Monday, August 23, 2010

On a Journey to Support Play for All

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Kate Jones.

Providence Children’s Museum staff members are constantly thinking about how best to support and relate to our diverse audience. In part, how can we ensure that everyone feels comfortable and empowered while playing? This can be challenging even beyond demographic variance, as every child is an individual and every family is a uniquely functioning unit that presents different needs. Yet together our visitors, board members, staff and partners make up a community of learners that support one another and the broader learning community as a whole.

Recently, Museum staff traveled down a less familiar path to continue this journey by creating opportunities to learn about and assess our overall accessibility as an institution – do we provide multiple points of access in our exhibits and programs to meet the diverse physical, intellectual, emotional and social needs of the populations we serve? Although there are ways in which the Museum already follows (and goes beyond) certain accessibility guidelines, it’s important for staff and volunteers to have ongoing training and new information around inclusion issues.

As a second year AmeriCorps member at the Museum, I have been fortunate to help in the formative stages of this project. Having a background in elementary/special education, I feel a strong connection to helping the Museum figure out how to apply fundamentals of educational inclusion to a public space like ours. A crucial aspect of this new initiative has been working to create a “buzz” among staff to keep our goal of accessibility and inclusion on people’s radar so that they feel comfortable and supported to learn. This has ranged from organizing Museum-based trainings to attending community events on disability and inclusion in the area.

From January to April, the RI Developmental Disabilities Council partnered with the University of Rhode Island's Physical Therapy Program and Rhode Island College's Paul V. Sherlock Center to present a Disability Inclusion Film Series. Each month, a different film related to issues on disability and inclusion was screened and followed with a panel discussion. Various staff and AmeriCorps members attended each session and participated in the discussions with thoughtfulness and enthusiasm.

The Tourette Syndrome Association of Rhode Island held an event at the Museum and gave us the documentary “I Have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me: Dispelling the Myth One Child at a Time,” which we viewed with staff. Although presented through the lens of children with a specific disability, this thought-provoking film brought up certain issues that all children who are perceived as “different” have to face. In addition, the film inspired a lively dialogue about the vast spectrum of learning and interaction styles of children, to which our society still seems to turn a blind eye by promoting a conventional learning “norm.”

In early March, staff and AmeriCorps were trained on how to meet the diverse needs of visitors, through exercises and information about how parents and caregivers of children with disabilities want other people to interact with them. The goal is that, when interacting with any family, to respect and empower every member. Whatever is going on with one member of the family is happening to the whole family; a child does not exist in isolation. At the Museum, this means engaging every member of the family – paying attention to siblings of children who have a disability label, too.

The responses to these efforts to promote awareness have been inspiring – I am often pleasantly surprised to find an email from a fellow staff member keeping me abreast of something going on in the community that might be a beneficial learning experience. In addition, I have been privy to many informal follow-up discussions that display the impact of this accessibility “buzz.”

As Museum staff continue to learn more about the challenges and experiences that children with disabilities and their families may encounter, our perspective will broaden and we will become better informed on how we can continue to create spaces and experiences through which ALL families feel they can have fun and play. By respecting and embracing exceptionality as natural and good, we help set the precedent that EVERY child and family is capable when their needs are supported.

The Museum was recently awarded $2,000 from CVS Caremark for inclusion training for Museum staff and volunteers. Stay tuned to learn where this will lead us next!

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