Lydia Tang, Blake Relle, Erin Wolfe, And Fernanda Perrone 2016-11-16 15:22:36
Are your archives physically accessible? Can your exhibits be experienced by visitors who are visually impaired or hard of hearing? Archival institutions provide a wide variety of unique collections and services for their users, but often barriers to access can prevent some patrons from taking advantage of these offerings. By identifying accessibility issues for users with disabilities and utilizing resources and low-cost solutions from the library, archives, and museum communities as well as from IT, user experience, universal design, and other accessibility communities, archives can become more accessible to all. This article draws from experiences in designing digital and physical exhibits and considering physical space to provide steps that institutions can take to improve universal accessibility in their holdings and services. Learning from Users To understand obstacles that users with disabilities experience in archives, Michigan State University (MSU) Special Collections archivist Dr. Lydia Tang conducted online and in-person surveys of users with disabilities. One respondent shared: “I only visited [archives] when I could see. I lost my sight when I was 26 in 1986, and since then I’ve assumed the archives would be impossible for me to navigate—both physically and technologically (I use a talking computer to read documents).” Other responses included staff not being sensitive to the needs of a person with dyslexia, problems interacting effectively in a quiet reading room setting with a person who is hard of hearing, and the benefits of allowing non-flash photography for personal study as a way to accommodate a user with chronic joint pain. “Being able to take a photo greatly improves my experience since I am able to skim information quickly and then [ . . . ] examine them in comfort,” said one respondent. In-person interviews assessing the library as a physical space uncovered glaring drawbacks. By not having an electronic door opener for the reading room, a person who uses a wheelchair was not able to open the door, could not see over the high counter to communicate with the reference staff, and could not easily navigate the room because the tables and chairs were too crowded and not height-adjustable. The results of these findings will be incorporated into the design of a new accessible reading room at MSU in the coming year. To promote exhibits via social media, MSU is adding alt-text for images and creating short captioned videos for Twitter and Facebook. Facebook recently implemented “automatic alt-text,” which has been praised as a good first step toward accessibility, but the images are often recognized at only a basic level. It’s helpful to provide more descriptions in the main text. However, in testing with VoiceOver and ZoomText, readers discovered inconsistencies in accessing content as it struggled to read the intended text. MSU Special Collections is also developing a tactile exhibit on the history of the book featuring binding styles, samples of materials, and replicas or 3D printed objects to allow users to engage their senses beyond sight. Designing a Tour for the Visually Impaired The National World War II Museum’s tour of The Road to Tokyo exhibit was designed by intern Gianna Liantonio specifically for people with visual impairments. The following suggestions arose from the experience of designing and testing the tour: • Don’t be afraid to bend the rules. Normally, museum guests cannot touch the exhibit props or artifacts. An exception was made to enable guests with visual impairments to gain a better understanding of the physical characteristics of the artifacts. This type of negotiation requires a good working relationship between the museum’s curatorial and education departments to ensure the safety of the materials. • Think outside the box. To demonstrate the full length of the C-47 airplane hanging from the ceiling of the museum’s lobby, the tour group was brought underneath the tail and walked to the nose of the plane. • Engage the group with open-ended questions. Throughout the tour, the guide asked the group questions, guiding their discovery of the exhibit. Build on the knowledge guests already have, and remember that even if a guest has a visual impairment, it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have knowledge of the subject matter. Providing Content in Multiple Formats Archivists at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas collaborated with university faculty and the university’s accessibility group to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Using collection materials, staff created a physical exhibit comprising ten 2D graphic panels and a robust online component (http://dolearchivecollections.ku.edu/collections/ada/). Accessibility for related public programming was increased by using sign language interpreters, braille printed programs, and a hearing loop system. Audio narration of each section helped expand accessibility to the physical exhibit. These narrations include the exhibit text, as well as descriptions of the layout, color scheme, and other physical characteristics of the panels to provide a more complete experience for the listener. The Kansas Audio Reader Network (http://reader.ku.edu/) provided the audio narration, available via QR codes at each panel and as streaming links within the online exhibit. Improving Access to Exhibits Like many archival institutions, Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives (SC/UA) has limited resources to devote to the exhibitions program. Nevertheless, exhibitions are the public face of the repository, serving as a primary way to bring the public into the library and to teach them about collections. In October 2015, exhibitions coordinator Fernanda Perrone and her colleagues were approached by the Libraries Committee on Universal Inclusion with a request to make the galleries more accessible to patrons with low vision or vision impairment. The SC/UA staff had already taken steps to make the two galleries physically accessible by placing objects and labels within appropriate sight lines and maintaining 36-inch-wide aisles for wheelchair access, but the galleries were not accessible to the visually impaired. According to the Smithsonian Institution Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design (https://www.si.edu/Accessibility/SGAED), “Exhibitions must make exhibit content accessible at multiple intellectual levels and present it through more than one sensory channel.” Although the galleries were visually appealing, they lacked audio and tactile elements. To address these concerns, Perrone formed the Exhibitions Accessibility Committee, which focused on two projects: the creation of a large print catalog and a verbal description audio tour. Creating a large print version of the exhibition catalog was fairly straightforward. The committee converted the existing catalog into 18-point type, using Helvetica and Verdana—two fonts recommended for accessibility. They moved the embedded illustrations (which could not be read by e-readers) to separate pages and used Alternative Text (alt-text) to describe them. The resulting document will be available in hard copy in the galleries and on the libraries’ website. For creating verbal descriptions for the audio tour, they consulted the resources and sample verbal description tours at Art Beyond Sight’s website (http://www.artbeyondsight.org/mei/). Committee members began by writing and recording scripts for ten stops and will test them using volunteers from the Rutgers Office of Disability Services. The committee used a free cloud-based mobile tour application designed for small academic museums and galleries, which will enable visitors to access the tour on their smartphones using QR codes. Although the project is ongoing, the Exhibitions Accessibility Committee members found the process engaging and educational. Enhancing the accessibility of exhibition galleries, archives, and special collections can only improve their visibility and educational impact. Improving Accessibility Online Digital exhibits can greatly expand the audience reach and interaction with archival collections but may need extra planning to improve their accessibility. The most widely accepted standard for creating accessible websites is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/. Published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, the current version—ISO/IEC 40500:2012—offers a set of testable success criteria, such as the inclusion of text alternatives for non-text objects, that are technology-neutral and can be applied to most web content. One of many excellent online resources is the WebAIM website (Web Accessibility in Mind) at http://webaim.org. Based at Utah State University, it provides information, training, and practical tools for creating accessible content. One particularly useful service, the WAVE accessibility evaluation tool, will assess a web page and identify where accessibility standards are met and where they are not. The evaluation is displayed in several ways, making problem areas easy to see and address. “Accessible Archives and Special Collections” was originally a panel discussion during session 208 at ARCHIVES RECORDS 2016, the Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists in Atlanta.
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