In 1997, long before he became the president of Old Salem Inc., Frank Vagnone lost feeling in his legs and spent six months in a wheelchair.
So last year when he saw a little boy sitting in a wheelchair outside one of Old Salem’s historic buildings, his heart lurched a little bit extra, he said.
“The sun was beating down on him and all his classmates were inside experiencing all the cool stuff in there,” Vagnone said. “I remember thinking, ‘Why is it that historic sites feel like they don’t have to deal with ADA accessibility? Even if it’s impossible to have accessibility, is there not something we could do to make this young boy’s experience interesting?’”
The thought spawned a multi-faceted project that has come to be known as the Universal Access Initiative at Old Salem Museums & Gardens. The project aims to improve the experience for visitors who have mobility restrictions, cognitive impairments, special needs or other limitations.
“We realized right away that it’s an area that Old Salem really hasn’t explored fully,” said Vagnone, who came on board as the chief executive and president of Old Salem full time in March 2017. “Traditionally, historic sites have had one mode of communicating: You go stand and someone tells you something. It became really clear we had to engage all the senses.”
The introduction of “Experience Boxes” has already been implemented at each of Old Salem’s buildings to add sensory-specific experiences to visitors with special needs. Each box is specific to the building and contains touchable and interactive artifacts, such as miniature models of the buildings, quills, sea shells, mittens, music and spices.
The boxes can be taken outside by historical interpreters to accommodate people who are unable to enter the buildings.
“To be able to touch, feel and smell, it tells a story of each building,” said Kelly Beeson, a historical interpreter in charge of the John Vogler House. “We’d like to incorporate music into every box and engage and teach history to 100 percent of our visitors, not 92 or 94 percent.”
A 2017 review of Old Salem assessed all 23 buildings from how many steps they have to whether there are services for the visually impaired, deaf or special-needs visitors.
As a result of the findings, a ramp will be added to the back of the newly renovated 1802 Doctor’s House to make it wheelchair-accessible.
Ramps are also proposed for six other buildings as part of a $300,000 plan that would be completed over two years.
Old Salem has started writing grant requests for the renovations.
“They all cost money, but we’re also determined not to shy away simply because of money. We have a moral imperative to do this,” , Vagnone said. “It’s not conceptual when you see that little boy in his wheelchair on the sidewalk.”
Old Salem is partnering with the National Society for Colonial Dames in America this summer to hire an intern to further investigate accessibility at Old Salem and possible solutions.
Vagnone said there could be resistance from preservationists who believe ramps will disrupt the purity of the buildings, but accessibility is important.
“We have to realize buildings are not as important as people,” Vagnone said. “What really matters is that the buildings are backdrops to communicating history, and the only way we can do that is if we can get people inside of them.”
Another branch of the Universal Access Initiative is the invocation of a new visitor map that gives information on walkability, building access, accessible bathrooms and the “Experience Boxes.”
The map also includes “Social Stories” for people on the autism spectrum that clearly outline what they will be doing, who they will be meeting and what to expect at each place, Vagnone said.
“I have a special-needs son,” said Tangky Murphy, a historical interpreter, “and for him hands-on is better, so he can touch and see it in a different way than if you just explained it. This is the kind of museum where you can try on the shoes, lay in the beds, everything’s interactive.”
Work is already being done to improve the sidewalks in Old Salem, which will make it even more accessible and in line with the guidelines of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Vagnone said.
He said Old Salem’s move toward universal accessibility is ahead of its time and other historic sites that are making improvements more selectively.
“We are pretty unusual in that this is comprehensive. Not only have we reinterpreted all of our sites to use tactile engagements but we’re also working on universal access,” Vagnone said. “I think Old Salem stands as a unique site right now.”