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LOWER EAST SIDE TENEMENT MUSEUM

MAKING NEW YORK’S LOWER EAST SIDE TENEMENT MUSEUM AN ACCESSIBLE DESTINATION

BY REBECCA HINDE
VISITORS SERVICES COORDINATOR,
LOWER EAST SIDE TENEMENT MUSEUM

It makes sense that a museum whose mission starts with the words “to promote tolerance…" would value the diversity of its visitors. Since its inception, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has worked to enable all visitors to explore history in a meaningful way. This includes visitors with disabilities.

Located in the United States’ most renowned immigrant neighborhood, the heart of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s is a landmark tenement at 97 Orchard Street. Built in 1863, it is the first homestead of urban, working class, poor and immigrant people preserved in the U.S. Through guided tours of carefully restored apartments, visitors learn about the struggles and hardships the residents endured. Using the stories of these struggling immigrants, the Museum seeks to promote humanitarian and democratic values.

The inclusion of people with disabilities in our shared culture is one such value. In keeping with this, LESTM visitors with disabilities can, whenever possible, access the same information as other visitors without requesting special materials or accommodations. For example, Museum tours have long included a look at census documents, whose tiny, cramped text is challenging for most people to read. Now, however, visitors can choose to look at census records in large print type. In the future, Braille texts will be available. Additional programs and services include:

· Assistive listening equipment
· Monthly sign language-interpreted tour
· A hands-on living history program
· Captioned media presentations

Additional services are available to groups. Groups of ten or more can request a sign language interpreter with advance notice. Groups of five or more can schedule a “touch tour” version of one of the Museum’s multiple tour offerings.

The biggest challenge to achieving universal access comes from the tenement building itself. Often referred to as “walk-ups,” tenements are notorious for their five flights of stairs and lack of elevators. Due to 97 Orchard Street’s landmark status, as well as the constraints of tenement construction – narrow hallways and a stoop too steep to add a ramp – the building is not wheelchair accessible. However, the Museum is committed to providing programmatic access to all visitors. Options include:

· “The Streets Where We Lived,” the Museum’s neighborhood walking tour
· Museum educator-led programs in the accessible Visitor Center, available by appointment
· A “virtual tenement tour” at www.tenement.org
· Off-site programs, available for groups of ten or more

The Visitors Center also features a video rich with information about the Lower East Side, a computer station offering access to the virtual tour and other educational materials, and a pictorial tour.

The Museum has reached out to the many disability communities to help achieve its access goals. The Tenement Museum’s Access Advisory Board includes leaders in the field of disability. Visitors have also helped. Recently, more than twenty members of the Manhattan chapter of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (SHHH) toured the Museum using its assistive listening equipment. “I really enjoyed today,” said one member after the visit. “For me to go on a tour and hear every word that's said is a major quality of life improvement.” Visitors like this are a reminder of why access to cultural institutions such as the Tenement Museum is so important. The Museum hopes not just to ensure access for its visitors but also to be a model for other cultural institutions in the service of larger goals of civil rights and social inclusion.

For more information on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, please visit www.tenement.org or call (212) 431-0233 or TTY (212) 431-0714. If you are interested in scheduling a group program, please contact Anissa Graham at agraham@tenement.org. or (212) 431-0233, x 241. For additional information about accessibility, contact Rebecca Hinde at rhinde@tenement.org or (212) 431-0233, x 240.