Families represent a range of ages, abilities, and interests. Accessible experiences meet families where they are and encourage all members to participate fully in ways that feel safe and comfortable to them. 1


Why it is Important

Families come with various needs and expectations. Accessible experiences accommodate these needs so that families feel comfortable during a program or in an exhibit. When they are comfortable and feel welcome, family members of all ages are more likely to fully participate.

Heather Nielsen explains this concept further:

Put it into Practice

An exhibit or program’s environment, language, and provided materials can make people feel welcome or unwelcome, affect movement and interaction, and determine how families work together. Vary the materials, setup, height of interactions, required dexterity, and instructions so that people of all ages and abilities are comfortable participating. Have extra chairs and consider keeping adjustable tables available to accommodate different visitors. Make sure that facilitators feel empowered to appropriately adapt programs for different audiences by providing them with an arsenal of predesigned options.

Tables that can be easily raised and lowered, as well as being small enough to gather around and reach across, allowed this gentleman in a wheelchair to join his family in this USS Constitution Museum family program.
facilitator helping child
Facilitators at the USS Constitution Museum are prepared to make younger siblings feel comfortable and included in Built to Win. They encourage little ones to name the boat, color the sail, count the money, or play with a plastic toy boat in the water tub. There is something for every member of the family to do.
folding chairs
The older woman in this photograph planned to sit on a permanent bench ten yards away and watch her grandchild from afar, but when we pulled out chairs, she stayed and took an active role in the program.

Provide Accessible Materials

Provided materials are key to designing an accessible program or exhibit. Think about varying the materials offered for different ages, abilities, and sizes. How can you accommodate these different members of a family group? Consider height, weight, size, and scale.

In our caulking program, we offer big and small mallets so that both adults and children are comfortable participating.
adult and child scissors
When you have little scissors, include big scissors. It is a silent clue to adults to participate and lets everyone find the fit that works for them.
clear tub
Early versions of our boat-building program Built to Win used white, opaque float tubs. Some kids couldn’t see over the edge, so we switched to clear tubs. Now, everyone can see the action.

Create Accessible Environments

When designing for a family audience, environments and set-ups should be accessible and comfortable. Be aware of the unintentional messages you might be sending with the set-up. Are objects too high for kids to reach or too low for adults to see? Is there stroller parking, an easy exit in case someone needs to sneak away with a crying child, and quick access to the restrooms, a place to wash hands, trash, and water? Is the program space visible and well-marked?

Design Accessible Exhibit Interactives

In the All Hands on Deck exhibit at the USS Constitution Museum, visitors have the chance to learn about life aboard Constitution through hands-on activities. One of these activities is a holystoning interactive. Holystoning removes tar and dirt from the deck of a ship by scrubbing it with a sandstone block or a holystone. This necessary work kept the ship clean and looking good. Sailors despised this hard and uncomfortable work, while officers valued a well-kept ship.

A life-size cut-out of a sailor on his knees holystoning (scrubbing) the deck encourages visitors through the main label to “Get on your knees and scrub!” The interactive consists of a low platform with wooden planks that resembles the deck of a ship. In addition there is a small raised platform that is accessible to handicapped visitors or visitors who do not want to get down on their knees in order to try the activity. Once they are in position, visitors use one of the holystones to scrub the deck. The addition of a raised platform encourages visitors of all abilities to try their hand at holystoning. It provides a comfortable experience for everyone.

holystoning interactive
In this holystoning interactive at the USS Constitution Museum, there is a raised section that gives visitors who are not able to kneel on the ground a chance to try the hands-on activity

Use Inclusionary Language

Inclusionary language goes a long way in making all participants feel comfortable and welcome.

Use this chart, excerpted from an Incluseum blog post by exhibit designer Margaret Middleton, as a guide to using inclusionary language.

Copyright 2014 Margaret Middleton @magmidd

1 This concept is one of the seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits identified by PISEC. [Borun, Minda, et al. Family Learning in Museums: The PISEC Perspective. Philadelphia: Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC), The Franklin Institute, 1998.]