Making Museum Education Accessible: An Interview with Abigail Diaz

Abigail Diaz, Director of Education at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, won a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts LEAD Award for Emerging Leaders last year for her work on field trips at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. “For me, accessibility means total physical, cognitive and social access to learning and engagement. It’s intersectional; when you make things better for accessibility, it becomes better for everybody.”

Born in Williamsburg, Virginia, Abbie Diaz spent countless field trips and birthdays in museums. “I knew that museums were for me, and I wanted everyone to love museums as much as I did,” she shares of her passion and decision to pursue a career in education. Diaz is also sister of and caregiver to a young man with disabilities and found it difficult to share her enthusiasm with him; “I always imagined that we would go to museums all over the country together, but we were constantly fighting to allow him to engage in the space physically.”

Brown-haired woman in green sweater and boy dressed in white t-shirt and shorts assemble a short stack of giant, colorful legos.

Abigail and her brother, Daniel, play with legos at the Museum of Science and Industry

Although Diaz had worked or volunteered at over ten cultural institutions, it wasn’t until she started work at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI) that she started to learn the language and science of accessibility and inclusivity.

Her brother’s class visited MSI on a field trip, which Diaz was able to chaperone. It surprised her to see the class in the Idea Factory, an early childhood education area. Spatially and cognitively, the space was not a good fit for the diversity of students, and Diaz noticed the lack of engagement. “This was nobody’s fault but mine. I realized that I am an educator here. It was my job to fix field trips to make them more accessible and inclusive to all learners,” Diaz says of the experience that launched Access MSI.

That summer, Diaz and her colleagues went on an accessibility road trip. In all, they visited 22 cultural institutions around the Chicagoland area, learning about the accessibility initiatives of each. They devised a standardized assessment form to gather qualitative and quantitative data, which informed the changes they piloted during the school year.

The field trip program at MSI features 14 Learning Labs spanning a variety of ages and subject matter. “We didn’t want to create different programs because our programs needed to be inclusive to everybody,” Diaz states of the goal of Access MSI. The team started with small changes, thinking about universal design and low cost: large-print materials in high-contrast colors, written transcripts of spoken content, large grip pencils, translated workbooks, pronoun buttons for staff. “It became a critical thinking game of being able to better ask what groups need from you.”

Not all changes were easy or immediate though. Diaz’s team had to provide proof of concept, which often meant getting creative with prototypes before they went to production (think a large, tactile fingerprint made with a hot glue gun). Another barrier was finding pilot audiences to provide invaluable feedback; MSI was able to waive the institutional fees for the Learning Labs, but couldn’t always provide further funding for additional costs like transportation.

In addition to the logistical barriers she faced, Diaz had to confront institutional barriers. Her team was enthusiastic and committed, but MSI is a large museum with 500 employees. True access and inclusion would require support. “There is going to be people at every place that say no. We wore them down with facts, charm, and successful results,” she shares of the struggle. She also appealed to fiscal reasoning, “one in five Americans has a disability. It makes sense ethically, but also financially to become as accessible as possible. If we are alienating one fifth of our population then we are losing that money.”

Following the success of the Learning Labs, MSI added low-sensory mornings, sensory maps, social stories, and a communication book to their list of offerings. “It started in the education department because we saw the kids and we saw the need, but it really grew to be a museum-wide initiative.”

Brown-haired woman in black-and-white striped dress plays with two small children, a boy and a girl both dressed in yellow. The boy has his hands stretched up a bove his head. They are in a library filled other children, adults and activites.

Abigail plays with children at a low-sensory morning event at the Museum of Science and Industry

Since launching the successful Learning Labs, Diaz has moved on to become the Director of Education at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. She launched her tenure there with an all-staff training focusing on the language of inclusion. “All Hand on Deck,” the access program Diaz created, held their first sensory friendly morning and sensory story times in January. They received a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Grant for a program Diaz is calling “All Wet: Inclusive Watershed Education.” The 18-month grant will provide professional development and access for special education teachers to get students into the local watershed, on Lake Michigan, on boats, and water testing.

“Every program, every experience, it’s in my sphere now,” comments Diaz on her new role. “That’s a really good place to be in, not just doing specialist programs. As a caregiver, I welcome that, but as institutions, we need to be normalizing inclusion. All of our exhibits should be accessible every day.”

Diaz’s advice for cultural institutions? It’s the simple, practical changes that make a difference and create the space and support for bigger changes. Look for places that are doing a great job and seek their expertise. Just start. “I’m a certified ADA coordinator, and I still get it wrong. Have a practice of cultural humility, apologize, move forward, and do better,” she says simply.  

For more of Diaz’s tips, read her post, Easy Access: Making Museum Education Accessible.

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