ADA Turns 30: Reflecting on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Digital Exhibits

ADA Has Led to Improvements, But We Can Do Better

ADA Turns 30: Reflecting on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Digital Exhibits
A person access the Accessibility Layer on an Ideum multitouch table.

by Jim Spadaccini, Founder July 27th, 2020

This month marks the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Coming in the midst of a pandemic, this anniversary emphasizes the importance of the ADA, as individuals with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Without this law, matters could be much worse. Thirty years later, there are calls to update and improve ADA. This is particularly true in regards to online access, as the World Wide Web wasn’t used daily by millions when the law was written. Those of us in the museum field are in a similar situation: as with the Web, digital exhibits didn’t factor in when the Act became law. This has left the field in the position of having to interpret what are, in many cases, incomplete or varying guidelines to ensure accessibility.

Our experience at Ideum is that the importance placed on ensuring that digital exhibits and installations adhere to guidelines for the broadest possible accessibility varies within the field. Some museums (and other clients) do insist on following strict interpretations of the guidelines, while others do not prioritize accessibility as highly. At Ideum, thinking about barriers to access is a fundamental part of our design process, and we are always experimenting with new techniques that enhance accessibility. With many museum budgets even more limited than they were pre-COVID 19, one of our initial approaches is to look carefully at paths forward that are cost-neutral.

For example, designing height and reach to accommodate visitors in wheelchairs can be built into a physical exhibit. Along those lines, we’ve ensured that our touch tables are ADA compliant, and we also provide guidance for ensuring that our tables and displays are installed in a way that maximizes accessibility. In fact, last year, we released a white paper entitled Accessible Design for Multitouch Tables, Large Displays, and Interactive Experiences. This paper illustrates the earlier point that ADA guidelines can be interpreted in different ways and outlines “broad” and “strict” interpretations for accessible design. In our view, there’s little or no excuse for not meeting the basic “broad” standards for accessibility with physical exhibits or kiosks in a museum setting.

There are additional simple and cost-neutral approaches to accessibility that design firms and museums can implement as well, ideally early in the design process. Thoughtful attention to font sizing and selection, capitalization, color contrast, and other basic techniques for screen and projection-based exhibits can be applied without any additional costs. Obviously, these design choices can also be applied to static signage for interpretation or wayfinding. More broadly, ADA accessibility can simply be built into the exhibit design (and product design) process from the start, as a best practice to develop not just accessible exhibits but better ones. (Commercial customers want accessible, interactive exhibits just as much as museum visitors!)

The issue becomes more complicated—and perhaps more costly—when we look at designing new alternative methods for access. Some best practices have become more common, such as including captions for video content in the same range of languages provided by the rest of the interface. However, more extensive forms of access, like Ideum’s audio accessibility layer, are less common. Notably, the development of that approach was more than an R&D project; part of our goal was to lower the costs of the system to increase adoption and thus equitable access to exhibits. Unfortunately, even with a more economical price tag, many museums and other clients avoid implementing these types of systems because of concerns about cost. It seems likely that the adoption of these types of systems will continue to lag, not only because museum budgets have always been tight, but also because of the growing economic impact of the pandemic on our cultural and educational institutions.

As museums struggle with plans for reopening, what does this mean for continuing to broaden accessibility? We were interested to read that the Smithsonian has a team looking into these issues, as the struggle to accommodate guests in new, no-touch, socially distanced environments will clearly affect visitor accessibility. With these impacts in mind, we recently launched a new open-source initiative, Touchless.Design, to help museums make digital content safely available to their audiences. As this system is currently designed without tactile feedback, we see an opportunity to continue improving our touchless technology. We are only a few months into developing the system and will experiment with ways to create more accessible touchless interfaces that use additional sensory feedback.

The 30th Anniversary of ADA (#ADA30) is a good time for museums and other public spaces to reflect on how they have made their institutions more accessible to all audiences. Exhibit design firms need to do the same. As we collectively struggle with the pandemic as well as fundamental issues of equity and inclusion, we must remind ourselves that millions of Americans live with a disability. It is up to all of us to do better in making our exhibits more accessible—to everyone.