Ready. Willing. Enabled.

Assistive designs from the Intrepid and NYU’s Ability Project are putting the museum—and other historic sites—within everyone’s reach

USS Intrepid on the Hudson River with the sun setting in the sky behind it

What a trip it is to envision life aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid, submarine Growler, space shuttle Enterprise, and supersonic Concorde. But making those spaces at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum accessible for people with physical, sensory, cognitive, or behavioral disabilities requires imagination and multiple perspectives. That’s why NYU’s Ability Project—a joint operation of Steinhardt, Tandon, and Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program—partnered with the Intrepid Museum to maximize the museum-going experience for every kind of visitor.

The goal was to open up the ways one can interact with exhibits “by expanding the interpretations that the museums and historic sites use,” says Steinhardt clinical professor Anita Perr. “We were looking at people with sensory processing disorders, cognitive disorders, those sorts of things—and how historic sites might be able to provide content in different formats.”

The flight deck of the USS Intrepid with different types of aircraft lined up on each side and the New York City skyline in the background

Running the length of three football fields, the flight deck of the “Intrepid” launched propeller-driven planes during World War II, the jets that supported US ground forces in Vietnam, and the helicopters that recovered NASA astronauts in the 1960s. Today it holds one of the most varied aircraft collections in the nation.

With the support of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, they assembled two core working groups—one comprised of individuals with disabilities, the other made up of museum professionals—to identify challenges at eight historic sites. “We did classes in conjunction with the grant so that students could build prototypes [of assistive technology] that could then be evaluated for their usefulness at the sites and worked on over time,” says Perr, who has been teaching the grad-level course with Ability Project director Amy Hurst.

But safety concerns precipitated by COVID-19 suddenly shifted the focus from tangible (touch) interaction and the use of shared audio guides in the museum. “The pandemic threw us a curve,” says Perr. Visitors could no longer crowd around exhibit labels, gather in small areas, or use shared equipment.

The solution? The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Mobile Guide, which allows attendees to use their phones to self-navigate and obtain information about the Intrepid Museum’s myriad attractions. “We focused a lot on accessibility of the content, like recognizing reading level, thinking about translation to multiple languages, thinking about audio descriptions for video,” says Hurst. She adds that all of it is on a website rather than an application because “it’s much more privacy preserving and also really easy for the staff to update all the content.”

The space shuttle "Enterprise" inside the Intrepid Museum with a small child sitting on the floor and gazing up at it

The Intrepid Museum’s space shuttle “Enterprise,” the prototype NASA orbiter that paved the way for the space shuttle program.

The BYOD Mobile Guide supports assistive technologies, like screen readers, and was evaluated by members of the disability advocacy community. It provides textually described maps for navigation, detailed interpretation of spaces within the ship that have limited physical accessibility, captioned videos, and simplified text descriptions of exhibits and artifacts. The guide also allows visitors to preview museum content before their visit, giving them an opportunity to plan their journey.

Ultimately, the collaborators plan to produce a digital publication titled Sensory Tools for Interpreting Historic Sites that will pull together all of the accumulated strategies and solutions—“kind of a retrospective of everything we’ve done,” says Hurst. After they are tested, the prototypes will be shared with the community of museums and historic sites, which in turn can adjust them to work in their own facilities. Says Perr: “My personal hope is that everyone, not just people with disabilities, will want to take advantage of the enriching innovations we’ve been developing over the past few years.”

—Dulcy Israel

Close-up of the mobile guide being used on a cell phone to display facts about the Intrepid, with its flight deck seen in the background

The Bring Your Own Device Mobile Guide allows museum visitors to use their phones to self-navigate the ship’s spaces, including those with limited physical accessibility, and to obtain captioned videos and simplified text descriptions of exhibits and artifacts.

Photos courtesy of the Intrepid Museum