tends to make them much more perceptive than non-autistic people and their extreme attention to detail often manifests as talent later in life. Often they go on to practice as professionals in fields such as engineering, architecture, science, art, or web design.
Famous people who have been diagnosed with autism, or are suspected to have suffered from some form, are a who’s who of famous scientists, science educators, technologists, and musicians. They include Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Mozart, Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Greta Thunberg. This list strongly illustrates the point that differently-abled people have the potential to make a disproportionate contribution to society if they are appropriately stimulated during their early development.
Science centres and museums have an important role to play in this regard but they can only play this role if they take into account the needs of differently-abled people during their design and operation. formula D_ takes this responsibility seriously.