Welcoming Adults with Developmental Disabilities

into the Magic of the Museum, Safely and Respectfully


Fine Arts for Fine Folks

(A joint project of the Come Read with Me program for adults having developmental disabilities and North Texas SNAP – Special Needs Assistance Partners)



Basic information about people with developmental disabilities:


·        You don’t have to have experience with the special needs population to work well with them.  All you do have to do is honor them and truly believe they can learn.


·        Learning and development may be out-of-sync with the “norm”, however, just because a person may not be ready to learn something at age five does not mean that the person will never be developmentally ready to learn the information.


·        To be an effective teacher you must be willing to engage your lives with theirs. They often need the personal information you may give to have the ability to see how the information you present fits into their lives.  Abstract information is very difficult for them to grasp, so your experiences give it concrete meaning/evidence.


·        Having a consistent contact is good. Everyone feels more comfortable when greeted by a familiar place, especially when visiting a unfamiliar setting.  


·        Our folks are by nature, people pleasers.  They like to be cooperative, so you will find them eager to participate and happy to obey rules.  If there is a problem, most likely it will be as a result of confusion, or misunderstanding directions...  or simply forgetting.  Rules given meaning are more memorable.


·        Experiences are those of an adult, but development of artistic skills maybe just beginning.


·        Honor the disability; you wouldn’t ask a blind person to see.  Recognize oddities as being signs of neurological differences, rather than someone just trying to be “weird”.


·        Our fine folks are not afraid to be seen for who they are.  Like their faith, their reaction to art and music is also direct, pure and often, simple.  They don’t try to impress you with their knowledge so you will get honest answers, many times new insights.


·        Try not to make assumptions about what our students may know or not know.  Many are well- traveled so have had many opportunities to learn and experience life in other settings.  They may surprise you at the breath of information they might have about a particular subject or artist.  Because neurological development can cause lows and highs in abilities, it is likely you will meet a true savant in your classes.  Other students may have an obsession about a particular type of art, music or artist.  They may become fanatical about learning everything about them. 


·        Most of our folks enjoy history, geography and biographical information.  Fiction, which requires imagination, is much more difficult for them because it requires the use of a different part of the brain. Our hope is that through the study of the arts, underdeveloped or stagnant areas of the brain will be stimulated, thus improving over-all brain function.


·        By providing the opportunity to do various levels of artwork, you will be allowing cognitive function to be enhanced.  We have learned that many adults can begin at the beginning again in reading, math, study of music and fill in holes along the way (areas they were not yet developmentally ready to understand at an earlier age.  As that occurs, many times they can reach a higher level of function than they previously had.


·        Many of us learn in layers. They may only be able to process one part of a piece at a time. (just the content, just the color, just the size or the place in which it is viewed)


·        We all learn in a variety of ways (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling).  Most of us incorporate more than one modality (or way of learning). 


·        Our people are usually very tactile learners. Many of us need to touch something to be able to understand it.   Our folks often put their hands on the computer screen to understand what it says so they will naturally reach out to touch that which is of interest to them.  They would love a post card or image of the large picture they are seeing… that way they could be touching it.


·        In a museum, there are several ways to protect the artwork and still have it be something which is enjoyed and understood by our folks:

1.      Be clear about what they may touch and what they may not touch.

2.      Clearly indicate the distance to be kept from the piece.

3.      Tell them why they can’t be touched (oils and other things on our hands that can’t be seen, etc.)  Our students are quite respectful of caring for things of value.  This explanation will help them remember the rules.

4.      Give them something to hold. (It helps ground them as well as gives them activity for their hands – helps with tics, etc.)

5.      Give a visual clue for instruction, i.e. a consistent sign for “no touching, please”, “hands down”, etc.  The book, The Joy of Signing is a great reference book for American Sign Language. 





Tips from Fine Folks:












Security staff: 






Docents and teachers:










Answer: “His/her name was (give initial sound of name).”  By providing the fist of the sentence or answer, it helps them get started with the right answer and also builds their confidence in using their new information. Sometimes they have trouble coming up with a "whole sentence" answer right at first, this approach acts as a "jump start" for some folks....








A museum is like a beautiful church.  Both are built for the masses, both intending to provide a person the ability to learn more about themselves through connecting to another’s mind.  Like magnificent churches with wonderful stained glass windows, museums may tell the stories of others through a means of visual cues.  We may not all read written words well, but a picture or a sculpture may be enjoyed using the understandings we each bring into the setting.  .  When life is difficult, there should be some places which remind us of beauty and serenity.  A museum may feed our souls or frighten us.  Your ability to help us learn to navigate in your surroundings is a gift you may share. 


Prepared by Martha Kate Downey 

Director of the Come Read with Me Program for adults with disabilities.





To learn more about the program or to schedule an event, please contact:

Amy Beerwinkle

Director of the Fine Arts for Fine Folks program