Back in 2010, the United States Department of Justice announced that new regulations in the Americans with Disabilities Act would require website managers make their content accessible to all users. This meant providing means for anyone with an internet connection the means to consume the information available online. For all of those who haven’t ever had an issue with reading or seeing what is on the screen, this may not seem like that big of a deal; But for those who have physical or mental disabilities, it was overdue. Imagine that you’re that you are blind, the internet—the world of information available at your fingertips—was still vastly unexplored. Needless to say, this was a big deal. For museums, this goes beyond the ADA’s requirement; Providing multilingual content for their visitors is also crucial, especially at international institutions.
Museums were at the forefront of this endeavor to make their online content accessible to all users, just as they have been in their missions to serve and educate the public through their collections of objects. One way that museums have been addressing this is through creating collection and exhibition guides that are available in multiple formats, including foreign languages and alternative media. These alternatives need to be integrated online and onsite to be truly effective.
Some solutions that museums have come up with in regard to making their content available to all members of their audience focus on direct communication, while others are available by choice. Providing staff-led tours by multilingual docents and guides is a great and viable option for larger institutions that have the budget, resources, and visitor demand, but this can only really be done—and be done well—by the high-profile and international museums. As an alternative, there is an indirect way to provide this sort of alternative service for smaller institutions by making the most out of digital solutions.
Museums can conduct surveys and self-assessments in order to discover what the needs of their audience are, how to meet those expectations, and how to expand their offerings in order to be more inclusive. Along with identifying what types of visitors your institution receives and how to make their visit an engaging and positive one, museums can learn how to build an infrastructure of inclusivity through universal design.
Returning to the issue of making the collections and their content accessible for visitors with disabilities, a study presented in 2006 was designed to determine the effectiveness of museum exhibitions. These are their findings:
- Present the activity’s goals clearly at the beginning of the activity
- Give clear and simple directions, and provide participants with a precise description of what to do and the exact ordering for doing it
- Place monitors in upright positions close to the edge of the table
- Provide images that offer a visual indication of what to do, how to proceed and the content behind the activity
- Provide clear mapping between the buttons and images on the screen
- Match screen text and audio closely, and provide opportunities for the user to switch back and forth easily between the two modes
- Give greater control over the pace of interaction to the participants to enhance the accessibility of the interactives
- Lengthen timeouts and/ or allow time for user feedback before ending a session
- Label buttons clearly, and provide visitors with both a tactile and visual indication of how they should be used
- Increase contrast of visual images and decrease dependence on color-coding for visual cues
- Use precise and descriptive language to support participants who are blind and aid learning for participants who are sighted
- Keep background noise to a minimum
- Ensure that Images move slowly on the screen (including images presented on attract [sic] screens) to reduce the risk of inducing seizures
The visitors surveyed ranged in age from 17 to 77 years old, had varying physical and mental disabilities, and self-identified their level of expertise with digital technologies. This type of information is highly valuable to museum staff, exhibition designers, and curators. It also provides insights for the web designers and digital content departments.
At the end of the day, museums have always been a place for edification and inspiration. As museum professionals, it is important to recognize in the digital age that there are opportunities to improve the museum experience for everyone. Visitors who come to the museum do not want to feel alienated or treated differently just because the speak a foreign language or have needs that are not being met; Visitors who come to the museum want to experience the wonders of cultural, scientific, and human history because they want to be a part of those histories not excluded from them.