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Go Ask Mom

Science museum staffer wins top award for efforts to help visitors with special needs

Posted October 5

Yirka shows off a turtle during a live animal program for students with hearing loss.
Courtesy: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Liani Yirka, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ first accessibility and inclusion coordinator, just took home a big award for helping make the museum more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities - especially kids with special needs.

Yirka won the 2016 Governor’s Award for Excellence, which is the highest honor a state employee can receive. She was recognized in the efficiency and innovation category.

“Liani Yirka’s exemplary personal and professional dedication to underserved communities brings North Carolina, with the Museum of Natural Sciences as the headquarters of her tireless efforts, very special attributes,” said Museum Director Emlyn Koster in a press release. “This award is a well-deserved high recognition of her unique approaches, ones which have paved the way for this Museum to be one of the world’s most accessible museums.”

Yirka, who began volunteering for the museum as a junior curator in high school, has done some amazing work at the museum since she was hired full time in 2012.

Among her efforts, according to a press release:

  • She partnered with SAS Institute to create the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities, the first museum-based conference of its kind. The event provides students with a day of activities that encourages and inspires them to pursue their science, technology, engineering and mathematics interests, despite the obstacles they face. Students also get to meet scientists, who also have disabilities, to encourage future mentorships. The next showcase, which is free, is in November. It's expected to attract hundreds of participants - and even more online.
  • Yirka worked with a software engineer from SAS, who is blind, to create a state-of-the-art program to increase interactions of disabled visitors with the various exhibits. The software program uses a screen reader, a digital map of the museum’s exhibits, and a map of the structural aspects of the building to facilitate disabled visitor access. An app called NC NatSci was created to run this new program and is the first of its kind ever developed. This program was so successful that Yirka was asked to present the app at the prestigious 2015 South by Southwest Interactive Festival.
  • Yirka helped develop a new indoor navigation system for people who are blind or visually impaired. Combined with the GPS capability of the app BlindSquare, the program uses an indoor navigation system to guide blind visitors through the museum.
  • Yirka also works with the N.C. Autism Society to develop Low Sensory Days where kids on the autism spectrum can visit the museum without being overwhelmed.

The downtown Raleigh museum lists all of its opportunities for museum visitors with disabilities on its Accessibility page. Congratulations to Yirka for her fantastic work. So many kids and adults have benefited from it.

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  • Stacie Hagwood Oct 6, 8:12 p.m.
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    Liani is AWESOME!!!