I think this is an excellent conversation to which we could add a few layers for consideration. For example, a few years ago I worked with a group to create a feasibility study for a historic house. Upon brainstorming recommendations for the house's use, the topic of accessibility came to the fore. My architecture colleague reminded us, and helped our group fully understand, that accessibility isn't solely about accommodation, it is about the person's dignity as a human being equally deserving of full participation, and their right to do so unimpeded and without compromising their dignity as a human being. I think it is critical to keep this concept at the center of our discussion about accessibility in historic preservation, particularly in discussing how accessibility is implemented in practice.
For instance, in terms of accommodating mobility impairments, many organizations who own historic buildings/sites (not all, as Kirk's example demonstrates) add (or are required to add as a compromise with their HLC/HPRB) ramps to the side or back of the location for persons with mobility impairments to use. Furthermore, as Jim's example shows, accessibility to certain interior spaces are limited or are not at all accommodative to persons with mobility impairments. In some cases, alternative or supplementary materials are provided to persons with mobility impairments (in many other cases, nothing is done). Do these types of accommodations value people with mobility impairments' dignity as a human being?
Based on my experience as an African-American with living relatives who can relay the humiliation of entering public spaces from the rear; AND as a person who has experienced multiple historic tours with a middle-aged, close relative who had severe mobility impairments (and in those experiences: having to enter the historic building with them from the rear or side entrances (as if my relative were something that should not be seen), having had to watch that relative as they sat outside of the room/exhibit we were in on the tour because that space did not accommodate them, and having to feel the overall irritation from other tour group members (as well as the anxiety of tour guides of all ages) as a result of their perception that my family (due to my relative's mobility impairments) would slow down the tour and ruin the experiences of other able-bodied guests)-I do not believe that these types of accommodations value people with mobility impairments' dignity as a human being. I would also suggest that for both people with mobility impairments and their families, these accommodations (or lack thereof) prevents them from equitably experiencing and enjoying the historic building/site together, and that this compromises each's dignity as human beings and their right to equally participate, experience, and enjoy all the historic building/site has to offer.
Another layer that I think is important to consider is how we identify issues of accessibility within historic preservation practice. Many times, the focus of the discussion on accessibility in historic preservation is centered on mobility (which I can understand, based on how this discussion has the potential to directly impact the material fabric of a historic building). However, in doing this, we tend to omit considerations and subsequent discussions on how people with other impairments (hearing, sight, neurological, etc.) are, or are not, able to equally participate, experience, and enjoy historic buildings/sites. For example, I have also experienced multiple historic tours with a close relative who has a hearing impairment (sometimes on some of the same tours with the close relative who had severe mobility impairments) where there was no accommodation for this relative's impairment. Furthermore, I was perceived as "rude" by other guests, and sometimes even tour guides, as I tried to stand in the gap and make up for this lack of accommodation. I believe that the experiences of people with disabilities other than mobility, as well as those with multiple disabilities, should also be a major component in our discussions identifying accessibility needs and practical solutions in historic preservation practice.
I hope that these additional layers for consideration, and experiences, contribute to furthering the conversation.
I absolutely agree with the principle you shared: "Nothing about us, without us," and that it is essential for us as historic preservation professionals to get out of our comfort zones (talking with other professionals in our fields) and begin to listen to, and share decision-making power with, stakeholders with disabilities who know their needs better than anyone, and who may have adversarial, but essential, points of view for historic preservation planning. I believe that one of the most tricky obstacles to accomplishing these principles is the ways in which people with disabilities are perceived as "abnormal" (or are "othered") in society-at-large, and the majority of professional cultures and practices-including historic preservation; and how this perception leads to behaviors which, as I stated before, work to undermine their human dignity and rights to equal and full access within professional culture and practice (both as guests and as decision-makers in planning for projects and programs). What is worse, these behaviors become normalized and justified in professional culture and practice.
For example, Alima Bucciantini, Assistant Professor of Public History at Duquesne University shared with the American Association for State and Local History her experiences of encountering obstacles as she was "getting into the door" of the museum field as a person with a disability. Dr. Bucciantini shared that these obstacles were more ideological than physical. She also discusses how these ideological barriers were, and continue to be, encoded in official job descriptions and how that acts as "an unnecessary barrier to entry [into the museum field]." Additionally, Mike Hudson, Director of the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind relays why it is crucial to bring in (as well as some sagacious tips on how to invite) stakeholders with disabilities not simply as (token) consultants for museum planning projects dealing exclusively with accessibility, but as key decision-makers and staff (such as curators, interpreters, and board members) to contribute to every aspect of a museum's operation.
Considering these examples, I believe that in order to successfully correct the unhealthy behaviors and attitudes that have become normative towards, and that are systematically justified in regards to people with disabilities in historic preservation professional culture and practice, we must transparently identify them and hold ourselves accountable for them. From here, we can begin to build a new conversation around accessibility and create better behaviors that lead to actionable change within our field.
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