Federal Funding Demands Museum Accessibility & Can Also Pay For It

By: Sarah Roberts



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As the world struggles to rebound from COVID-19, leaders from The American Alliance of Museums expressed concerns that accessibility, inclusion and diversity efforts could become less of a priority. However, for many museums, the need to offer accessibility is non-negotiable. Neglecting access to the nearly one in five people in the US who have a disability could disqualify these institutions when it comes to federal funding.

Fortunately, the federal funds that support cultural institutions across the country can also help ensure that museums have resources to accommodate all visitors.

Why Museums Need Federal Funding Now More than Ever

Approximately 15% of museums in the US may not survive COVID-19. Lockdowns put a strain on institutions already strapped for funds and threatened the employment of the 726,000 Americans who work for museums. In 2021 alone, the lingering pandemic forced 22% of institutions to lay off full-time staff members, while another 28% let their part-time employees go in an effort to cut costs.

These financial pressures mean that maintaining funding from all possible sources is more critical than ever. According to the American Association of Museums, 24.4% of museum funding comes from the government. Another 36.5% of the funds come from private donors, 27.6% from revenue, and 11.5% from investments. However, funding from federal, state and local agencies may account for more or less of an individual museum’s budget. For instance, the Detroit Institute of the Arts receives nearly half of its yearly funding from local government sources.

Although the federal government provided emergency grant opportunities, many museums have not recovered from the economic losses related to the decline in revenue from visitors. As a result, government support is a critical resource that many museums will need to make a comeback.

People looking at paintings in a museum

When Accepting Federal Funds, Accessibility is Law

Museums must adhere to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even if they don’t accept federal funds. However, for institutions that do receive money from the government, there are additional accessibility requirements. Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to these institutions. Among other considerations, that law includes an amendment that requires online accessibility.

Museums that fall short of the appropriate accessibility requirements will fail to qualify for government resources. They’re also likely to alienate members of the public who rely on accommodations. Finding the money to support accessibility efforts should be a top priority for all cultural institutions.

Federal Grants Can Pay for Accessibility Solutions

While federal funding creates obligations for museums, it can also pay for accommodations. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is the primary source of federal funding for American museums and libraries. The IMLS’s largest grant opportunity, Museums for America, offers a total of $20,400,000 to around 115 grant recipients for programs falling into these four categories:

  • The incorporation of digital technology into museum operations
  • Diversity and inclusion efforts, including services for people with disabilities
  • Evaluation tools to improve museum programs and services
  • Organizational management support for museum staff

The IMLS’s website also lists “adaptive and/or assistive technologies and other resources and services to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities” as one of its “allowable costs” that its grants can cover. Allocating these resources toward services like live captioning for events or upgrading websites to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards are a few strategic ways to use federal grant funds.

People looking at Van Gogh's Starry Night

Accessibility Solutions for Museums

The ADA includes requirements for physical locations and building structure, but exhibits should also include the additional accommodations. A few solutions museum leaders need to consider include:


Museums might need to offer captions for video content on their websites or videos that accompany physical exhibits. Museums hosting online events like webinars or lectures should invest in a live captioning service like Verbit to ensure that those who are Deaf or hard of hearing can participate live. Verbit can also offer transcripts to help visitors consume content and provide a written record of events to reference later. Transcripts can also help to make museum lectures and videos searchable by viewers after the fact, also increasing the museum’s website SEO.

Sign language interpreters

Popular museums like the American Museum of Natural History typically offer sign language tours in ASL. The museum is currently offering virtual ASL tours because of COVID-19.

Audio description

Offering audio description on video content and images allows people who are Blind to appreciate those forms of communication or artwork.

Screenreader capabilities

If websites lack screenreader capabilities, they are extremely difficult or impossible for people who are Blind to navigate. Many accessibility-related lawsuits, including ones against art galleries, relate to the lack of this accommodation.

Touchable exhibits

Some museums offer tactile representations of their art to share those experiences with people who are Blind or have low vision. The Art Institute of Chicago’s TacTiles are an example, and visitors can request a tour of the museum that includes these textured forms of art.

Innovative accessibility solutions improve cultural experiences for museum-goers while allowing institutions to adhere to legal standards and meet federal grant requirements.

Verbit provides accurate captioning, transcription and audio description designed for the needs of museums and other cultural institutions. Contact us to learn more about how our accessibility solutions can make your museum experiences more inclusive.