Today, more than ever, vital watchwords for museums and cultural organizations are Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — DEI. An “A,” meaning accessibility for people with disabilities, is sometimes inserted into the alphabet message — DEAI; but often, even if accessibility is proclaimed important, providing access to facilities and public programs as well as tackling deeper issues of employment and attitudinal discrimination against people with disabilities go unaddressed. The irony, of course, is that people with disabilities are an integral part of each of the other groups addressed by DEI/DEAI. So, ignoring inclusion and equity for people with disabilities — who are also people of color, in the LGBTQ community, and/or of marginalized national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic groups — means ignoring key characteristics of large numbers of people that museums are working to attract and serve.
It is also important to recognize that DEAI in the context of people with disabilities does not only mean that museum buildings meet physical accessibility standards, programs provide sign language interpreters, and service animals are allowed into the facilities. Equity and inclusion for people with disabilities also means making people feel welcomed and ensuring that they are core members of the museum community as leaders, staff, developers, consultants, and visitors. Ben Jones said in his article that inclusion is “... about giving all museum visitors a scaffold to tell their own stories ... to enable visitors to become the storytellers ...” Inclusion for people with disabilities means giving individuals the chance to see and tell their own stories in museums as well as to access the stories of others.
This book focuses on the inclusive design of digital interactives for visitors and staff, one segment of museums’ larger program offerings. Access Smithsonian, the central accessibility office for the Smithsonian Institution, initiated this project in order to spur innovation, encourage information sharing, and motivate cultural organizations around the world to consider accessible and inclusive digital interactive design as an essential component of their greater DEAI efforts. An international call for proposed articles resulted in a wealth of submissions, which were winnowed to sixteen by an advisory committee of eight renowned experts in inclusive digital design. The completed papers were also reviewed by committee members and project collaborators. As intended by Access Smithsonian, this publication brings a diverse group of strong DEAI case studies with guidance that can be applied broadly.
The publication’s authors make clear in their articles that truly inclusive design requires a shift in attitude and the design development process. Designers have to rethink how interactives’ content, approach, and use of technology are molded into a program and reconsider who the audience is and what it means to enable everyone to have access to the information presented. Museums must begin the design process with inclusion as a primary goal and consider not only who is the targeted audience but also who is being left out and how to remedy that exclusion. Cooper et al., writing about their design of interactives for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum, state “[W]e endeavor to work to the principle that if any person finds they cannot engage or interact with what we are designing and producing, the correct word is ‘unusable.’ If we all start to apply that simple shift of perspective when asking: Is this design usable? — then we move to a mode of working that really works for everyone — an approach that all should be eager to develop further, continue to apply universally to our work, and share as a paradigm methodology.”
The publication authors’ broad consensus on how to make digital interactives accessible, inclusive, and usable is to bake that goal into the process at conception, and have it, as Sarah Banks stated, “underpinned by stakeholder involvement at every stage.” Senior leadership, curatorial, exhibition, exhibition technology, education, and visitor services staff, she said, need to commit to inclusive design throughout development to production and beyond to post- opening maintenance. It is equally essential to deeply involve a diverse group of people with disabilities iteratively in formative evaluation, design development, production, installation, and summative evaluation. Mesiti Caulfield et al. emphasize that “...it is critical to value the voices of those who share their own expertise and lived experiences.”
Finally, as Antlej et al. advise, museums need to not only stretch the parameters of their own inclusive design process but to urge technology developers to design for inclusion within their products. Museums must take on the role of “public platforms,” they suggested, to experiment alongside developers with new technology, discover the strengths and weaknesses of products and processes for inclusion, and demonstrate how the inclusive design of interactives better serves museums, cultural organizations, and many other types of businesses and organizations as well. Sharing information and analyzing both successes and failures are crucial to progress.
The publication’s partners, advisors, and authors urge readers to increase the knowledge base established by these articles and continue to build on each other’s work. We see this publication as an initiator of many future conversations, ongoing experimentation, and successful solutions. Our collective motto for inclusive digital interactive design should never be “it’s as good as it can be for now.” Instead, we should always strive for “let’s find a way to make it better immediately.”
- Access Smithsonian is a catalyst for consistent and integrated inclusive design that provides meaningful access to the Smithsonian Institution museums and content for visitors with disabilities. https://access.si.edu/
- Institute for Human Centered Design is a 42-year-old education and design non-profit dedicated to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages, abilities, and culture through excellence in design. https://www.humancentereddesign.org/
- MuseWeb supports, catalyzes, and undertakes innovative projects that transform the business of culture, helping the cultural sector become more sustainable, accessible, and relevant. https://www.museweb.net/
- Beth Ziebarth, Director, Access Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution
- Janice Majewski, Director, Inclusive Cultural and Educational Projects, Institute for Human Centered Design
- Robin Marquis, Community Outreach Coordinator, Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program and Accessibility Coordinator, The Peale Center
- Nancy Proctor, Director, The Peale Center and Co-chair MuseWeb Conferences
- Sina Bahram, President, Prime Access Consulting, Inc., Cary, North Carolina
- Matthew Cock, Chief Executive, VocalEyes, London, United Kingdom
- Rory Cooper, Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientists, Human Engineering Research Laboratories, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Naotsune Hosono, Director, NPO Miimaru, Research in ICT, Universal/Inclusive Design, Usability, Human Interface, & Gerontology, Tokyo, Japan
- Vincent Martin, Senior Accessibility and Usability Engineer, Disability Subject Matter Expert, Apex Systems, Atlanta, Georgia
- Gabrielle Schlichtmann, Executive Director and Chief Scientist, EdTogether, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts
- Corey Timpson, Principal, Corey Timpson Design Inc., Winnipeg, Canada
- Kathy Wahlbin, VP Enterprise Compliance & General Manger for The Paciello
- Group and Interactive Accessibility, Clearwater, Florida
- Gregg Vanderheiden, Professor and Director of the Trace R&D Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland