5 Steps for Placing Accessibility at the Heart of Museum Programming.

In the second edition of Museum Mindshare, our community gathered to discuss accessibility and inclusion within our institutions broadly, with a focus on how virtual programming has enabled more visitors with disabilities to connect with museums than ever before. One question that museum professionals are currently grappling with is how to continue to engage this audience and create meaningful experiences both on- and off-site.

A blurred image of museum visitors staring at framed paintings on a red museum gallery wall.
Photo by Julian Mora

Zooming Out

During our meeting we got real about what it means to be truly accessible and inclusive at our institutions. As one participant explained, accessibility doesn’t only benefit people who are disabled but often benefits society at large. Take, for example, automatic doors; they are often crucial for people who use wheelchairs, but they also make life easier and more convenient for everyone. To relate this idea to museums, we know that visitors who are blind require audio descriptions of artworks to make them accessible. But these audio guides can be equally interesting and engaging for visitors who are sighted. Long story, short: access improves the experience for everyone.

Another theme that arose during the discussion was the power and privilege that institutions hold and the systemic barriers that many individuals face when attempting to engage with museums. One participant insightfully noted that if museums have the power to make their programs inclusive, through every decision we make we wield the power to exclude. This is why it is so important for museum professionals to consider the needs of all visitors when planning programs, exhibitions, and other community initiatives. So, how can we do this?

Zooming In

The consensus among our members about how to keep accessibility front of mind all comes down to planning, planning, planning. Thinking ahead and building in extra time is a luxury in the world of programming but it is integral to creating accessible programs. As is funding. This is, unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to creating accessible programs but with advanced planning, you can build funds into your budget for accommodations that will make your programs accessible and in turn grow your audiences. When you think about visitors with disabilities from the beginning, you won’t have to scramble at the last minute to make your programs accessible.

Lastly, the best way to ensure that your programs and other museum initiatives are accessible is to involve people who are disabled in your planning processes. People with disabilities know best what their needs are so you should seek out their perspectives. Representation is not only important for your visitorship; it’s also important for staff. If your museum doesn’t have full-time or part-time staff with disabilities, then you should consult with people who are disabled to provide feedback about their experience of your institutions. Paying consultants for their time and expertise shows respect for the community and acknowledges the value they bring to your institutions.

First Steps for Virtual Access

There are a number of guides out there that explain in detail how to create accessible programs, both virtual and in-person (you can find a list of our community favorites here). But for those who are just getting started in virtual programs, here’s a few things to consider:

  • Access Check: An access check is a way to check in with participants at the start of the meeting to make sure that everyone is aware of the rules for participation and access accommodations available. Setting expectations in this way is beneficial to all participants of virtual programs. Learn more about access checks in this guide.
  • Captions: Captions provide access for people who are D/deaf or Hard of Hearing but can also benefit English-Language learners and others who may not identify as disabled. Best practice recommends using a live captioning service to get the most accurate transcription but many platforms offer free automated captions if you’re on a budget. You should disclose to participants in advance which type of captions you’ll be providing. Here are tutorials for enabling captions in Zoom and GoogleMeet.
  • Interpreters: Many individuals in the Deaf community prefer live interpretation to captioning because American Sign Language has different grammatical rules than spoken English. If there are Deaf people attending your events, it’s best to ask them which accommodation they prefer.
  • Verbal Descriptions: When using visual aids such as slides, images, or video, providing a brief description makes visuals accessible for people who are blind or with low vision. You may also choose to describe yourself and your speakers when introducing them to provide a fuller picture of the program. Descriptions should provide essential information about what you are looking at. For performances or longer videos, you can also hire professional audio describers.
  • Plain Language: Using clear and concise language is another accommodation that benefits all participants of your programs. It is especially important for providing access to people with developmental disabilities. Plain language is text that can be understood from the first read. Keep your sentences short and avoid jargon. Learn more about plain language here.

We designed our mobile platform with accessibility in mind, including features such as transcripts, dynamic text size, alt text, ASL embedded videos, screen-reader compatibility, and automated audio and text translations in 18 languages. It’s an issue that’s close to our hearts because we believe that everyone should have access to arts and culture. We are thrilled to find a community of professionals who share our passion for increasing access and inclusion within historically elitist institutions. Thanks to all of those who joined us for this important conversation!

Co-founder of Gesso, next-gen audio guides for cities + museums. Follow for latest insights on audio, museum tech, travel tech, and more. www.gesso.app