Teaching children about disability

The Boston Children’s Museum’s vision statement “is to be a welcoming, imaginative, child–centered learning environment that supports diverse families in nurturing their children’s creativity and curiosity. We promote the healthy development of all children so that they will fulfill their potential and contribute to our collective well being and future prosperity.” [1] Given this, their decision to create the exhibit access/Ability makes complete sense.

Access/Ability, created for the museum in 2005, is a highly participatory exhibition that strives for disability awareness and encourages children and their families to explore differences in capabilities in everyone. [2] The exhibition requires 1,200 ft of space and is available for other museums to rent for $25,000 for three months.

The exhibition explores a range of disabilities based on five different stations. The section Going Places focused on mobility specifically how people with disabilities may use different skills to move from place to place. Visitors use a wheelchair to navigate an obstacle course and identify everyday objects, like doorknobs, by touch alone. Talk to Me highlights how people with varying levels of speech impairments communicate including Braille and American Sign Language. The section Just for Fun! highlights the similarities and differences in recreational activities for those with various disabilities. These activities include a simulated hand pedaled bike ride through the Nevada desert and a tactile art station. Think About It! encourages visitors to challenge their perceptions of those with cognitive disabilities with a computer memory interactive in this section. The final section Invent It! lets visitors use adaptive tools for heads, hands, and feet in order to explore how design of everyday objects effect people’s ability to use them.

This exhibition has received widespread support and usage throughout the museum field, as it completed its original exhibition tour to 8 different institutions throughout the country from 2005 until 2007, including The Brooklyn Children’s Museum and Minnesota Children’s Museum. Additionally access/Ability is still available for exhibition today. In 2011 the Please Touch Museum featured the exhibition [3] and more recently in 2013 the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum also held the exhibition. [4]

What was striking about this exhibit were the goals from the very beginning. access/Ability focuses on celebrating the similarities between all people and encouraging questioning and curiosity about the differences. Something I never saw in the language of the exhibition information was the word tolerance. At first this struck me as odd, because isn’t that what this exhibit was doing, promoting tolerance of others different from you?

The more I thought about it, I realized that access/Ability’s goals were completely different than promoting tolerance for those with disabilities, it was really about understanding. Understanding how others view the world, understanding how daily life is different for those with disabilities, understanding that disabilities are always on a spectrum, and understanding that people with disabilities are just like you.

So did the exhibition succeed in their goals of promoting understanding? In doing research for this post I examined reviews of the exhibition itself. One in particular struck me. This comes from a woman who took her four year old daughter to the exhibition while it was at the Please Touch Museum, “As a woman who has cerebral palsy, it was great to have recognition that yes we might be different but we’re all human. We only need the right tools to make life easier.” [5]

I believe access/Ability achieved, and still continues to achieve, their goals of promoting understanding and encouraging dialog in regards to disability. What are your thoughts?


1. Boston Children’s Museum, “Mission, Vision, Values,”


2. Boston Children’s Museum, “Traveling Exhibition Rentals,”


3. Mobility Works, “access/Ability Disability Awareness Exhibit at the Please Touch Museum through April 24, 2011”


4. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, exhibits “access/Ability”


5. Examiner.com, “review: access/Ability please touch museum”


6. Image: “Barbie Doll Disabled A Disability Stroller.”




3 thoughts on “Teaching children about disability

  1. I really like that visitors can use a wheelchair or a hand pedaled bike to get an idea of how kids who need those tools see and interact with the world. That is one really great thing about children’s museums is they are interactive and that engages the brain in a different way than just reading or seeing does. Pushing yourself through an exhibit is different than reading about how someone navigates the world in a wheelchair.

  2. My only problem with the “they are just like us!” point of view is that it can lead to further “othering” of people with disabilities. (who is “us,” who is “they”) Because the reality is that people with disabilities are not treated like everyone else…and that is the problem. I think a more interesting and complex way to look at this is to ways disability is constructed by ablest (don’t know if that is still the PC term!) biased. How do the choices city planners, architects, employers, schools, and designers create disability within their plans.

  3. Wow, I really like this idea. Tolerant is a word I do not like because it implies although you are open to others you don’t fully accept them. I appreciate that this exhibit enabled people to understand how people with different levels of disabilities live. It’s almost like a taboo for people to talk about people with disabilities without feeling uncomfortable. This exhibit, in my eyes, allowed for such discussion and enabled people to confront the problem of people with disabilities not being treated like everyone else.

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