Sunday marked the 30-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). My first thought was, “Really, only 30 years?” It is shocking that people in the United States with disabilities had to wait so long to have their rights acknowledged by our government. I also couldn’t help but notice that the 30th anniversary of ADA coincides closely with RK&A’s 30th anniversary (Randi founded Randi Korn & Associates, an evaluation firm, in 1989). Perhaps these similar anniversaries are not a coincidence, but suggestive of a time in U.S. history when greater accountability was being called for generally.
This overlap between the founding of RK&A and the ADA made me pause and think critically about my own role (as an evaluator who works with museums) in addressing the needs of museum visitors who have disabilities. I’ve been in this field for 20 years, and until the last few years, accessibility was not front and center in conversations about evaluations of museum spaces, programs, or exhibitions. As a new museum evaluator in the early 2000’s, I was led to believe ADA compliance was not something I needed to evaluate, that someone else took care of that. It also is clear, looking back, that accessibility in the context of museums was narrowly conceived of as primarily relating to accommodating physical disabilities.
The lack of a robust and holistic approach to considering the needs of people with disabilities has been a pervasive issue across most sectors, not just museums, for years. In an Opinion piece in the July 26, 2020 issue of The New York Times, Judith Heumann and John Wodatch share the United States’ shameful disability history. The authors note that while the ADA was a significant turning point for people with disabilities, as with many forms of injustice, we are nowhere close to having fulfilled this country’s promises. They also raise an important point affirmed by my early experience as a museum evaluator:
In most cases, we [people with disabilities] remain an afterthought… That invisibility persists at least partly because so few disabled people are in leadership positions in government, business and education.
But that is changing. In the last few years, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) efforts have been in the spotlight across the museum field, which has great implications for people with disabilities. The A in DEAI stands for Accessibility and speaks specifically to the call museums must answer to be fully accessible to visitors with disabilities. Accessibility is defined by the American Alliance of Museum’s DEAI Working Group as:
Giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience. Accessibility encompasses the broader meanings of compliance and refers to how organizations make space for the characteristics that each person brings.
Accessibility relates to physical spaces (e.g., wheelchair accessible spaces), but also accommodations for people with vision, hearing, and cognitive impairments through programming and exhibition elements specifically designed for and made available to people with disabilities. In recent years, many museums and organizations have done worthy, interesting work in all these areas and developed accessibility resources. For example, Access Smithsonian, a relatively new division within the Smithsonian Institution devoted to promoting inclusive design and increasing accessibility for visitors with disabilities, recently received national attention when its director, Beth Ziebarth, was interviewed on NPR on Sunday. There are many museum professionals (often, educators) who are dedicated and passionate about pushing accessibility efforts in their institutions. I want to call out one colleague of mine on the Museum Education Roundtable Board of Directors—Sarah Sims, Director of Visitor Engagement and Accessibility at the Missouri Historical Society—who has advocated over the years for her museum to address these issues head on. As a result of the efforts of Sarah and her colleagues, MHS now has three distinct teams devoted to accessibility—one internal team, one external team, and a third focused on audio description. I’m sure there are many other examples of museums making these kinds of inroads.
At RK&A, we have been exploring and trying ways to bring accessibility to the forefront of our evaluation work to help museums become more accessible and inclusive for visitors with disabilities. While this is an ongoing process, here are some of the things we are doing:
- Include visitors’ abilities in standard background/demographic questions. We are beginning to collect data about visitors’ abilities when doing exit interviews and visitor surveys. By regularly collecting certain data (e.g., race/ethnicity, age, gender, and education levels), we are saying it is important. By not collecting data about visitors’ disabilities, we perpetuate its invisibility and unimportance. Sure, asking about disabilities on a survey can be tricky, but so is asking about race/ethnicity and gender, and that doesn’t stop us. One approach is to ask an open-ended question, such as: “Do you or anyone in your visiting group identify as having a disability? If yes, please describe.” This open-ended approach allows us to identify the various forms of disabilities of museum visitors and the language they use to describe it. Another approach is to ask in a standardized way (see page 47 of Of/For/By All’s Respectful Audience Surveying Toolkitfor some examples).
- Use purposeful sampling. We are including purposeful samples of people with disabilities in our evaluation efforts when possible. For example, we have been growing a relationship with Access Smithsonian, and as a result have been able to include purposeful samples of people with physical, visual, cognitive, and hearing impairments (called User Experts) in several formative evaluations. When using random sampling, we risk not collecting data from any people with disabilities.
- Customize our research approach. We always try to customize our research approach to fit the institutions and audiences we are working with, and this is particularly important when collecting data from people with disabilities. A few examples include offering the opportunity to participate remotely (e.g., phone or video interview) if travel to the museum is a physical burden, providing an American Sign Language interpreter for people with hearing impairments, and adding alt text and/or creating audio descriptions to data collection materials for people with visual impairments. We have also customized data collection instruments to meet unique needs. For example, when collecting data from young adults with autism about their experience in a museum program we adjusted our original approach away from focus groups, which are social in nature and may make some people with autism uncomfortable, and instead designed visual feedback worksheets that allowed for individual written responses. It may take extra time and effort to coordinate, but it is worth the effort in order to make sure individuals are comfortable participating in the research or evaluation.
- Share results with end users of the data in a way they can act on. As evaluators, we work closely with program developers, curators, museum educators, and designers–accessibility efforts are often new to many of them, just as they are to us. So, it is especially important that we help those museum and design professionals make sense of data from visitors with disabilities so they can apply it in their work. We do this through conversations at the beginning of a project (e.g., what do we want to know from visitors with disabilities to help make decisions about a program or exhibition, and how can we best gather that information?) and again at the end of a project when we analyze, interpret, and discuss our results (e.g., what are the implications of this data for visitors with disabilities?).
- Communicate in an accessible way. We are working on making our evaluation reports and other forms communication more accessible to all types of audiences. For instance, we have started using tables that don’t merge cells so that they can be read more easily using a screen reader, and we use large text and high color contrast on slides in workshops and conference presentations to make these materials easier to read for all audience members, including those with low vision.
So far, I have talked about our work at RK&A, which is as external evaluators. If you are an in-house evaluator, you can advocate for these types of practices in your institution. For example, the evaluator at MHS who works with Sarah (mentioned above) is on both the MHS accessibility committee and the audio description team. She also writes alt text for all her evaluation reports and charts.
There are many ways evaluators can help further accessibility in museums. If you have ideas not mentioned here (or even critiques of what I have included), please share. I think most museum evaluators would agree that this kind of work is emergent and evolving. We are all learning as we go. By the 50th anniversary of the ADA, I hope we will have made much progress (and this 20-year old blog post will be a reminder of how far we had to come).
Image credit for ADA 30th Anniversary logo: https://www.adaanniversary.org/