Session 4: We can improve: Equal access to collections for patrons with disabilities.
Chair: Kathleen M. Dierenfield, Canisius College
Speakers: Doug Platt, Museum of disABILITY History
Michael Rembris, The University at Buffalo
Courtney Yevich Tkacz, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Blogger: Tabitha Cary, Digital Projects Assistant, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University
Making our collections disability friendly is extremely important, but we often aren’t sure where to start. These speakers provided quality suggestions for our institutions to increase their accessibility to all.
Our first speaker, Doug Platt from the Museum of disABILITY, walked us through various ways this museum creates exhibits to be accessible to everyone. Colors matter in their intensity and should be easy on the eyes. The size of the text in your exhibit should vary depending on its height from the ground—text should move in a gradient with the largest text being farthest from the floor and the smallest being closest to the floor. Platt discussed digitization as essential to overcoming the barriers that our physical locations and access policies create. Traveling exhibits are another great tool to share your institution’s materials.
Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice Platt provided was to have people show you how to meet their needs. Platt modified policies on one tour to allow blind museum goers to handle the crutches from a display discussing the evolution of crutches. In another instance, Platt was asked to face the group while he was speaking so that its deaf members could read his lips. People with disabilities know what they need to access materials, and we should listen to them.
Courtney Yevich Tkacz, from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, spoke second and taught us that discoverability is not the same as accessibility. People can determine that we have something, but it doesn’t mean they can access its content. Much of our digitized content is still hidden because it does not meet people’s disabilities. This is caused, in part, by the fact that there are no requirements to make our federally funded grant projects disability friendly.
Tkacz also addressed some practical ways we can work to increase accessibility. First, just because a company claims to make materials disability friendly, doesn’t mean they will fully meet people’s needs. To assess accessibility, you can use the free Web Accessibility Evaluation tool (WAVE). Additionally, visual description training can help us learn how to better describe materials. With some strong examples, Tkacz showed that full transcription isn’t always necessary and that summaries can sometimes provide greater access. Tkacz concluded by urging us to be intentional and to ask a lot of questions when working to be disability friendly.
The final speaker, Michael Rembris, was a disability historian at the University at Buffalo. Rembris observed that many information institutions exclude references to disabilities in their collections, even when disabilities obviously exist in them. These truths are often overlooked and even silenced. He also reminded us that disability is the one marginalized group that anyone can join at any time in their life, and we need to be more conscious of how our institutions accommodate disabled people. Perhaps one of our easiest accommodations is to use plain language to share information, because, by using higher levels of language, we automatically exclude a large group of people. Rembris also urged us to make “disability friendly” a part of the plan from the beginning and not an afterthought. If we all work together moving forward, we can make our materials accessible to the most people possible.