Museums across the city are opening their doors early from time to time, so that visitors with disabilities can experience spaces in a quieter and less-crowded environment.
One such institution is the New York Transit Museum. For the past five years, the Downtown Brooklyn institution has held Special Day for Special Kids, during which the museum opens its doors an hour early for children with disabilities and their families to come for free, as well as to participate in hands-on activities.
“This program really came out of a response from our families, who wanted a time at the museum where they could access some of our exhibits in a quieter environment with other families who also have children with disabilities,” said Meredith Martin Gregory, the special education and access coordinator at the Transit Museum. “What I heard from families is when you have a child with disabilities, it’s really hard to get the family to do something together; many things aren’t appropriate for the entire family. This is a time when the entire family can come together, in a quieter space when the museum is closed to the public, and enjoy being together.”
The Special Day for Special Kids program is offered three times a year at the Transit Museum. Next up is March 26, when kids can explore the museum at their own pace, as well as participate in activities inspired by the museum’s new “Next Stop: Second Avenue Subway” exhibition, from creating their own subway station to digging for underground treasure on the platform of the museum’s own subway station. There will also be a quiet room, with puzzles and sensory toys, for kids to relax in.
amNewYork spoke with Gregory about the museum’s resources for visitors with disabilities and its Special Day for Special Kids.
Is this a rare program for museums to offer?
I would say that it’s becoming more popular. I know that the Intrepid does an early opening, and the Cooper Hewitt just did their first early opening recently. Museums are now starting to realize that during regular hours, sometimes people with disabilities aren’t able to access their museum because of sensory needs. A lot of people that we get for this program have sensory needs, which means that possibly they can’t access the museum during regular hours because it’s too loud, so this is a nice time to come when there’s less people.
What kinds of special needs do you anticipate?
Most are families of children with autism. Many children, and people of all ages, with autism, really have an interest in trains. We do see all types of disabilities — that’s what’s unique about this program. It’s open to all people of disabilities, as opposed to just autism. And I think what’s great about Special Day is it’s a place for a judgment-free zone — you’re with other families who also have children with disabilities. If your child is having a meltdown in the lunchroom, nobody is going to look at you and think anything of it because everyone understands that behavior.
What kind of staff training goes into accommodating people with disabilities?
We have trainings every semester for the entire staff, whether you’re working in exhibitions or in the store. Everybody gets disability sensitivity training. And we bring in disability advocates and people with disabilities themselves to lead these trainings. To learn about autism, we had a parent who came in who has a child with autism. She got to talk about her experience and what she’s looking for in a museum exhibition. We brought in somebody who’s blind. She was able to talk about how to properly lead someone through a museum and what the etiquette is when talking to someone who is blind. And our educators who teach the programs, for example our educators who will be teaching the crafts, also have additional training to make sure the lesson they’re creating meets different learning levels.
What are other ways the museum accommodates people with disabilities?
We have sensory kits you can check out for things like noise-canceling headphones. We have ASL interpreters. We offer a social narrative, so that people can learn more about the museum in advance. Sometimes people coming into a new space, especially those with autism, it can be overwhelming and make them really anxious. Having a social narrative of what you’re going to see and experience can lessen that anxiety.