According to the VocalEyes 2022 Heritage Report, more than 14.6 million people – or about 22% of the UK population – are disabled, and it is just as important for museums to foster an inclusive and accessible digital experience as it is for in-person visits.
1. Start a focus group
This can be a great way to get feedback on how different audiences use and interact with digital materials. Although every disability is different, there are common themes and barriers that disabled people experience, says Livi Adu, an e-curator and digital marketing specialist.
Consider whether you will be able to pay or compensate people for sharing their lived experience. You could also consult staff and volunteers – this is an easy way to enable disabled staff to feel included.
2. Undertake a digital audit
Using a website accessibility evaluation tool such as Wave can offer a live audit that flags issues such as navigation functionality, which is vital for individuals who use screen readers.
The Digital Culture Network offers a great introduction to digital accessibility, employing four core principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, robust.
According to the VocalEyes report, 20% of museum websites with access information did not allow users to navigate to the appropriate page with the keyboard alone, which demonstrates the disconnect that can occur between accessible content and its functionality. Access information should be quick to find from the homepage – typically no more than two clicks away.
3. Create inclusive written content
Tone of voice is a crucial tool for improving accessibility, which begins with familiarising yourself with appropriate, inclusive language that focuses on visitor-centric experience. Text Help offers guides on best practice, as well as how to best utilise typography, design and more.
Basic principles include using plain English and short sentences, which are easier to digest for varied literacy levels and those using assistive technology, such as screen readers. Sans-serif fonts are best suited to screen readers.
4. Review your website’s access compatibility
A website should be compatible with multiple browsers and devices, as well as assistive technologies. The structure of website content is just as important. Content management systems have built-in “semantic markup” functions to code headings, subheadings and links.
This not only changes the visual appearance of text, but also allows assistive technology to pick up on hierarchy and navigation. Using this functionality is essential for anyone inputting content for websites, as well as e-news and social channels.
5. Make accessible images, audio and videos
Multimedia digital content is more prevalent than ever, but it is important to make sure all users have the same experience, regardless of any disability they may have.
Audio descriptions can be embedded into websites via sites such as Soundcloud, and podcasts are a great way to enrich a museum experience. Alt text – which describes the visual content of the image – is important for people who might require alternative ways to understand an image on screen.
Matthew Cock, former chief executive of VocalEyes, says: “A lot of these features are available via content management systems, and it is the responsibility of the content creator – not the developer – to utilise them.”
A variety of caption styles also offers value. While “open captions” are embedded into a video, “closed captions” can be switched on and off. Including descriptions in a film – such as getting people to introduce themselves verbally and describe what they look like – is a great way to support access for blind and visually impaired audience members.
Commissioning a British Sign Language interpreter to record a signed translation increases access for D/deaf visitors.
6. Make clear and user-friendly visitor access information
Making on-site access information as inclusive and comprehensive as possible is part of a museum’s responsibility under the 2010 Equality Act. But it is also an opportunity to set a tone that is welcoming and useful for all visitors.
Francesca Collins, the Museums Association’s website and digital officer, says: “The biggest priority is producing clear information that can be reached in a few clicks, and not putting the onus on the person visiting.”
Asking a prospective visitor to contact the museum with their access needs isn’t enough, although a dedicated phone number and well-monitored email address are essential.
Your access information should be as detailed and descriptive as possible. Include captioned and alt-text photos if you can. You should also be honest about any potential access issues.
The main points to cover include information on: “getting here”; entrance and doorway types and measurements; step-free routes; toilets; Blue Badge parking spaces; and sensory environment.
VocalEyes’ website has resources on how to create descriptive directions while Sensory Spectacle offers advice and training on sensory processing awareness and what to make visitors aware of prior to a visit.
Once you have developed access resources such as sensory maps, visual stories or clear text guides to your museum, add these as Word documents (PDFs do not always work with a screen reader) to your access pages for visitors to read prior to their visit.