The Inclusive Museum

1st October, 2018


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My first memory of visiting a museum is from elementary school. I remember trooping onto a bus full of children and the two-hour ride to the museum. When we arrived, I was separated from the rest of the kids and placed in the charge of an older gentleman. He gave me a pair of headphones and a cassette player with an audio tour of the museum on tape. The reason for this special treatment was because I am blind. Though I have some light perception, it is not enough to appreciate museum exhibits from a purely visual point of view. The kind man spent several hours walking me through the museum, letting me touch things that most visitors weren’t allowed to. He found exhibits with audio, olfactory, or tactile components (though more often he was forced to simply verbally describe something that I could not touch or interact with). All the while, he answered—or tried to answer—every single one of the unending questions that were a hallmark of my childhood. It was one of the few school trips that I’ll never forget.

It is important for us to ask why this experience was necessary. Why couldn’t I participate with my nondisabled peers? Why were the museum’s exhibits and other activities not designed with inclusion and accessibility in mind? After all, museums have made their physical spaces accessible for decades with automatic door openers, ramps, and other affordances for those with mobility impairments. Yet there seems to be a collective failure to recognize that the job is not complete just because those with disabilities can enter the building. Once inside a museum, visitors with disabilities often find that the level of effort, resources, consideration, and study dedicated to providing equal access for all visitors is disappointingly low.

Attempting to answer the above questions, as well as improve this situation for future generations, drives the work that I do. As an adult, I became a computer scientist with a strong passion for using technology as an equalizer. Today, I have the amazing job of working and playing with museums daily. I started a company, Prime Access Consulting, to help museums make their digital interactives, websites, mobile apps, exhibits, and environments accessible to and inclusive of the widest possible audience. One of the primary philosophies that we bring to this work is that of Universal Design, sometimes called Inclusive Design.

Before diving into the principles of inclusive design, it is important for us to distinguish between universal design, inclusive design, and accessibility. Universal design is the act of considering all audiences, or as many as we can, at the beginning of a project, and iterating upon this consideration until we arrive at a solution that is usable by far more people than if we had not taken such a design tact. Inclusive design is a newer term, used by many contemporary designers and advocates. While “universal” implies a potentially unattainable burden for designers and developers, “inclusive” is an invitation. It’s warm, and it aligns with most folks’ basic values. We include our friends, our loved ones, and so on. Inclusive design recognizes that people have multiple forms of identity and difference, including age, ability, language fluency, socioeconomic status, cultural background, and so on. Accounting for those differences doesn’t mean making everyone the same.

Whichever term you prefer, universal design and inclusive design address the big picture. Accessibility, on the other hand, consists of those things we do specifically for those with functional differences. Consider an automatic door opener. We may think it to be a pure accessibility accommodation because it is for those with mobility impairments, yet anyone can use it, from those with a sore leg one day to someone carrying packages in both arms, and so on. Alternatively, a sign language tour tends to be more of a pure accessibility accommodation as it is most critical for those with a hearing impairment. If, by now, it seems that there is an incredible amount of overlap between accessibility and inclusive design, even to the point where accessibility may be thought of as a subset of universal design, that is only because that’s exactly the case, and such a realization is key to understanding the emergent benefits of thinking about all visitors.

This issue of accessibility and including the widest possible audience has not only been considered by the museum community but by every sector one can imagine. In sectors of our society such as technology, home appliances, consumer goods, and education, just to name a few, universal design has been widely adopted as the implementation strategy that yields the greatest possible accessibility to the highest number of people.

In 1997, the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh published seven principles of universal design for buildings, outdoor environments, and products. Each principle inspires me to ask a question that should be considered at the design phase of any digital or physical object with which museum visitors might interact. Let us examine each of these seven principles as well as a museum-inspired question around each. I've shared a few answers that my clients and I have come up with, but these examples are by no means the only right solutions to these critical inquiries. For some of these principles, the example provided does not directly come from the museum world. I use the lack of such an abundance of museum-based examples as a clear reminder of how much work is still left to be done.

1. Equitable use

Can visitors with different functional limitations get a similar, or equitable, experience?

Two people stand in front of a large multi-person, multitouch interface composed of three vertical touchscreens placed side-by-side to form a touchable wall of art in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Interpretative stations at SFMOMA

In the image, we can see a large multi-person multitouch interface composed of three vertical touchscreens placed side-by-side to form a touchable wall of art in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). It is easy to write off an experience so rooted in the visual as inaccessible—even uninteresting or inappropriate for an audience that is blind or has low vision. Yet this wall of art has a braille and large-print label inviting visitors to plug headphones into it and to activate an accessibility button. Upon being pressed, the accessibility button toggles on a voice layer that walks the user through the experience. The images of art on screen are all beautifully described. The videos have audio description and captioning, and any text is enlarged. The gestures to control this interface have specifically been influenced by the industry-leading solution for touchscreen accessibility for the blind, Apple’s iPhone. This touch-based digital exploration of modern art only requires the use of a single finger to be fully controlled, even allowing those with reduced dexterity to participate. By gliding a finger across the screen, a visitor with vision impairment can explore the artworks on display, listen to their visual descriptions, interact with multimedia such as videos, and, in short, enjoy the same experience as their sighted peers.

2. Flexibility in use

Can visitors interact with the information in a variety of different ways?

A digital interactive featuring a rubberized keypad with buttons for speak, zoom, back, home, help, and navigation.
An interactive visitor experience at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

If we think of visitors who cannot see or hear perfectly, the ideas of multimedia-based content, digital text being displayed, or a touchscreen interactive may appear to be quite problematic, but they do not have to be! In the image, we see a photo of one of the many digital interactives at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This interactive is one of dozens at the museum equipped with a universal keypad, speech output, captioning, tactilely differentiable buttons, and many other design considerations. The digital interactive is usable by someone who is blind or low vision, deaf or hard of hearing, or has trouble performing complex physical gestures—and to a myriad of individuals that have limitations we cannot, nor try to, predict.

The universal keypad with its rubberized large buttons and clear markings is not the only solution for making such interactives accessible. Other approaches such as that from SFMOMA, discussed previously, allow for making the touchscreen natively accessible without a keypad. This diversity of choice is key to devising inclusively designed experiences. There is no one-size-fits-all solution in any technical field, and inclusive design is no exception.

Turning our attention to a non-technology approach, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago recently held a relaxed performance for one of their shows. This relaxed performance allowed those with autism, those who have trouble sitting for a long time, those who may not be comfortable sitting in the dark, and many others to enjoy a show, but with some drastically relaxed expectations around audience behavior. As is the case with so many of these examples, while those with disabilities may have been the impetus of such an approach, it proved helpful to so many more visitors—think of a woman who is pregnant and needs more frequent restroom breaks, or a family attending with babies or very young children, for example. Holding a relaxed performance is not the only way of including those with sensory impairments. Some museums, for example, periodically open their institution an hour earlier to invite those on the spectrum or anyone with a sensory sensitivity to crowds and loud noises to enjoy the museum in a more peaceful way.

3. Simple and intuitive use

Can visitors with different experiences or knowledge benefit from the information being presented?

A bathroom sign that indicates gender in multiple languages. In English, it says “Women.” In Spanish, it says “Mujeres.” The information is also replicated in braille. Above these is a pictogram of a woman.

In this image, we can see a bathroom sign that indicates gender in multiple languages. In English, it says “Women.” In Spanish, it says “Mujeres.” The information is also presented by way of a pictogram. It is also replicated in braille.

This redundant display of information is helpful to a wide variety of visitors. Persons with disabilities, those who speak a different language, and visitors who are native speakers can all utilize this inclusive sign. Furthermore, there are overlaps in terms of the pictogram’s audience, for example. Yes, the pictogram is critical for someone who does not read English nor Spanish, but it is also helpful to those with a reading disability, children, and other individuals who may simply be in a hurry.

4. Perceptible information

Can visitors access and interact with the information being presented, independent of a sensory disability or disturbances in the environment?

If we are to be pedantic, there are really two questions embedded in this principle. The first deals with equal access despite a sensory disability; the second revolves around disturbances in the environment.

Let’s take the second query first: disturbances in the environment. For acoustic disturbances, such as crowd noise or distracting sounds from surrounding exhibits, a simple volume knob can work wonders. Such a knob allows visitors to turn up the volume of any audio if the surrounding environment is noisy, but it can also facilitate augmented volume for deaf or hard of hearing visitors and lower volume for those with audio sensitivities. Again, simply giving the user a choice and control over the way they wish to consume the information being presented massively elevates their experience.

A screenshot of the Coyote software displaying a portrait painting by Kerry James Marshall and its accompanying descriptions.
A screenshot of an image page showing two descriptions on Coyote version 1.0.

Turning our attention to the first query, we can observe information taken from the Coyote system in this image. Coyote is an online platform that streamlines the creation and distribution of visual descriptions. Originally a project that my firm developed with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, it is now being used by multiple institutions to drastically revolutionize the pipeline that institutions, and individuals, use to create and convey the visual description of art. At the core of Coyote is the belief that visual description is not throwaway copy. It is a content creation task deserving of a mature workflow. Such a workflow tool was absent, and so we invented Coyote to fill this deep unresolved need. Coyote also expanded the premise of visual description, especially around images on the web; for instance, rather than having one official description for a given image, in Coyote multiple descriptions can exist for a single visual object. In fact, these descriptions can be in different forms, some short and some long, and in different languages. We do this because of our fundamental thesis that no single description is most appropriate, or correct, for any given object. Instead, we strive for a multiplicity of voices. Much like everything else in inclusive design, this way of thinking and implementing not only helps persons with disabilities but has many other far-reaching benefits. One such benefit is to return agency back to the visitor at an art museum. By surfacing these visual descriptions for everyone, not just those who have trouble seeing, Coyote allows visitors to feel okay consuming information about what is visually going on, instead of promulgating that unfortunately common experience within an art museum that leaves visitors asking, “What am I looking at, and why is it important?”

5. Tolerance for error

Can visitors always return to a consistent, known starting point so that, for example, they don’t cause systems to crash or behave unexpectedly, regardless of the actions they take?

Museums do a very good job with this concept. We are used to having digital interactives that always return to a known starting point upon request or after a timeout. Almost all digital interactives follow a firm rule that software should fail gracefully and quietly in visitor-facing interfaces. But what happens when there is an accessibility mode that can be toggled on or off?

If there is an accessibility mode available, which changes the way a digital interactive behaves, perhaps by simplifying the gestures able to be used, allowing for a keypad instead of a touchscreen, enlarging text, or a variety of other adaptations, then we must be sure to surface exactly how to turn such a mode off to visitors that may not require such an interface.

A digital interactive image description with the on-screen prompt notifying users that an accessibility mode is on with an option to turn it off
Screenshot of an SFMOMA exhibition website featuring an eyes-free mode option

In this image, we can see the on-screen prompt notifying users that an accessibility mode is on and how to turn it off. This message serves two purposes. It allows a visitor to turn off a feature that they do not need, and it notifies anyone able to see the message of the availability of such features in the first place. It is important to keep in mind that accessibility features should not be hidden away, but instead embraced and advertised. We should be proud of the increased number of people we are trying to welcome into our institutions.

6. Low physical effort

Can visitors fully appreciate the given information without needing much physical effort or dexterity?

A small girl walking up a beautiful ramp. The handrails on this ramp are placed in two positions, one several inches lower than the other. The girl holds onto the lower handrail with one hand, and holds the hand of an adult with her other.

In this image, we see a beautiful ramp at the aforementioned Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Notice that the handrails on this ramp are placed in two positions, one several inches lower than the other. This thoughtful design decision has many implications. It can assist wheelchair users, children walking with their parents, or individuals of small stature. Speaking of wheelchair users, the ramp, combined with elevators, is obviously a critical affordance for making the museum physically accessible, but it is hardly for wheelchair users alone. By adopting this ramp as a central mechanism of traveling between floors, the museum achieves better audience flows (no crowded stairwells), makes it easy for those with roller bags or other wheeled accessories, allows large groups to travel together more easily (critical for the school groups that frequent the museum), removes the social awkwardness of one member of the party splitting off to use an elevator, and allows visitors to enjoy a beautiful journey through the building’s unique architecture.

7. Size and space for approach and use

Can visitors get close to the exhibit; have enough space in which to move around, even with a wheelchair, walker, or crutches; and manipulate it, independent of posture or other physical limitations?

A tactile replica of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box sits on table next to an angled display featuring a tactile reproduction Campbell's Soup Can and small prints of the artworks.
Interactive stations at the Andy Warhol Museum

In the image, we see tactile replicas of Andy Warhol’s work at the Andy Warhol Museum. These have been placed on tables in such a way that a wheelchair user can approach from three different sides. Some of the replicas (not visible here) are also on turntables so that one can turn the object being felt instead of turning one’s own body. The important takeaway here is that we should not model our visitors as just one persona. Most of the time, a person is not only blind or only a wheelchair user, but can have multiple functional differences from their fellow visitors. Sometimes, these functional differences are temporary, such as a broken arm or forgetting one’s glasses. By building up our approach in layers, and considering the experience holistically, we can strive for the most inclusively designed experience possible.

Social inclusion and interaction are among the many benefits of following universal design. While I greatly enjoyed my first museum experience as a child, I wished that I could have interacted more with my classmates, felt part of the group, and been able to participate in the same activities. This element of inclusion should be a central motivating factor when designing exhibits. Inclusive design facilitates this social inclusion and interaction among visitors by allowing us all to interact with and enjoy the offerings of an institution together and in similar ways, instead of providing a well-meaning, but still isolating, experience.

We will not get these solutions 100% correct the first, second, or tenth time, but we cannot allow fear of the lack of perfection to continue being used as a justification for doing very little. Inclusion is not a binary pursuit with a finite destination. Inclusion is a state of thinking and acting towards a shared purpose based on a commitment to iteration, refinement, and self-improvement.

Reflecting further upon my museum experience as a young child, I am reminded of the words of American author and poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Exhibits following universal design principles can facilitate a powerful feeling of inspiration, awe, wonder, and excitement for all visitors, not just those who meet an idealized persona. More importantly, following such best practices can help prevent many visitors from feeling excluded, unwelcome, or ignored—something that has been, and still is, true for far too long. I hope that you, dear reader, will join me and my colleagues in our journey to make all users feel welcome and accepted.

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