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Must-Know Accessibility & Legal Measures for Professionals at Cultural Institutions

What does it mean for museums, libraries, galleries and archives to be accessible? Certainly, access ramps should be a given, but in today’s world, leaders at the institutions that preserve our history, art and culture need to think about so much more. Over the years, accessibility needs and solutions have changed significantly, and the standards will continue to evolve.

For example, the second most popular search words following “virtual” in 2020 were “museum exhibitions.” Clearly, the public was hungry for ways to connect with cultural institutions during that challenging time. However, that connection took new form, leading to changes in the types of accommodations audiences needed.

Here are some of the accessibility considerations and legislation that professionals at cultural institutions should keep top of mind to ensure individuals with disabilities, among others, can effectively engage with their content and experiences, whether in-person or virtually.

Accessibility Legislation To Keep Top of Mind

The physical access requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are entrenched in modern building and thinking. However, the ADA is just over 30 years old, and many museums or historical buildings predate it, sometimes by well over a century.

It’s important to note that historical structures, including old homes turned into galleries or museums, still must meet ADA requirements regarding accessible entrances, exhibits, bathrooms and more. In other words, the ADA does not contain a “grandfather clause.”

In most cases, Title III of the ADA applies to galleries, museums, libraries or archives. Like any business, these organizations need to adhere to accessibility standards in “places of public accommodation.”

However, if a state or local government operates a cultural institution, Title II of the ADA applies and creates similar accessibility mandates. Although the ADA includes detailed information about structural access, including the height of light switches and the slope of ramps, it does not directly address other vital aspects of accessibility.

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Are Your Websites & Ticket Sale Platforms Accessible?

Early museum websites offered glimpses of collections and access to research articles. Websites have now become increasingly essential as the go-to for information.

Whether a potential visitor is checking hours or purchasing tickets, their ability to access cultural institutions’ sites is critical. Today, major national museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and small niche organizations like the Kurt Vonnegut Library & Museum, offer ticket sales online. For individuals who need screen reader technology and other forms of online accessibility tools, accommodations are the only way to offer equity. Neglecting to provide access for people with disabilities can lead to legal conflict even though the internet boom happened after the ADA went into effect.

Not only have some courts deemed websites and applications “places of public accommodation,” but another law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, may apply. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act creates accessibility requirements for entities that receive federal funding. This law often impacts museums, galleries, libraries and archives, and thanks to amended provisions, it requires online accessibility based on WCAG 2.0.

As a result, it’s important to ensure that sites are screen reader-friendly and offer captions for audio content to assist those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Another often overlooked accessibility issue is CAPTCHAs. CAPTCHAs are puzzles designed to differentiate between humans and software or robots. A common example is the swirly letters and numbers that a site may ask consumers to transcribe before making a purchase. Software lacks the ability to effectively identify numbers and letters from those images, meaning sites can weed out many spammers. While such security measures are crucial, studies indicate many CAPTCHAs are difficult or impossible for people who are Blind.

Naturally, there are plenty of other online accessibility concerns for cultural institutions. Live events, videos and virtual tours are additional areas that require accommodations.

Image of the inside of the Library of Congress

Concerns To Note With The Growth of Virtual Events & Tours

The importance of internet access has accelerated in recent years, and with it, the number of web accessibility lawsuits. In early 2019, a law firm representing two individuals who are Blind sued over 75 art galleries in New York. All of the claims pertained to the galleries’ web accessibility. Web accessibility claims against private businesses, government agencies, and universities only continue to increase in pandemic times.

In an effort to connect with their audiences during lockdowns and with social distancing emerging as the norm, cultural institutions large and small are increasing their focus on virtual events, remote tours and video content. Although many already offered virtual tours, news outlets started promoting those resources during the pandemic when they were the only way for people to view the world’s top collections.

The public’s appetite for these offerings proved substantial, allowing innovative institutions a chance to take advantage of that interest. Many found clever ways to generate revenue and keep their audiences engaged with virtual events. Examples include:

  • The Virginia Museum of Art’s “Cocktail with a Curator” virtual events
  • The Mattatuck Museum’s virtual Murder Mystery
  • The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s virtual camps
  • The National Czech and Slovak Museum’s virtual cooking classes

Image of an elephant exhibit at a museum

With these wonderful and creative online offerings comes further need to ensure accessibility. As mentioned, the ADA can apply to web accessibility, and Section 504 creates obligations for online content for any cultural organizations that receive federal funding.

In practice, this means that events should offer accommodations for those who are Deaf or Blind, including captions, audio description, screen reader compatibility and possibly other services. Fortunately, there are user-friendly solutions to many of these requirements, including live captions for real-time events.

Providers like AST offer a one-stop-shop platform that supports captioning and transcription services for exhibits, live events, promotional videos and more. Outsourcing this work with skilled transcribers is the best way to ensure accurate captions that meet the needs of audiences who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing, while improving overall engagement with cultural content.

AST provides captioning and transcription services for cultural institutions, including the Library of Congress and MoMA. Contact us to learn more about our accessibility solutions and how to ensure your organization is inclusive and adheres to laws like the ADA.

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