Museums and the Web: About Access

Live captioning during MW2014's MOCAtv session


Annie Leist is an artist and Project Coordinator with Art Beyond Sight in New York, NY


Championing Accessibility

I’ve attended, and presented at, several conferences in my role as a cultural accessibility consultant; focusing on how technology intertwines with and enhances experiences in museums, especially for people with disabilities.

Most recently, I attended the Museums and the Web conference, representing Art Beyond Sight on a panel entitled Accessible Smartphones: Mobile for All in Museums alongside Antenna (the presentation slides are available here. I thought I knew exactly what to expect: great conversation about accessibility of the arts, in particular focusing on technology, of course.

For the first day or so, my expectations were exceeded.  I attended a workshop about achieving inclusive environments through universal design, facilitated by Sina Bahram of Prime Access Consulting.  A dynamic and engaging presenter, he pointed out the distinction between accessibility and usability; how the first does not always guarantee the second.

The next day I listened to Nancy Proctor declare that accessibility and diversity were now going to be priorities for the Museums and the Web organization, with CART transcription at some of the sessions evidence of this renewed commitment. Nancy has been an accessibility champion for years, and it was fantastic to hear her call to action at an event not exclusively focused on audiences with disabilities.  As soon as I had that thought, it hit me - this was the first conference I ever attended where accessibility was NOT one of the primary focuses.  Here, at Museums and the Web, the majority of the people in the room were not thinking about accessibility first, primarily, or even at all.

Idealistic belief in technology

My initiation into this brave new world of conference-goers not obsessed with making things work for people with disabilities began in earnest as the sessions began.  While everyone was talking about mobile apps, augmented reality, digital collections and immersive environments.   I began to consider my idealistic belief in technology’s capacity to make things easier for everyone.  I started asking presenters and panelists about accessibility:

  • How have you integrated verbal description into your app?
  • Have you considered how the technology you’ve developed could benefit blind users?
  • Have you added captioning to all your videos?
  • How are you making your experience more inclusive for people of all abilities?


Thank you for asking the hard questions.

At first, when I saw people looking at me blankly I began to wonder if this was a new idea to some of them. After a couple days of this, I began to question my role at this conference and I worried that my questions were inappropriate for the context of Museums and the Web.  I even wondered whether anyone would attend our panel about accessibility. But then, in the hotel elevator, a woman said to me, “Thank you for asking the hard questions. I’d love to talk more about how to make our museum more accessible.”

Another turning point for me was at the Mobile Bake-Off in which developers created apps designed to give museums a taste of the variety of options they might choose for their own institutions.  Even though accessibility of the apps was not a requirement, nearly all of the apps presented were friendly to the screen reader on my phone.  And the ones that weren’t did not have far to go.  This means that even if museums don’t know to ask for proper structuring and tagging of the elements in their app to make it work with screen readers used by blind people, these developers will do it anyway.

By the end of the conference, I noticed a hopeful trend: People wanted to know about including verbal description on tours and captions on videos. They were talking about accessibility and usability and universal design and inclusion, about integrating it all into their websites and apps and exhibitions, and even into their presentations.  It might not have been a formal conversation or a conference track, but it was definitely an undercurrent.  So much so that days later, when a colleague who didn’t attend asked me about Museums and the Web, she said “My coworkers who went said there was a HUGE focus on access!”

People are continuing to talk in a real way about what it means to make their institutions and their technology more usable by those who are blind, deaf, or have other disabilities. And if our panel and questions and conversations played some small role in moving that dialogue forward, I’m very proud.


Annie Leist experiencing Dan Deacon's installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art #MW2014.

Annie Leist experiencing Dan Deacon's installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art #MW2014.

- author