The Discovery Museums Expand Offerings, Commitment to Accessibility

Marshal D. Haneisen

On a recent beautiful evening, a group of visitors explored the new Discovery Woods area at The Discovery Museums in Acton. Children played in the 550-square-foot treehouse, scaled the rope climbing wall, enjoyed the nest swing, and glided down the family-size slide. Parents talked together. Many times throughout the evening and around the grounds, different visitors could be heard remarking: “We would never be able to come here if it wasn't for this.” The “this” to which they were referring is the Especially for Me program.

The museums' Especially for Me programs are designed to break down barriers to visitation. These scheduled events offer accommodations for visitors who are on the autism spectrum, deaf, or blind, said Alli Leake, the organization's early childhood education director. “We hear from families that the subtle accommodations we can do make such a big difference.”

Founded in 1982, The Discovery Museums consist of two separate museums — the Children's Discovery Museum and the Science Discovery Museum — and the new outdoor 1.5-acre Discovery Woods, an inclusive, fully-accessible nature playscape and treehouse (built by DIY Network's The Treehouse Guys), which opened this summer. The nonprofit organization is well-known for its hands-on, open-ended, interactive exhibits that encourage exploration, imagination, and learning.

The Discovery Museums' website describes the events and accommodations:

• No school groups or birthday parties are scheduled during (Autism Spectrum Disorder) ASD Friendly Afternoons. A dedicated welcome room allows families with a child with an ASD to orient to the campus and programs. This quiet space allows children a break from the stimulation of the museums if needed. Upcoming events are scheduled for Oct. 4, Nov. 1, and Dec. 6 from 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

• The Museums are closed to the public during the Evenings for Families of Children with an ASD, and quiet spac

es are typically available in each building if children would benefit from a stimulation break. These events are next scheduled for Oct. 15 and Dec. 3 from 5 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

• On Nov. 5 from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., the museums will host the next Evening for Families with Deaf or Hard of Hearing Children, during which the Museums are closed to the public. This program is offered in conjunction with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program of Boston Children's Hospital. ASL Interpreters will be present. 

•  The next Evening for Families of Children with a Visual Impairment is scheduled for Nov. 19 from 5 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Interested visitors can contact the museum to discuss accommodations.

While these programs are labeled for the respective audiences, Leake acknowledges there may be children with other disabilities or challenges who would benefit from the events.

“We explain the specific accommodations we provide, and if a family feels that accommodation is appropriate to their child with special needs, we are happy they can enjoy the museums during these times,” she said.

Especially for Me events are free, and dinner is always provided from area vendors. However, pre-registration is necessary to secure a spot.

Susan Loring is director of HMEA's Autism Resource Central, one of seven centers across the state funded by the Department of Developmental Services that serve as an information and referral service for families that include a member with autism.

Personally and professionally, Loring understands the importance of inclusive attractions and destinations for families who have members with special needs.

“As the numbers of families affected by ASD grew, museums and other recreational providers began to understand that families with a child on the spectrum faced challenges other families do not when visiting. By creating special nights or days at their venues, they give families an opportunity to enjoy their facilities and the child on the spectrum a judgment-free zone with less sensory challenges to become acclimated to the environment in a supportive atmosphere,” Loring said. “This is a win-win strategy as many children can, after a successful visit or two, be successful in return visits with the general public. The family wins when this happens and the museum wins with a larger patron base. It also benefits their siblings as they get to attend the museum, which might not be possible for them as a family without the accommodation for their sibling.”

Loring adds that attending an Especially for Me event may be the baby step a child with ASD needs to be able to grow and attend other times with their siblings. These events can be a baby step for parents, as well.

“Sometimes when we venture out into the community, we are overwhelmed with feelings of dread, given previous bad experiences,” Loring said. “These evenings are geared to be supportive and encouraging…being with others who have a child on the spectrum creates a natural support system, where behaviors are not judged or misunderstood.”

The Discovery Museums have a long history of being a nurturing and caring place for all kids, Loring noted. Twenty-five years ago, when her son was young, few accessible opportunities like this existed. However, Loring had a family membership to The Discovery Museums for several years because they provided her son with hands-on activities, opportunities, and the learning style he needed to participate and enjoy the museum. She noted the museum staff were wonderfully supportive, and once she explained his challenges, went out of their way to accommodate him.

Open Door Connections

Especially for Me is a program of Discovery Museums' Open Door Connections. Prior to 2009/2010, The Discovery Museums dealt with accessibility on a case-by-case basis, according to Ann Skarzi, director of marketing. If a group requested a free visit or special accommodations, The Discovery Museums team would locate funding and resources to make the visit possible.

In 2010, it formalized and expanded the Open Door program, adding the word “Connections” to signify they were taking steps at accessibility to encourage special groups to feel connected to the museum and to signify its intention to form partnerships with other organizations serving these groups, she said.

The partnerships would provide education, staff training, and connection to other resources, and get the word out to families through their network. The first, and a great, example of this is Autism Alliance of MetroWest, she said.

The Museums added accessibility as an objective in its five-year strategic plan, setting accessibility goals each year and reporting on the results. It has exceeded the goals each year since.

Open Door Connections and Especially for Me are extremely important to museum staff because they know that informal learning spaces, such as the museums, are incredibly important for kids' healthy development, Skarzi said.

Other components of Open Door Connections include subsidized school field trips and in-school science workshops for which the organization secures grant funding.

“In 2015, a full 25% of our audience was served for free or very deeply reduced cost,” Skarzi said.

Discovery Woods

The building will be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The museum has an Accessibility Advisory Board comprised of representatives from organizations including IHCD (Institute for Human Centered Design), Perkins School for the Blind, Autism Alliance, Boston Children's Hospital Deaf & Hard of Hearing program, and others, Skarzi noted. This board provides input, modification recommendations, and accessibility reviews of the current buildings, exhibits and programs. It is also advising on the Phase 2 project. 

“We have hired two exhibit designers to develop exhibits for the new building, and they both have experience with accessibility,” she said.

Last month, with funding by the Sudbury Foundation, the museum launched a new accessible website.

“I believe that having an accessible website sends a strong message to a potential visitor that all visitors are welcome, and we believe in making our best accommodations for all,” Skarzi said.