National Gallery of Art apologizes following removal of visitor with disability

The National Gallery of Art in D.C. has apologized after a visitor with a disability was removed for violating the museum’s bag policy despite their disability — an incident that prompted the museum to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Celeste Tooth was visiting the museum on a weekend, guiding a group of students from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where they attend and work as a teaching assistant.

Tooth, who uses they/them pronouns, said they’ve visited the museum before with their backpack — filled with lifesaving medications — and never had an issue wearing it on both shoulders, despite a policy enforced by many museums requiring visitors to wear bags on one shoulder.

Tooth said a spinal condition prevents them from carrying the bag on one side.

“Two weeks prior I had been there on another field trip and [the museum] had been totally cool about it. And I really wasn’t expecting it to be a problem,” they said.

While walking through the museum, they were approached by a gallery attendant.

“She tells me to sit down as she calls her manager. It’s not a great situation,” said Tooth.

Eventually, a security guard approached Tooth offering them the option to check the bag.

“It’s not a great thing to say after I told him repeatedly that it has my lifesaving medications in it,” they stressed.

Tooth said they tried to figure out an alternate compromise but were told “This is taking too much time,” before the security guard escorted them out.

“He stopped responding to me even trying to talk about it,” Tooth said.

“An officer informed the visitor of our policy and offered assistance and multiple options for storing or carrying the bag in line with our policy to be inclusive and welcoming. Unfortunately, none of the accommodations were acceptable to the visitor. Upon learning of the incident, we began a review of our bag policy and the adequacy of our alternative options for visitors,” a spokesperson told WTOP.

Soon after, Tooth tweeted about the incident and received a response from the museum, apologizing along with a statement that read in part “Our goal is to create an inclusive and welcoming space for all … we are committed to preventing such incidents from happening in the future.”

The museum also urged Tooth to reach out to the chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer to further the discussion to help ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tooth said they reached out the gallery in a July 25 post.

“It’s kind of a wild situation, there’s been no concrete changes made around the policy,” said Tooth. “I wish it had not ended in the students having that experience or me having that experience.”

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

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