Increasing Accessibility for All: Programming for Special Needs Populations and the Social Value of Contemporary Museums

Lightning Talk
Liya Deng, University of South Carolina, USA

In response to the recent technological and socio-economic developments, contemporary museums and other cultural institutions are shifting their focus from collections to users. Under this new service paradigm, museums prioritize access to their offerings as a means of improving the quality of visitors’ lives and the well-being of communities they serve. Due to their very nature, museums find themselves in a unique position to advocate for inclusiveness and freedom, foster in their visitors a sense of individual and collective identity, and teach respect for differences based on a more profound understanding of our relationship with the world and with each other.

This lightning talk will address the question of how museums’ social value can be better realized through targeted programming for special needs populations to create a culture of participation and more equitable access to museum resources. The centerpiece of this argument is the idea that the value of museum education is in its ability to invite learners with special needs to join others as equals in the exploration process. The author will further posit that inclusion in museums actually serves to emphasize individuality and benefits all museum visitors by expanding their understanding of the differences between members of the society.

To further contextualize museum service to special needs populations, the presenter will discuss a recent research project that examined the impact of museum experience on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The existing scholarship indicates that such children tend to be interested in museum activities and may benefit tremendously from unique interactive opportunities offered by the museum environment where learning happens through craft making, dialogue, storytelling, and other forms of discourse. This research will further demonstrate the potential museums possess to contribute to more fair and just societies.

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