Museums have always had a relatively Deaf friendly model at their very core—one walks through a gallery alone or with maybe one or two people, looks at objects, and reads whatever placards are nearby. A Deaf person who can read well can access this kind of experience just as well as their hearing companions. A guided tour may be available, but in many museums visitors are far more likely to walk themselves through a gallery at their own pace.
However, museums have shifted in the last fifty years, and this change has entered a breakneck speed in the last fifteen. Many museums have moved away from the object-and-placard approach in favor of a more dynamic approach, with multisensory experiences in galleries and programming tailored for certain audiences. This shift has been incredible for nondisabled people, but without a similarly speedy shift in accessibility options, a museum can become inaccessible for wide swaths of the population.
Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing 101
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, nearly 20% of Americans (48 million people) report some degree of hearing loss. The most common causes of hearing loss in adults are noise (such as industrial noise, loud music, and combat-related noise) and aging. However, hearing loss can affect anyone for any number of reasons. Some conditions that cause deafness are genetic, and the HLAA reports that 2-3 of every 1000 American children are born with a detectable degree of hearing loss.
People with hearing loss use many words to identify themselves. People with a significant degree of hearing loss who consider themselves part of the Deaf community frequently call themselves Deaf (with a capital D). People with a significant degree of hearing loss who do not consider themselves part of the Deaf community frequently call themselves deaf (with a lowercase D). The medical establishment also uses lowercase-D-deaf to refer to deafness in an audiological sense, that is, a severe or profound degree of hearing loss.
People with hearing loss who have some level of usable hearing or who don’t consider themselves deaf or part of the Deaf community frequently identify themselves as Hard of Hearing (capitalized or lowercase) or hearing impaired. ‘Hearing impaired’ is a term that is falling out of favor, and it has long been disliked by the Deaf community who consider it to be inappropriately medicalized language.
Capital-D ‘Deaf’, alongside ‘Blind’, ‘Autistic’, and ‘Little Person’, are the standard exceptions to the person-first language convention. Deaf, Blind, and Autistic people, and Little People, generally prefer identity-first language, that is, they prefer not to be called “a person with deafness,” “a person affected by blindness,” “a person with autism,” or “a person with dwarfism.” This is in direct contrast (but not conflict) to people with Down Syndrome and some other people with disabilities, who overwhelmingly prefer person-first language.
Communication Needs and Preferences
Not all Deaf, deaf, and Hard of Hearing people use sign language. Some prefer written communication, some prefer spoken communication, some prefer speechreading, and some prefer communication systems like Signing Exact English, Total Communication, and Cued Speech. All forms of communication are valid and dependent on the individual’s needs and preferences.
Most sign languages are grammatically distinct languages, not just the spoken language put onto the hands. It should be noted that there is not a single sign language, or even one sign language per spoken language; the United States and Canada use American Sign Language, while the UK uses British Sign Language, Australia uses Australian Sign Language (or Auslan), and South Africa uses South African Sign Language. Nor are all of these sign languages from English-speaking countries related. American Sign Language is based off French Sign Language (langue des signes français, or LSF) and is entirely unrelated to British Sign Language, which developed naturally by the gradual codification of ‘home signs,’ or signs used by Deaf people who do not have access to an official sign language. All this to say that when one meets a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person who uses sign language, one cannot assume that any sign language interpreter will be able to communicate with the individual.
Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing Needs in the Museum
People with hearing loss have the same right of access to museum spaces, activities, and services as the general public. Every effort should be made to provide reasonable accommodations to a Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing visitor. These accommodations may include:
- Sign language interpreters
- Audio guide transcripts
- Video transcripts
- Assistive listening devices
- Sign language tours
- Written directions to restrooms, elevators, visitor services, etc.
- Real-time captioning for events and tours
- Open-captioned videos
A note on interpreters: it is the responsibility of museums and other public spaces to provide sign language interpreters at no cost to the visitor. It is never appropriate to expect the visitor to provide an interpreter or use a friend or family member to interpret. As a result it is important to make and maintain relationships with an interpreting agency nearby to ensure the museum has access to interpreters when needed. If possible, interpreters who use non-ASL sign languages and interpreters who speak more than one spoken language should be available as well.
A number of best practices regarding hearing accessibility in the museum have been proposed:
- Staff and volunteer training (to ensure every person working in the museum has at least a base level of knowledge of deafness and any accommodations the museum offers)
- Visitor services staff or volunteers who have a basic understanding of American Sign Language
- Adequate lighting in every public area of the museum (i.e. not too dark or too bright)
- ASL audio guides (in addition to printed transcripts)
- Visible cuing (e.g. a visible way to communicate emergency information, “the museum is closing in 15 minutes” notifications, etc.)
- Regularly scheduled ASL tours
- ASL interpretation at every public event
- Accessibility information easily found on the museum website
- Posted signage describing any ambient sound effects or looping audio
The presence of deafness does not exclude other disabilities. The museum should consider the possibility that any person who requires hearing accommodations may also require visual accommodations, physical accommodations, medical accommodations, and/or mental accommodations, or vice versa. To that end, wherever possible transcripts of audio guides or videos should also be available in large print and Braille, any posted signage describing ambient sound effects should be visible from multiple heights (e.g. from a sitting position), and any number of other combinations of accommodations.
In people who were born with or developed hearing loss at a young age, literacy is somewhat lower than the general population. Many studies have measured the reading levels of Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and hearing adults and found that Deaf and Hard of Hearing adults have a reading level of 3rd-4th grade on average, compared to 7th-8th grade among hearing adults. It is important, therefore, to avoid unnecessarily complicating any written text produced for use by Deaf and Hard of Hearing people without oversimplifying and becoming patronizing.
However, do not ignore Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids! In any exhibit or program where one plans for hearing children, one must make considerations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing children as well. This presents a challenge in that children of any hearing ability frequently do not read very well, so transcripts of audiovisual elements of the exhibit may not be helpful for young Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids. Instead, any number of creative solutions can be used: ASL storytime, assistive listening devices usable in children’s galleries, and others.
Deaf, deaf, and Hard of Hearing visitors represent a significant portion of a museum’s potential visitors. How can we create spaces where they feel welcome and engaged, learn and create, and want to return?
“The Sixth Floor Museum Launches the ASL Guide for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Visitors” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK8a0YnvNFY
Sonnenstrabl, Deborah M., and H. Latham Breunig. “About the Hearing-Impaired Audience.” Roundtable Reports6, no. 2 (1981): 9-13. http://www.jstor.org.proxygw.wrlc.org/stable/40479693.
“Disability and Inclusion: What Museum Front-Line Staff Need to Know” http://www.artbeyondsight.org/dic/module-3-effective-communication-and-interacting-with-people-with-disabilities/what-museum-front-line-staff-need-to-know/
“Multi Sensory Museum: learning from the deaf and hard of hearing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEvjjhM2UU8&t=2s
“Basic Facts About Hearing Loss” http://www.hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss