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

By: Sarah Roberts

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What does it mean for museums, libraries, galleries and archives to be accessible? Certainly, access ramps should be a given. However, in today’s world, leaders at the institutions that preserve history, art and culture must 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 accessibility considerations and legislation that professionals at cultural institutions should keep in mind. By taking these steps, leaders can ensure individuals with disabilities, among others, can effectively engage with their content and experiences.

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. Many museums or historical buildings predate the law, 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. The law applies to 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 also applies. This other title creates similar accessibility mandates. These titles of the ADA include detailed information about structural access, including the height of light switches and the slope of ramps. Unfortunately, they don’t directly address other vital aspects of accessibility.

The back of a person as they view paintings in a museum

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 online accessibility tools, accommodations are the only way to offer equity. Neglecting to provide access for people with disabilities can lead to legal conflict. Online access is a legal concern, even though the internet boom happened after the ADA went into effect.

First off, some courts deem websites and applications “places of public accommodation.” Additionally, 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. Thanks to amended provisions, it now 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.

Person sitting on a bench in a museum art gallery

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.

To connect with audiences during lockdowns, cultural institutions increased 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 of Museums with Creative Virtual Exhibits

  • 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 Verbit 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. Taking such steps will have the added benefits of improving overall engagement with cultural content.

Verbit provides captioning and transcription services for cultural institutions, including the Library of Congress and MoMA. Contact us to learn how our accessibility solutions can help your organization become inclusive and adhere to accessibility laws.