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I Have “Big Adventures” at the Museum, Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act

July marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. July was also when the Museum reopened to the public after being closed for four months to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has necessarily brought new attention to concerns about safety and access—something that Museum docent Mauree Childress, who uses a wheelchair, said “people with disabilities have top of mind whenever they leave home—pandemic or not.” Based on conversations we’ve had over the years, I invited Mauree to write about her experience as a person with a disability who frequents the Museum—and what the anniversary of the ADA meant to her. —Amy Kirschke, director of adult, docent, and school programs

Photo by Matt Haas

As a docent and visitor, I have big adventures at the Museum. I travel to Haiti and ancient Egypt. I escape to idyllic landscapes, and I catch up with old friends, like The Janitor and Sunny. For me, all of this would not be possible without the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Thanks to this landmark civil rights legislation, I am able to leave home, enter public spaces, volunteer, and roll safely throughout the Museum.

Before World War II, people with disabilities were institutionalized, stigmatized, and discriminated against. When the war ended, Americans saw horrifying images of the Nazi concentration camps. Around the same time, photos of life inside American institutions for the disabled emerged, exposing inhumane conditions. World War II veterans who returned home with disabilities—including amputations, spinal cord injuries, blindness, and other injuries—did not want to be institutionalized or hidden away. Whether or not they thought of themselves as activists, these veterans were leading a disability movement.

One of these veterans-turned-activists was Tim Nugent, a Milwaukee native. In the 1940s, he adapted the University of Illinois campus to accommodate disabled veterans, adding ramps to buildings, innovating curb cuts, and retrofitting buses for wheelchair users. Nugent knew that increasing opportunities for disabled people would also lead to changes in attitudes toward them.

In the 1960s, paraplegics and quadriplegics who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley fought for accessible housing and better job opportunities. California soon became a hotbed for disability civil rights activism.

Thousands of people worked to get laws passed and implemented in the United States. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required that all federally funded buildings eliminate any physical barriers to entry, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 gave people with disabilities greater access to federally funded programs and activities. The ADA, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of life, was introduced in 1988. The act passed through several committees, and was stalled for nearly two years.

Finally, on March 12, 1990, hundreds of people with disabilities gathered in Washington, DC, to demand equal rights. Those in wheelchairs got out of their chairs and crawled to the top of the Capitol building, one step at a time. This “Capitol Crawl” protest might have been the single most important catalyst for the passage of the ADA. President George H. W. Bush signed the act into law that same year.

Every time I visit the Museum or lead a tour, I am reminded of these advancements. Today, I can easily travel from Windhover Hall to the galleries and restaurants on my manual wheelchair, using the convenient ramps and elevators. There are many places in the world, and even in our city, that I cannot go, but I have a great time exploring, learning, and sharing knowledge at the Milwaukee Art Museum because it is fully accessible. It is wonderful!

I am grateful to the thousands of disability rights and human rights activists who came before me. The work continues. Before the ADA,  people with disabilities became accustomed to fighting for basic rights. Now, those who grew up protected by the ADA expect full access to everything in American life—from jobs and transportation, to schools and other public places. It is valuable to reflect on and celebrate how far we have come, from being hidden away to being members of society. Come to think of it, the ADA has benefited not only people with disabilities, but everyone!

Mauree Childress is a Milwaukee Art Museum Docent and Junior Docent School Liaison. (You may have seen her on a recent episode of The Arts Page featuring the Junior Docent program!). In addition to leading tours, Mauree actively contributes to Docent Learning Community workshops and Art for All, a docent committee dedicated to developing and promoting strategies and behaviors that encourage inclusivity for all visitors to the museum.

Amy Kirschke is Director of Adult, Docent, and School Programs. She works with a team of educators and more than 150 volunteer docents to deliver tours and programs for 50,000 students and more than 5,000 adults each year. At the Museum, you’ll find her facilitating docent training, coordinating gallery talks, and slowing down to take a closer look at art during Slow Art Saturdays.

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