Design for All

Madeline Lines

Museums across the country are finding new ways to ensure everyone has a rich and engaging exhibit experience. What can we learn from those who do it best? Spaces designed with accessibility in mind can bring content to life for those with disabilities. We chatted with a few museums setting examples in accessibility across Canada to see what they’re doing now, and what is coming next.  

Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg, Manitoba 

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg has won numerous awards for its innovative accessibility aided by technology, including a Jodi Award for Accessible Digital Culture. We talked to Scott Gillam, Manager of Digital Platforms at the CMHR about how their system works, and what’s on the horizon.  

How did the museum's journey towards being a leader in accessibility begin? 

Four years before we opened, we had made a presentation to The Council of Canadians with Disabilities, and we found out that while they were very encouraged by the stories we were telling, perhaps we hadn’t considered all the ways that we were telling the stories. We realized that as a museum for human rights, it was our responsibility to become leaders. There’s an opportunity for us to show leadership in accessibility, and inclusiveness in accessibility. 

Could you explain "Near Me" mode and the Universal Access Points? 

The Universal Access Points (UAPs) are small, tactile squares that have raised numbers in Braille, not dissimilar to a traditional audio guide sticker. There’s also an accompanying tactile floor strip for cane detection, so someone with low vision or blindness can actually detect where the UAP is. Additionally, when you have the mobile app, and you’re within the gallery spaces, if you select the Near Me mode and you have text-to-speech activated on your iOS or Android device, you will actually hear the content nearby read aloud to you.  

What has the response been like from visitors that use these systems? 

The response has been tremendous. Really, what it allows is the greatest ease of use, regardless of ability, to have an equally rich and independent experience. For visitors who may require either assistive devices or may have mobility issues, the ability to be able to actually explore the museum independently is quite a marked change from the traditional museum experience.  

What's next for the museum in terms of accessibility? Are there any projects in the works, or plans for the future? 

Inclusivity and inclusive design have really become a part of the fabric of the museum. An example of what we’re working on for current and future exhibits is tactile photographs. We had a photo exhibit three years ago where we incorporated tactile versions of some of the photography so that someone with low vision or blindness could actually touch the photographs. They were raised carvings with audio description. That’s become somewhat of a staple. For a lot of our photography now, we always look for ways to include components that are tactile, experiential, and immersive.   


The Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, Alberta  

The RAM is paving the way for people with sensory needs with events such as Sensory Sundays and resources such as Sensory Kits. We heard from Oksana Gowin, Head of Marketing and Communications at the RAM, regarding their focus on accessibility.  

What kind of accessibility features does the RAM have that are unique to the RAM? 

Accessibility is a priority for the new RAM to ensure all visitors, regardless of ability, can access and experience the museum. This includes not only the building and exhibit design, but programming such as Sensory Sunday, multi-lingual exhibit panels (French, English and some with one or more Indigenous languages) and free resources like wheelchairs and Sensory Kits available to loan during a visit. 

Can you explain what the Sensory Kits consist of, and how a visitor would go about using them, and why? 

Sensory Kits are designed specifically for visitors with sensory processing differences. They include a backpack with noise reduction headphones, sunglasses, fidgets, and a timer. These kits can be rented for free from the admissions desk. 

Can you tell me a bit about Sensory Sundays? 

Sensory Sunday is an event for people with sensory needs and their families to visit the museum with adjusted gallery settings. This includes soft lighting, reduced noise and sensory activities, as well as a sensory room. 

What is next for the museum in terms of accessibility? Are there any new plans, or developments? 

We continue to monitor accessibility, making changes as necessary. For example, we recently changed the carpet immediately surrounding our exhibits to provide a band of contrasting colour to aid in visibility. We have removed gender identifiers for many of our bathrooms, and we have added hands-free access to four bathroom doors. 

Accessibility is not static, and we will continue to monitor, seek feedback and make changes as we can.  

Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa, Canada  

The CSTM was recently accredited with the Accessibility Certified Gold rating under the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) program. Muse spoke to Lisa Leblanc, Director General of the CSTM and Gabrielle Trepanier, Audit and Evaluation Officer at Ingenium about what this means, and what accessibility means to them.  

What recent developments in accessibility have been happening at CSTM? 

Gabrielle: I was on the project team for the renewal. We had a fresh, clean, slate to start from. One of the first things we did, which was very important, was we levelled all the floors. We considered physical disabilities and making sure everyone could move in the museum.  

We looked at making our exhibits multi-sensory, so that different people could access what was going on in different ways, using what they had. They can come to us and know that they’re going to be comfortable and have their dignity through the whole visit. 

Lisa: The thing about accessibility is if you take it on as your philosophy, it forces you to look at everything with that lens.  

Could you tell me about the RHFAC program? 

Gabrielle: It’s an industry rating system that uses trained professionals to evaluate meaningful access in institutional and other commercial sites. You can be accredited as accessible, or you can attain a higher level of Certified Gold. We were thrilled that we were able to meet the gold level of accessibility. We’re the first public institution in Canada to receive that level of accreditation.  

We still make mistakes, and nothing is perfect in accessibility, but Rick Hansen does help you. In the assessment they tell you what you’re doing right, and what you could and should improve. 

Lisa: You can hire a RHFAC professional to do an assessment of your site – so it gives you a concrete path to know what works and what doesn’t. While we’re certified as being accessible, they also give us this roadmap for increasing the level of accessibility in the future. 

What kind of reaction have you gotten from the public? 

Gabrielle: Accessibility is one of the things we’ve committed to, but we have a broader look at inclusion and diversity. This pushed our curatorial staff to make sure people with disabilities would see themselves in the museum. We were lucky enough to witness a kid who was at the museum with his family, and he plays sledge hockey and uses a wheelchair to get around. He saw a sledge hockey on display in the museum and was over the moon. 

We’ve also been lucky to get a few people filling out feedback cards saying things like, they’re a mom who recently started using a wheelchair to get around, and because you made your children’s gallery accessible, I can play with my child in that room. That gets you through all the boring meetings in the universe. 

Lisa: Sometimes when we talk about accessibility at the museum, what you hear as a backbeat is people questioning what percentage will really use it. The philosophy for us is very simple, in that any access is just better for everyone. We want to be accessible for all Canadians, regardless of ability, and that’s the bottom line. ∎ 

Madeline Lines is a Carleton University journalism graduate. She contributed to Muse through Carleton’s internship program.   M

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, September/October issue, 2019.