A couple days ago I sat on a panel at Chicago Shedd Aquarium with a theater director, a mother of three school-aged children, and a lawyer.
Theater director Brian Balcom uses a wheelchair, one of Laurie Viets’ children is on the autism spectrum, attorney Rachel Arfa is profoundly deaf and uses bilateral cochlear implants to hear, and then there was me, with Whitney the Seeing Eye dog at my feet. What do we all have in common? We enjoy going to plays, to concerts, to museums.
The four of us were there to talk with staff from a variety of departments at the Shedd (from VPs to Senior Directors to Facilities staff) about ways museums and cultural institutions can be welcoming to all visitors — including those of us with disabilities.
Some of the ideas we shared were new to the audience, others served as good reminders. We played well off of each other, and one staff member said afterwards that we’d shared information they would have never considered. “Even though when I thought about it, the idea was really just common sense.” A few examples:
- Brian said he’d love to be able to join with others at the Shedd’s Touch pool exhibit and feel a stingray or sturgeon fish, but the way the touch tank is mounted you have to be able to stand up and reach over to get your hands in the water. “You have stools there for the kids to use, but I can’t stand on a stool.”
- Rachel said she’d been to the Dolphin Show at the Shedd but without audio captioning she wasn’t able to take it in the way others did.
- Laurie said taking breaks at quiet areas can help avoid meltdowns in museums, but when at a museum for the first time, she doesn’t always know where those quiet areas are.
- For my part, I said I don’t mind at all when people ask me if I need help, but I like to know who’s offering.
Brian pointed out that a lot of kids come to the aquarium. “How old are kids when they’re this high?” he asked. I imagined him in his chair, placing his palm on the top of his head. “Seven or eight? When you’re planning new exhibits, maybe you could Arrange everything so a kid who’s seven or eight can see it, that way anyone using a wheelchair should be able to access it, too.” Rachel encouraged them to use audio captioning with all their shows and videos, noting that some older adults who are hard of hearing like audio captioning, too. Laurie suggested signage and maps that mention where the quieter areas of the museum are. I said I’m more comfortable accepting assistance if I know the person asking is someone on staff. “I can’t see yourr uniform, though,” I reminded them . “So if you think of it, introduce yourself before you ask.”
Our presentation occurred right smack dab in the middle of spring break week in Chicago, and the aquarium was p-a-c-k-e-d with kids. Eyebrows up! Instead of sitting at home watching TV, the kids were all learning how important the waterways are to us, and to the creatures who live there. Bonus: the Shedd Aquarium gifted all four of us with free passes to visit when it isn’t so crowded.
Back on dry land, the presentation inspired this week’s memoir-writing prompt. I asked writers to write about “Something Fishy.”
Al came back with a piece about growing up on a block in south-suburban Chicago Heights full of neat brick and wood frame bungalows. “A 2 ½ story Victorian home at the end of the block always stuck out like a sore thumb among the more modest abodes,“ he wrote, adding that he went to grade school with the boy who lived there, Chuckie Costello. “Rumor was that the home had bulletproof glass. I never gave it much credence until Charles Siragusa, head of the Illinois Crime Investigation Commission, subpoenaed Chuckie’s father.”
Sharon’s essay acknowledged patience isn’t one of her virtues. On vacations with her partner David, She opts to enjoy the birds and waves from a hotel balcony with a cup of java in hand rather than join him out there fishing. “Impatience and fishing are not good friends,” she explained. “They have absolutely no tolerance for each other.”
Regan’s “Something Fishy” essay pointed out that only 500 whooping cranes exist in the wild in North America. After spotting one during a recent trip to the Platte River in central Nebraska, she told her friends, “If I see a river otter before we head for home you can throw me from the plane, because my life will be complete.” Of course they saw an otter an hour later. You’ll have to read Regan’s entire essay on her Back Story Essays blog to find out how her parachute trip from the plane went.