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In Reopening, The Smithsonian Looks To Balance Safety And Disability Access

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today marks 30 years since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law. Now, no one conversation or story can do justice to that landmark legislation, so on this anniversary, we decided to focus on one small slice of the story - preserving access to cultural spaces for people living with disabilities.

It's a particular challenge during the current coronavirus pandemic, so for more on this, we call Beth Ziebarth. She is the director of Access Smithsonian, an arm of the Smithsonian Institution that ensures that the institution's many museum spaces and exhibits are designed with inclusivity and accessibility in mind. And Beth Ziebarth is with us now from Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.

BETH ZIEBARTH: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Before we get into the specifics of the Smithsonian, I just wanted to ask you about the significance of the ADA. And I ask because you incurred a spinal cord injury at the age of 16, and you've been using a wheelchair for what - more than 40 years now? Would that be right?

ZIEBARTH: Correct. Yes, I have.

MARTIN: So do you remember a before and after? Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the law in opening up spaces and possibilities for somebody like you?

ZIEBARTH: Yeah. I certainly do remember the before and after of the ADA and the enforcement of the rehabilitation act. So for me, at 16, I was in high school, and I went on to college. College was definitely a challenge in that I chose a university that didn't have a lot of accessibility, physical accessibility, just because I was young, and that (laughter) didn't seem to be as much of a barrier to me at that time.

But then when I think about hitting my 30s, when I really discovered my disability identity, and right around the time of the passage of the ADA, that I could really reflect on what it was like before and what it started to be like after, both in, you know, my personal life and in my professional life. So I think that it was definitely groundbreaking. And I see it as something that is so important for us to understand the history of disability rights as part of the civil rights movement.

MARTIN: Can you give me example, though, like, of a before and after? I was thinking about maybe would you have figured out, like, maybe having to pick your classes depending on what building they were in or something like that? Can you just think of an example?

ZIEBARTH: That's actually a really good example. When I went to university, I remember a particular instance where I had to take a course that - the instructor taught it on the fourth floor of the business administration building, and there was no elevator in the building. And when I asked the instructor whether he would be willing to move the class to a first-floor classroom space, he said no because the other space was right next to his office, and he preferred that. I don't think that would happen anymore (laughter).

MARTIN: Wow. So let's shift to the pandemic now. What have you been thinking about during this whole period here? I mean, as you know, buildings have closed, so most people haven't had access to the institutions as we are accustomed to experiencing them. What have you been thinking about and worrying about during this period?

ZIEBARTH: Yeah. The pandemic has really disrupted people being able to visit museums. But it also has disrupted accessibility accommodations as we reopen. We have to have time ticketing. We have to have social distancing. We need to have mask or face covering policies. We need to have - think about taking away some of the touch experiences or changing the way that people might touch and reinforcing that people need to wash their hands and use the hand sanitizer. So those are some of the things that are part of the health and safety concerns.

But as we take away some of those touch experiences, we need to think about how somebody who relies on tactile experience for understanding content is impacted. But when we get to things like 3D models of an object that's on display and having to take that offline right now because of the health and safety concerns, I don't want to see us go down the road to the future where we have taken away those experiences. That's so important for a wide range of people - not only people with disabilities but also people who are tactile learners.

MARTIN: I'm sure you've been thinking about this, that - you know, we've certainly been talking about this - that people living with disabilities are also some of the people who are most vulnerable in this pandemic from a health perspective, depending on what the disability is. But also, some of the accommodations that people have had to make are burdensome for some people more than others, like covering people's faces or - you know, even recognizing that some people are using that as a scam, and we get that. But, I mean, for people...

ZIEBARTH: Right.

MARTIN: ...Who need to see people's faces in order to really understand and navigate the world, how are you thinking about this?

ZIEBARTH: What I'm really focused on is the communication. And that can be anything from having the clear face mask for staff so that when they are communicating with a visitor that the visitor can see their mouth, especially if they speech-read, technology that we can use to facilitate communication like apps that will help with somebody who has hearing loss or is hard of hearing.

MARTIN: But before we let you go, has there been any silver lining to this current crisis? Because - and the reason I ask is that a number of arts institutions have experimented with things - technologies, techniques, ways of storytelling and doing their work - that they just hadn't done before. And I just wonder if there's any way this has opened anything up, for example, that might be helpful to people with disabilities and the public at large that you just hadn't had time to do before?

ZIEBARTH: Yeah, that's a really good question. So the pandemic has presented challenges but also opportunities. You know, as museums and other institutions grapple with how to best reach their audiences while their buildings remain closed, virtual programs have been the way that many organizations have been able to stay in contact with their audiences. And virtual programs can provide fewer barriers to people with disabilities.

So, for example, we moved our See Me at the Smithsonian program for people with dementia and their care partners online. And we saw a spike in participation. Before the pandemic, visitors who had dementia and who participated in our program came to in-gallery experiences. Now they're doing the experiences online. And it's eliminated some of the worries, like transportation to the museum, standing in line to get in.

That's an opportunity. That's a plus. And we will continue to have the online program in addition to the in-gallery experiences after we reopen.

MARTIN: That's Beth Ziebarth. She's the director of Access Smithsonian. That's an arm of the Smithsonian Institution.

Beth, thanks so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

ZIEBARTH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULES OLSON'S "STAY LIKE THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.