Boston Blog

Universal design: The science of access at the Museum of Science

Nora Nagle has a long title: The Americans with Disabilities Act and 504 Accessibility Coordinator at the Museum of Science, Boston. She also has a big job, one that goes beyond making the museum wheelchair accessible and compliant under the ADA and Section 504, a federal civil rights law.

Over the loud, incensant chatter of visting students, Nagle explains how the exhibits try to incorporate a concept called “universal design.”

The idea, she says is to make the “exhibits as interactive and as engaging to as many people as as possible. The idea of universal design is to design things in a way that makes them accessible to every user….whether it has to do with disability, age, height.”

In that way, some elements perform double duty. For example, an exhibit eye-level to a a person in a wheelchair is also the right height for a child or little person. Curb cuts and elevators work for wheelchairs, strollers and UPS hand trucks. Larger fonts help those whit both long-term and age-related vision problems.

“There are so many overflow elements to universal design,” Nagle says.“It has been integrated into our everyday lives, It has come to be not only accepted, but expected.”

Some elements of universal design are nuanced .For examples, addressing vision problems is not as simple as installing Braille plaques and raised maps at the Mount Everest exhibit. Some people need bright light; others are sensitive to light. Some are born totally blind and others, like Nagle, adapt.

Born with a rare, congenital condition known as colobama, she is missing a portion of her retina, has no vision in one eye and is legally blind. (Still, it doesn’t stop her from whipping out her cell phone to send off a quick message.) Multiple surgeries have helped Nagle deal with the resulting cataracts, glaucoma and a detached retina. She says she used a magnifying glass and telescope in high school and went on to graduate from Smith College.

Hearing problems also vary. People who lose their hearing at different times of life adapt differently. Anyone with special needs is sent to Nagle. She’s helped people with food allergies. One visitor with a heart condition who wanted to know whether the museum had defibrillators. She also got a call from the parent of an adult man with autism who was afraid of parking garages.

Nagle is also training staff and volunteers, as well as looking at ways to improve the accessibility of the box office and the museum’s website.

“The museum is not making any assumption that one-size-fits-all or that everyone’s needscan be met with a list of accessible features,” she says… “We want to be as open as possible so people feel welcome and enjoy themselves.”

For a map with links to many of the world’s sceince museum, click here.

Principles of Universal Design

1. Equitable Use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.

2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

3. Simple, Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.

7. Size and Space for Approach & Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

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