Just imagine – a museum where children and adults with disabilities and additional needs, feel not just welcome, but secure, safe, relaxed and appreciated. Four and a half years ago, the Tower of David Museum began to make this happen. Inspired by programming at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, the Tower of David decided to introduce inclusive programming specifically for families with children with additional needs that would help make the stories of Jerusalem come alive for visitors who are so often overlooked in a cultural setting.
It was during a bleak time in Jerusalem when a series of knife stabbings had paralyzed the city and stopped visitors coming to the Museum. We had publicized a new and original program for these families but we wondered, would they come to Jerusalem now, when almost all our other visitors were staying away? The response was immediate and overwhelming - they came. Over a hundred participants, from all over Israel, came to our very first program to enjoy time out with the entire family, without the pressure of regular opening hours and the hustle and bustle of large crowds. We had accessible activities, more hands-on staff and an intimate setting with the entire museum complex being open only for 150 people.
At the time, no other museums in Israel were offering this kind of special programming for such families. These activities led to more programs, now not just for families but also for young adults with additional needs. We partnered with the organization SHEKEL to create a "guides course" for adults with cognitive challenges. It culminated when the museum opened its doors for the public and the adult course participants helped to guide different parts of the ancient citadel. Some only said a line - some spoke for a few minutes. It was incredible for everyone who came.
The Tower of David went on to offer guided tours for the blind and visually challenged, and the sound and light show, The Night Spectacular, was made accessible for the visibly challenged by providing audio description.
We realized that it wasn’t enough that the Tower of David Museum could provide inclusive programming. Everyone should be free to enjoy all the offerings of all the museums in Jerusalem, including people with disabilities. So we initiated a city wide forum for museums to share best practices, learn from experts, consult with field organizations and people with special needs to make sure that all museums are able to offer inclusive content. As a result, museums throughout the Jerusalem area began to cooperate in making accessible and inclusive programming available.
The forum’s success led to the establishment of a National Forum on Access and Inclusion in museums. Together with the Israel Council of Museums (ICOM) and with the support and encouragement of the American Embassy in Israel, we launched the first meeting of the forum. Because of the limitations of the Covid 19 regulations, the first forum met virtually. But, because it was virtual, we were fortunate to be able to host leading advocates in our field, including, Beth Ziebarth, the Director of Access for the Smithsonian Museums in the United States and Caroline Smith, of the National Gallery, in the UK and one of the members of the team that inspired us to begin this journey almost 5 years ago.
It has been a long journey but we are so inspired by the children, adults and their families who have encouraged us every step of the way and have contributed their thoughts, ideas and solutions to help us make Jerusalem and Israel accessible to all.