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Getting started talking about accessibility 

The most important thing to know about language relating to disabilities and accessibility is to be flexible and respectful. It’s constantly changing.

First, it’s okay to say “disability” and “disabled.” They’re not bad words. Avoid using euphemisms such as “different abilities” and “all abilities.” One exception may occur when working with schools. In some cases, educators and families may be more comfortable with terms such as “special needs.” But beware this term isn’t popular in the disability community.

Second, do your best to find out how people want to be referred to and follow their lead. In cases when you do not know how to refer to people, you can choose to use person-first language (e.g. a person who is deaf) or identity-first (e.g. a deaf person). Conventions related to these preferences continue to evolve. For consistency, your organization may decide to pick one method and use it in all of your messaging unless an individual states they have an alternate preference.

Types of disabilities

There are many types of disabilities that impact participants’ experiences of museum digital engagement offerings. Some disabilities are apparent while others are not. (The general consensus is to use “non-apparent” over “invisible.”)

This list of types of disabilities is included to provide readers with a starting point when thinking about their audience. It is not meant to be a complete list. Please note, an individual participant could have more than one type of disability:

  1. Visual Icon representing users with visual disabilities. – Blindness, low vision, color blindness, diabetes-related eye conditions, scratched cornea, dilated eyes
  2. Auditory Icon representing users with auditory disabilities. – Deafness, hardness of hearing, auditory processing disorder
  3. Speech Icon representing users with speech-related disabilities. – Nonspeaking, stuttering, Tourette Syndrome (TS) 
  4. Cognitive / Neurodiversity Icon representing users with cognitive disabilities or neurodivergency. – Autism, dyslexia, traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), dementia, seizure disorder, anxiety, dyscalculia and low numeracy
  5. Mobility Icon representing users with mobility-related disabilities. – Weakness or limitation of muscle control for the arms, hands, fingers, or other body parts that impact mobility, dexterity, or stamina. May include amputation, arthritis, paralysis, repetitive stress injury

List adapted from Usability & Web Access: Types of Disabilities.

Including the disability community in digital engagement work

The phrase “nothing about us without us” conveys the importance of centering the participation of disability community members in any work an organization does to better serve them. They are the ones who have the lived experience to understand what breaks down barriers versus what maintains or even further adds unintended barriers. Members of the disability community need to be involved in the planning processes from the very beginning. Not only should they have a seat at the table, but their voices should be leading the conversation. The authors of this blog post for the American Alliance of Museums, Museum Accessibility: An Art and a Science, cogently make these points.

There are multiple ways to accomplish this inclusiveness. The most effective way is for organizations to hire people with disabilities and actively recruit volunteers and board members with disabilities. Each individual brings their own lived experiences to the work they do. They should be recognized for their contribution and compensated for their time. However, they should not be considered spokespeople for all people with disabilities or those who share their disability. For example, while one person who is deaf may use American Sign Language (ASL), not everyone who is deaf knows ASL.

Another way of bringing the perspective of the disability community into an organization’s operations is the common museum practice of forming advisory committees, focus groups, or community panels. Organizations can recruit individuals and work with local organizations. For example, the Intrepid Museum in New York City partnered with the non-profit consultant group Autism Friendly Spaces and the New York University Ability Project to develop accessible, onsite interpretive experiences. From a digital perspective, the Intrepid has contracted the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) for their website redesign process to provide access to IHCD’s web accessibility experts and a pool of disabled users and experts. 

A resource to begin searching for people with disabilities or organizations who may serve in this capacity in the United States is to contact your regional American Disabilities Act (ADA) Center. If you’re in Canada, check out the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act website or Government of Canada’s Towards an Accessible Canada

Another option which requires less time and resources is to request feedback from the community. Organizations can create an email address specifically for accessibility questions that the staff checks regularly and responds in a timely manner. When Jamie Vought, former Senior Director of Professional Learning at the Arizona Science Center, and her team led professional development training for their institution, they included digital post-training surveys for all of their events. The survey had a question about any accessibility issues that participants encountered. Every week, the team discussed the feedback and made changes.  

With all of these approaches, it is critical that the organization responds appropriately to feedback from the disabled community. Ashley Grady, Senior Program Specialist at Access Smithsonian, notes that museums must develop trust and meaningful relationships with marginalized communities. Museum representatives need to listen and avoid becoming defensive when someone reports barriers to access. Museums need to enter these hard conversations humbly, realizing that they have made mistakes in the past. 

The museum staff should thank the members of the disability community for their willingness to share. The staff should provide updates as they make changes based on their feedback. Senior leadership have the opportunity to model humility for their staff and move beyond simply talking about accessibility to making significant changes and allocating the time and resources needed to integrate accessibility into everything the organization does. 

Lifelong learning about accessibility

Conversations on accessibility and its related resources are always evolving. To continue learning about this topic, follow the hashtags #accessibility and #a11y online. (A11y is a numeronym for the word accessibility, as there are 11 letters between the A and Y). The References and Resources <hyperlink> section includes a list of organizations actively involved in accessibility issues that you may want to consider following on social media. One of the most essential ways to learn about accessibility is to listen to the voices and stories of people with disabilities.

Accessibility statement

A powerful place to start with accessibility work is to add an accessibility statement on your organization’s website. The best accessibility statements are in plain language. You want to ensure everyone understands it. At a minimum, the accessibility statement will have the following:

  1. State organization’s commitment to creating accessible experiences.
  2. Provide at least two modern options for contacting the organization to report problems or ask questions. Options include email, phone number, text number, chat box, and a video call with captions or a sign language interpreter.
    • Note: The contact information should be different from your general customer or member support contact. The organization needs to address accessibility questions faster and respond properly.
  3. List the accessibility standard the organization targets, such as WCAG 2.1 AA. (Learn more about the WCAG 2.1 AA Guidelines). Your website developer should lead this effort!

Here are some examples of museum accessibility statements:

Learn more about the basics of accessibility and disability

Read icon. Read: The Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism is a great starting point. It provides a list of terms to use and to avoid when referring to disability. While the primary audience is journalists, the advice is applicable to everyone involved in communication and engagement. As of publication of this toolkit, the most recent revision was August 2021 and is available in Spanish, Italian, and Romanian.

Watch video icon. Watch: The one-hour video, Intro to Digital Accessibility and Inclusion, from the Museum Learning Hub is designed for professionals who are beginning to explore digital accessibility in a museum setting.

Read icon. Read: The article, Equal Access: Universal Design of Informal Learning, from the University of Washington’s DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center provides an extensive list of questions to ask when designing an informal STEM learning offering.

Find additional resources on the basics of accessibility and disabilities here.

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