Category Archives: Cognitive Disabilities

PTSD and the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial

Katie Henry, the Coordinator of Education Initiatives & Resources, at the New Jersey Vietnam Era Museum and Education Center, provided a long list of activities and programs that the museum has for audiences with PTSD.

  • we have over 50 Vietnam veteran tour guides who speak about their experiences as a form of therapy for their PTSD.  Many of the veterans often state that they were unable to talk about their experience for over 40 years and they now see the opportunity to talk to students as a way to promote their legacy.  These tour guides led over 10,000 students a year in addition to other tours for multigenerational audiences.”
  • “There have been lectures that focused on PTSD in the past…However, PTSD is usually discussed in most of our lectures seen many of our lectures are led by Vietnam veterans even if it is not the main focus.”
  • “Our permanent exhibit also has a small section on PTSD and… we have resources about PTSD on our website.  We also have PTSD support groups here every month.  They use our space and often schedule their meetings when we have a lecture/event so they can attend.”
  • “We also have a Resource Library that has an extensive collection of books on the topic of PTSD that are available to our visitors.”
  • “We actually have a three day workshop that will take place next week that helps with PTSD.  It is called the Combat Paper Project.  It is a traveling exhibit and workshop program that was started by Iraqi veterans in which veterans take their uniform or another personal artifact and make it into pulp to form paper.  This creates a new artistic medium and is meant to help participants reconcile their military experience”
  • “We are also interested in hosting this workshop to promote younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to come to our museum.  I am eager to promote our museum as a community center which is something that has been becoming more and more an important mission to museums”

For more information about these programs and the museum, check out their website.


Adults and Learning Disabilities: The Silent Epidemic

Take a moment to imagine your life, and how it would be drastically different, if you were unable to read. Initially, minor inconveniences may come to mind like not being able to pass the time on your Metro commute by catching up on the news. What would be much more problematic, however, is not being able to decipher the station signs indicating at which Metro stop you are arriving. Consider being illiterate and the challenges you would face at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. These would not be minor inconveniences but fundamental obstacles to functioning in a society.

As far removed as this scenario may seem to us, it is a reality for 37% of the adults in the District of Columbia. Another 24% of D.C. adults lack “higher-level reading and problem-solving skills.” That means that a staggering 61% of adults in the nation’s capital possess literacy skills in the lowest two levels of the five-level scale used by the National Center for Education Statistics.

While it is certainly not always the case that a person who has a learning disability cannot read, it is likely that an adult that cannot read has a learning disability. According to Rita Daniels, the Director of Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, an adult literacy non-profit in D.C., practically all of the enrolled learners who have been tested have been diagnosed with some type of learning disability.

There are rights to educational services afforded to children with learning disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but these rights can end at the age of 21. The learning disability, however, does not simply go away at this age. Therefore, many of the adults who have learning disabilities, a proportion of which have no or low literacy skills, have few options for education or other assistance after they reach the age of 21. They struggle to function in a society that largely ignores the issue and they do their best to hide their inabilities because of the associated stigma. This is why illiteracy has been called “the silent epidemic.”

Could this be where museums come into the picture? For a museum to truly engage the community, outreach should be inclusive to all populations and the institution must seek diverse audiences. While there can certainly be vast improvement, some efforts have been made to reach and accommodate audiences with cognitive and learning disabilities. MoMA, for example, hosts a program designed specifically for individuals with developmental or learning disabilities called “Create Ability,” where individuals with learning disabilities “explore various artworks…and create artworks in the classroom.” However, the program’s target age is 5-18+. Similar to IDEA, programming and services in the museum setting offered to people with learning disabilities  seem to stop at adulthood, too. Encouragingly, The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers Discoveries, a “Sunday program for adults and children with learning and/or developmental disabilities, together with friends and family members.” There are specific times the program is offered to adults with learning disabilities, separate from children or teens.

The Met’s programming especially is a sign that progress is being made in reaching out to adults with cognitive or learning disabilities. However, these are just the very first baby steps on what will, and must be, a long and prosperous journey. It simply is not possible for museums to remain relevant to their communities operating under the assumption that audiences with learning disabilities are just a small niche and one that consists only of children. Just ask 6 of the next 10 Washingtonians you meet and they will tell you that that is a painfully inaccurate assumption.

Operation Homecoming

From 2004 to 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts launched a program called Operation Homecoming. The program asked members of the military and their families to submit essays about their experiences in the military. It was an open call for any story and experience. The NEA received 1,200 submissions from around the world.

The program did not specifically target people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; however, it did encourage this audience to work through their experiences through writing. The NEA set up writing workshops on military bases around the world to help servicemen express themselves through writing. In 2006, the NEA published Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The anthology is comprised of 100 submissions. You can read some of the submissions here.

The program is not currently active, but, according to Public Affairs Specialist Sally Gifford at the National Endowment for the Arts,  you can learn more about the program or submit your essay “for placement in the federal archive” on the Operation Homecoming website.

Museums reach out to military families

In an effort to engage a wider audience, the National Endowment for the Arts has teamed up with Blue Star Families and over 900 museums nationwide to offer free admission for members of the military and their families.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2010, card carrying Blue Star members can enter any museum for free. Families shared their experiences on the Blue Star Museums blog. Families have written about their experiences at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park and a plethora of others.

Sally Gifford, a public affairs specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts, said the program was meant to “thank the families and members of the military military with a fun and enjoyable cultural activity.” While not specifically targeting military members with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the program brought together military families who are often separate from loved ones for months at a time. It also created time for families to bond when a family member was deployed. Gifford said the program aims to create a “fun, positive experience while a family member is away or back home.”

The feedback for the program was very positive. Gifford said “everyone said it was a very worthwhile program.” While no official announcements have been made yet about next year’s plans, stay tuned for announcements on the NEA Bleu Star blog.

“What benefits one, benefits all.”

A must read for all museum professionals:

Paul Gabriel takes an interesting and unique approach in his article, “Learning Disabilities with Museum Visitors,” because he recognizes that everyone can have symptoms of learning disabilities, even museum professionals.  I agree with him wholeheartedly. I  have felt museum fatigue, at other times I have felt overwhelming anxious when confronted with lots of information, and have even experienced blurred vision when reading labels that are text heavy with academic  language.  If I have had those experiences, then surely others have as well.

He states that if museum professionals better understand individuals with learning disabilties, they consequently can reach a deeper understanding of all visitors.  “What benefits one, benefits all,” is how he concisely puts it.  This really got me thinking.   What if museums didn’t create specific programming for individuals with learning disabilities, but instead, took the time to learn more about their needs and kept them in mind for all areas of programming development?  I think this would be incredibly challenging, especially considering how many learning disabilities exist, however the results could be amazing.  Not only would it reach the learning disability audiences, but it would reach all visitors no matter what their engagement level is that day.

At the end of his article, Paul Gabriel helpfully distinguishes different disabilities and what approaches museums can take in order to engage that audience.  Hopefully, the museum community will continue in this line of thinking, and expand all their programming to meet broader audiences needs, those with and without disabilities.

ADHD and Museums

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is one of the most common mental health disorders affecting American adults and children.  The numbers of diagnosed ADHD individuals have been consistently rising, approximately 3% each year from 1997 to 2006.  Since a large populations of Americans are now being diagnosed with ADHD, museums need to understand their specific needs and learn how to address them.

But first, what is it like to have ADHD when visiting a museum?                             “The way I go through a museum is the way some people go through Filene’s basement. Some of this, some of that, oh, this one looks nice, but what about that rack over there? Gotta hurry, gotta run. It’s not that I don’t like art. I love art. But my way of loving it makes most people think I’m a real Philistine. On the other hand, sometimes I can sit and look at one painting for a long while. I’ll get into the world of the painting and buzz around in there until I forget about everything else. In these moments I, like most people with ADD, can hyperfocus, which gives the lie to the notion that we can never pay attention. Sometimes we have turbocharged focusing abilities. It just depends upon the situation.”  Dr. Edward Hallowell M.D.

So, how can museums address this audience?  How can we make museums accessible to those who are diagnosed with ADHD?  How can families with multiple ADHD members enjoy all that a museum has to offer?  Below is one example of how a museum can approach the ADHD audience member.

Bay Area Discovery Museum Located in Sausalito, CA, the Bay Area Discovery Museum incorporates studies on persons with ADHD and how outdoor environments affect their disorder into their programming.  The studies, led by child environment and behavior researchers, Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E Kuo found that when children were taken on nature walks, or encouraged to participate in activities that were held in nature, their ADHD symptoms were alleviated.

The museum’s Lookout Cove is a 2.5 acre outdoor, interactive exploration area that features natural, cultural and built icons of the Bay Area.  In being able to explore this setting, children with ADHD are able to explore, unwind, and according to the research, be better able to focus on schoolwork afterwards.

Autism and Museums

The Illinois Autism Training and Technical Assistance Project paired up with the Dupage Children’s Museum to collaborate on creating trainings and programs for child visitors with autism. Other museums with offerings in autism are highlighted in the article below: copingwithautism/a/autismmuseums.htm?once=true&:

Autism, Inclusion and Museums

By , Guide

Updated June 10, 2009

Autism, inclusion and museums really do go together. Why? Many autistic kids are passionate learners. All, though, have a tough time with abstract thinking, sensory overloads, transitions, and social communications. That’s why so many autistic children have a hard time in school. And it’s also why many parents of even mildly autistic children find it difficult to bring their children to museums, where everything is new, every gallery is different, and every social interaction is a potential ordeal.

But autistic children have a special advantage. They tend to be highly visual learners. Some even have photographic memories. Visual schedules are used in school settings to help autistic kids anticipate transitions, and visual teaching tools are staples for their teachers.

And so, when the Illinois Autism Training and Technical Assistance Project approached Sandy Trusewych of the Dupage Children’s Museum with the idea of a visual system for introducing autistic children to the museum’s exhibits, Sandy was intrigued.

Visual Planners for Museum Visits. The idea was simple: a set of visual guidebooks to prepare children and families to experience the museum, its exhibits, and its hands-on experiences. Wendy Partridge of the Autism Training and Technical Assistance Project explains: “Our project funded the creation of the books. I went to the museum, along with a typical child who was home schooled, and took pictures of the child going through the exhibits. Then we sat down with the museum staff and broke down the tasks. We created visual systems for various play schemes at exhibits like stream tables and construction zones. Once they get a gist of how to work at the stream table, they’ll come up with their own creative play.”

In addition to the photo books, which are available on loan for several exhibits, Sandy instituted a series of parent-training programs. She also had her staff attend a workshop on autism. Now, every month, the museum invites professionals from the communities to co-host special autism evenings. “It’s been hugely popular,” says Sandy. “All it took was an invitation. Sometimes they join the museum, sometimes they don’t – but this becomes a comfortable place for them.”

Autism-Friendly Museums in Your Neighborhood? The Dupage Children’s Museum is not alone. Today, quite a few museums are creating special opportunities for families with autism. Just a few examples —

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City runs Discovery Programs. These small-scale gallery tours encourage children to use all their senses to discover the world of fine art.
  • The Garden State Discovery Museum, a children’s museum in Cherry Hill, NJ, offers special evenings, support groups, speakers and more for families with autism.
  • The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont offers a year-long boat building and racing program for teens with a variety of disabilities, including autism.
  • The Brookfield Zoo in Illinois offers special evenings for its visitors with autism. Also ask about their Visual Systems book.

Is your local museum open to learners with autism? There’s only one way to find out. Pick up the phone and give them a call. Chances are, if they’re not yet autism friendly, they’ll be open to the possibility of creating an autism-friendly atmosphere for your child and his peers!