In 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how science and technology centers engaged with their members and communities. The still-ongoing effects of the pandemic led to explosive growth in museum-led, off-site digital engagement opportunities (Museum Digital Engagement: A Review of Literature). These offerings allowed museums to continue serving their traditional audiences and provided new opportunities to engage groups that might not have been fully served in the past. 

One group that has embraced the opportunity to digitally engage with museums is people with disabilities. One out of every four adults in the United States has a disability (CDC) and one in five Canadians aged 15 and over has a disability (Government of Canada). Digital engagement has the potential to meaningfully engage these audiences. However, poorly designed offerings that are not built with accessibility in mind may inadvertently create more barriers for engagement rather than overcoming past barriers.

Why accessibility matters

Museums are for everyone. They need to be accessible to everyone. Here are some of the important reasons why accessibility matters.

  1. Accessibility is an essential value. As organizations committed to engaging all with science and technology, science centers and museums have a responsibility to ensure that their offerings—digital, in-person, and otherwise—are maximally accessible to all, including individuals with disabilities.
  2. Curb-cut effect: This effect happens when something that was originally designed for a specific disability ends up helping others as well. The term “curb-cut” comes from the cutouts that were added to sidewalks to help people in wheelchairs move between street and sidewalk, which ended up helping everyone. People pushing strollers, customers using shopping carts, and travelers pulling luggage all benefit from curb-cuts to sidewalks. (The Curb Cut Effect: How universal design makes things better for everyone). When it comes to digital engagement, the curb cut effect can be seen in multiple ways:
    • Captions help many groups of people participate in and enjoy digital experiences. For example, in the United Kingdom, 80% of TV caption users are not deaf or hard of hearing. Many people browse social media with the sound off. Others may be in a noisy environment or using devices where audio isn’t working. Captions help all of these groups participate in and enjoy the digital experience.
    • Accessibility efforts intended to support those with visual disabilities also help people who may not be familiar with their device, people who interact with digital programs on a small screen, and people with internet connectivity issues.
    • Everyone experiences temporary or long-lasting cognitive impairments at one point or another. Such impairments include stress, fatigue, the demands of multitasking, or the effects of being in a distracting environment. These users benefit from accessibility intended for people with cognitive disabilities too. 
    • Accessibility designed for people with mobility disabilities benefits anyone who may have an injury, who may not have an input device (such as a mouse for a computer) available, or in situations when the input device to access a digital program doesn’t work.
  3. Anyone can become impaired or disabled at any time: People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world. With demographic increases in longevity, there’s a greater likelihood a person will have a disability at some point in their lifetime. One can experience a temporary impairment (e.g., a broken bone) or situational impairment (e.g., poor lighting when trying to read) at any time.
  4. Reverse accessibility (also known as accidental accessibility): This is an outcome when a product that wasn’t created with accessibility in mind ends up providing accessibility benefits in its use. One example is speech-recognition technology such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. They were initially designed as virtual assistants. Siri and Alexa eased many users’ experiences with Apple and Amazon’s devices, especially people with mobility and vision disabilities.
  5. The disability market controls $13 trillion of annual disposable income. According to the Global Economics of Disabilities report, 73% of people are touched by disabilities in some way, such as through a family member. Addressing the needs of this group has a positive potential impact on shareholder and social value. For more on this topic, refer to the W3C’s The Business Case for Digital Accessibility.

Accessibility is more than a checklist 

Accessibility needs to be a proactive practice for all museums. Accessibility checklists are reactive. According to the author of Accessibility Checklists – Just say No, there are many reasons why general accessibility checklists are not helpful most of the time. (An exception are checklists for a specific task or topic like social media management.) 

Some of the issues with checklists include the fact that they offer black-and-white solutions to a gray topic. These approaches come across as an extra burden to staff and run counter to efforts to create an inclusive culture.

Accessibility needs to be embedded into the work of an organization. For example, Jamie Vought, formerly of the Arizona Science Center, says that museums need to think intentionally about accessibility and let it serve as an opportunity for innovation. She argues it needs to be a priority that is discussed—even if it is a brief mention—in every all-staff meeting, in every newsletter, and with all working groups and committees. 

This approach is evident in how different departments of an organization may talk about accessibility by using different language or to achieve different goals.

  • Education and programming may focus on accessible design as a best practice for engaging all learners. It’s not just an accommodation made to support a few learners with specific needs in order to fully engage. (Refer to Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2.)
  • Communications and marketing may emphasize the potential growth in followers and engagement when accessibility is considered in the design of social media content or virtual programming. (The Case for Accessible Social Media and Accessibility: Why Social Media and Web Content Need to be Accessible)
  • Development and the business office may be driven by the business case for accessibility. A study of Fortune 100 companies showed that disability inclusion as part of a diversity strategy is a common practice among high performing businesses (Disability as Diversity in Fortune 100 Companies). The W3C business case for digital accessibility lists many case studies where companies have benefited. Personal stories of community members who have benefited from an organization’s accessibility efforts can serve as a powerful tool for making the case to funders regarding future efforts to broaden the reach of your organization.
  • Executives may focus on the way that an emphasis on accessibility can position their organization at the forefront in critical conversations related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice. Accessibility efforts have also been shown to increase employee retention and happiness, critical factors in a field with significant staff turnover. (Your Why Accessibility is Becoming a Hiring and Retention Solution)

Progress over perfection 

Getting started or making progress with accessibility may feel daunting. There are so many tools available and aspects of virtual engagement that could be changed to improve accessibility. Moreover, museum staff have limited resources and bandwidth. Rather than looking at the impetus to change as a marathon with a finish line, focus on the journey and think of it from the lens of progress over perfection. 

Every action, no matter how small, is progress. Progress won’t always be a straight line. Sometimes, it can be two steps back. Don’t wait until you get something perfect before launching it. Learn from the mistakes, celebrate the successes, and work on making progress every day.

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