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Outreach for Audiences with Special Needs

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is a large urban institution with a strong commitment to providing educational outreach programs to diverse audiences throughout the southern California area. Outreach programs include those for elementary and middle schools, a traveling insect zoo, and a loan service that allows museum members to check out artifacts and specimens. In an effort to reach out to underserved audiences, however, the museum developed two programs for groups who are unable to make on-site visits — Special Education Outreach and Senior Outreach.

Special Education Outreach Program

The Special Education Outreach Program visits educational facilities, traditional schools, and hospitals to provide free educational programs for students with special needs.

Each program consists of a twenty minute storyboard presentation using a felt board and large animal illustrations. This brief interactive presentation is followed by a longer period of hands-on inquiry with large, touchable objects, such as taxidermied animals, skins, bones, antlers, fossils, and shells. In order to ensure individualized attention, three to four museum docents work with a group of no more than 15 students.

The docents are trained to adapt the presentation and interaction to meet specific needs of individual students. They are introduced to a variety of disabilities they may encounter and applicable teaching techniques. Often, people who have never worked with special education students are a little apprehensive. Training strongly emphasizes that the students are individuals, who happen to have special needs. Many barriers faced by people with special needs are attitudinal. Museum docents are trained to concentrate on students’ strengths and to remember that these students have more in common with their non-disabled peers than not.

The special education population that the museum visits includes students who have a speech, hearing, or vision impairment or who are physically, emotionally, cognitively, or learning disabled. Within each category of disability, the range and variability of personalities and traits are as extensive as in the non-disabled population; for example, there are bright and average hearing impaired students, or shy and friendly learning disabled students.

While there are specific teaching techniques for working with particular disabilities, a few general tips are useful for working with students with special needs.

  1. Plan a few extra minutes for the students to arrive and settle down for the presentation.
  2. Vary the presentation in order to reach the diverse needs of a group.
  3. Allow the students to directly participate by handling or actively discussing objects.
  4. Be aware that nonverbal praise, such as smiling or nodding, is as important as verbal praise to encourage and motivate.
  5. Keep in mind that some students may be on medication and appear lethargic.
  6. Most importantly, remember that enthusiasm can create a successful program.

Senior Outreach Program

Improving socialization for elderly residents is one of the goals of the Senior Outreach Program. Like the Special Education Outreach Program, this program is also free of charge. The Senior Outreach Program provides educational programs to elderly residents of nursing homes, board and care facilities, and retirement homes in Los Angeles County. The program encourages learning by integrating the participants’ past experiences with new knowledge. Connecting new information to prior knowledge is a very effective retention technique for learners of all ages.

Many seniors are unable to participate in the diverse educational opportunities offered by cultural institutions throughout the vast Los Angeles area due to lack of funding or staffing to arrange transportation for field trips. Others are no longer physically able to make such a trip. Twice a month, museum docents gather to bring a variety of artifacts and specimens to this often overlooked audience.

The first presentation offered helps to recreate participants’ memories of their childhood. 19]3: Do you Remember When ? encourages participants to explore the early 1900’s with a special emphasis on the year 1913, the year of the museum’s founding. Museum docents dressed in period costumes present historical events and artifacts, period kitchen appliances, tools, magazines, and newspapers against a backdrop of a 1913 kitchen and garage. The seniors are encouraged to handle and explore each item and share their memories of childhood, home life, and other anecdotes.

Another presentation. Chaparral: A Walk in the Wild, takes participants on an armchair nature walk through the chaparral, a native southern California plant and animal community. The outside world is brought to confined elderly through the use of taxidermied and botanical specimens, animals sounds, and video tape.

In an effort to represent the vast collection of the Natural History Museum, the newest presentation. Life in Native America, explores three different Native American cultures from California, the Southwest, and the Plains regions. Participants compare family life, daily chores, ceremonies, and music of Native Americans with hands-on artifacts and reproductions. Docents lead seniors in discussions about stereotypes of different cultures and about Native American life today. The participants often choose to share experiences they’ve had as immigrants and stereotypes they encountered.

As with the Special Education Outreach Program, the logistics and training have contributed to the success of the Senior Outreach Program. This program also requires a larger number of museum docents, usually three to four for each presentation. In addition, the presentations are limited to 25 seniors. The high ratio of museum volunteers to participants is an important factor, ensuring individualized care and attention. To prepare the volunteers to work with elderly adults, they are introduced to the senior adult population, to characteristics of older adult learners, and to appropriate presentation techniques.

The senior adult population is diverse and the age composition of elderly people at different types of facilities varies greatly. Nursing home residents are generally more frail and infirmed than participants in residences and day programs. Often, nursing home participants appear to be uninvolved or disoriented, but it is important to remember that people benefit in ways that may not be readily noticeable. Though they may not be actively involved and retaining the subject matter presented, they are experiencing invaluable socialization and stimulation that is different from their daily routine in the long-term care facility.

As with most groups, the education level background, and physical ability of seniors within each group can vary greatly. Some may have only finished grade school, while others have advanced degrees. Common experiences and life experiences, however, tend to blur the differences in educational levels.

There are specific characteristics of older adult learners that need to be considered when teaching to them. With age, people become slower in their reaction time to stimuli. However, this does not mean that older individuals are unable to learn. When older adult are presented new materials, they are as likely to remember it as their younger counterparts, as long as the material is meaningful and grounded in prior knowledge.

The following are a few presentation techniques useful for working with seniors:

  1. Make certain everyone can see and hear. Try to minimize extraneous noise in the room. Use microphones or hand-held personal amplifiers if necessary.
  2. Speak slowly, loudly, and clearly without shouting or straining. Face the group when speaking.
  3. Stand in a lighted spot to facilitate lip reading. Don’t stand in front of a window; the glare will prevent you from being seen.
  4. Seat participants in a semi-circle. This makes it easier to reach the seniors, who are often in wheelchairs.
  5. Ask permission before relocating or moving a person in a wheelchair. Remember that wheelchairs contain individuals. They are not pieces of furniture!
  6. Seniors in nursing homes may sleep due to medication. They usually appreciate being gently roused and encouraged to participate.
  7. Request to have trained facility staff present during the program in case of unforeseen events or emergencies.

Kim Milliken is the outreach coordinator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and is primarily involved in the implementation and development of the docent outreach programs. She received a B.S. in marine biology at the California State University of Long Beach and a M.S. in science education from the University of Southern California.

Isabel Rosenbaum coordinates the volunteer programs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Prior to her Staff position, she was a docent at the Natural History Museum for 12 years. She received a B.S. in nursing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, and a M.S. in gerontology from the University of Southern California.

Milliken, Kim and Rosenbaum, Isabel. “Outreach for Audiences with Special Needs,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 8-10.

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