Sunday, April 4, 2021

5 Accessibility and Inclusion Insights from Producing an Exhibition During COVID

Redefine/ABLE Exhibit logo

In this Guest Post,  Drs. Audra Buck-Coleman, Naliyah Kaya, and Cheryl Fogle-Hatch share the learnings and insights they derived from shifting a multi-site, cross-platform exhibition to an online experience due to the COVID pandemic.

Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility, a collaborative, multi-site project, began as an exploration of how an exhibition could achieve maximum inclusivity for multiple audiences. University of Maryland design students collaborated with members from the disability community to create an exhibition that via its messages and delivery would challenge ideas of accessibility, disability, and inclusion. The project was scheduled to open in two different physical spaces and on a website at the end of March 2020. Instead, the nation shut down for the virus and we had to suspend the exhibition. By early summer, with no end in sight for the Covid-19 restrictions, we pivoted Redefine/ABLE to be an all-digital, virtual and social media exhibition, “installing” content across a project website, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Second Life

The Peale, a project partner, hosted virtual programming. Reflecting on this grand experiment a year after its first scheduled launch, we offer five insights from what became of our coronavirus-induced “Plan B.” We share these in hopes of informing how museums and cultural institutions might successfully approach accessibility and inclusion during and after the pandemic.

1. Discarding misconceptions can increase inclusion.

As the Covid-19 lockdown realities began to evolve in March last year, we surveyed the digital options with no real satisfying results. None of the spaces we found offered the in-person experiences we had planned, and they lacked the humanity we felt was necessary for the content. We instead kept our fingers crossed that the launches of the physical spaces would only be slightly delayed. By the end of May it was clear we would not be able to offer these installations, so Dr. Nancy Proctor recommended that we install the exhibition content in Second Life (SL). This option had never come up while we were other seeking options for the project. In fact, upon hearing about SL, Audra scoffed. Her knowledge of the space was tainted by recollections of condescending comments from colleagues. Further, when she told another colleague about this expansion of the project, they asked, “Isn’t Second Life dead?” Given SL’s profile, it seemed like an unsuitable space.

These ideas were reinforced when Audra first “stepped” into our assigned SL exhibition space. The room was cold, digital, inhuman. However, as we worked with SL builders Eme Capalini and Gentle Heron, the once-nondescript gray box of a room transformed. It was rewarding to witness visitors moving about a room that felt very much alive, warm, and inviting. Further, SL offered us a way to produce the project content that largely represented our physical space plans.

In some ways, the SL space was more accessible and accommodating, too. We received visitors at all hours of the day and from far-flung geographical locations. They could drop in at their convenience versus having to abide by pre-set hours, they did not have to worry about affording parking or entrance fees, and they didn’t have the hassles of negotiating traffic. It also connected our content to the SL community. These days augmented and virtual reality garner the most attention for ways to consider immersive spaces, but SL has minimal technical requirements and doesn’t require expensive gadgets. In this sense, it was more inclusive as well.

The SL installation had more than 400 new and returning visitors within the first 6 weeks of the launch. This was more than we expected for our two physical spaces combined and more traffic than our social media accounts and website. It was gratifying that so many could access this work. The Second Life option was one that we had initially dismissed. Fortunately, it didn’t stay that way.

Sixteen human-looking Second Life avatars are standing in the illustrated room. Introductory information about Redefine/ABLE is on the main panel closest to tour leader, David London. Nine large wooden-framed panels with exhibition information are posted around the space.

David London, the Peale’s Chief Experience Officer, leads a tour of the
Redefine/ABLE Second Life installation during an open house event.
     Second Life gave us the ability to create a close-to-real-life installation that complimented the other project platforms.

2. Embracing humility, ignorance, and discomfort can inform universal design. 

Learning how to navigate in Second Life was challenging, but it also gave us a sense of how those with different abilities are challenged to navigate inaccessible spaces. “Inept” barely scratches the surface of how Audra and Naliyah felt entering Second Life. Audra had only a cursory knowledge of the space, little of it positive. Trying to figure out what we were supposed to do and how we were supposed to do it was humbling and frustrating. Everyday actions such as walking, sitting in a chair, and navigating stairs were suddenly foreign. We also had to learn how not to run into things: walls, bodies of water, other avatars. During a pre-opening press event, Naliyah ran into another guest’s avatar. Thankfully, everyone we ran across (and ran into!) was understanding and accommodating. If only real life were as forgiving.

As with physical spaces, digital spaces have cultural expectations. We were oblivious of SL’s. Audra first indiscriminately created her SL avatar, choosing from a set of standard options. Eme and Gentle kindly let her know that anyone who had been in SL more than two weeks would immediately spot her default look and thus would not take her seriously. She needed a makeover, but she did not have any SL money, an understanding of the SL currency, or knowledge of where to purchase outfits nor how to change into them after she did. Thankfully Eme was there again with her abundance of patience to guide her through the process.

Practically everything about being in the SL space was foreign: navigation, infrastructure, social expectations. As professionals in real life, we are generally regarded as knowledgeable and accomplished. In SL, we were anything but, and it was spectacular. We were incompetent not by choice but because of how SL was designed. How frustrating—if not impossible—it must be for those who use a wheelchair to try to navigate spaces without ramps or elevators or for those who cannot see to attempt to gain information via websites that aren’t accessible. We knew of the importance of universal design before SL, but learning the space was a pointed reminder. We cannot take for granted that physical and digital spaces are accessible. Unfortunately, universal design is not standard. Putting yourself in a space not easily navigated can be an effective reminder of why it should be.

Cheryl is seated at left. Two students are standing in front of different designs and seen talking through different ideas. Other students are seated on the wooden floor. Many printouts are taped to the wall.
Cheryl, at left, sits in on an on-location physical exhibition planning
session with the design students. Engaging stakeholders and
members with disabilities throughout the exhibition design
process helps to achieve increased accessibility. 

3. Asking questions and engaging others can foster trust and confidence.

Sometimes non-disabled designers and curators try to anticipate what people with disabilities would prefer or need rather than asking them. Society has stigmatized some disabilities to the point that others feel reluctant to approach people about their needs. Other members may feel superior to those with disabilities. They know what they want. They don’t have to ask. Both scenarios can lead to paternalistic solutions that infantilize the disabled. Rather than assume or avoid, just ask! Even better if you can engage people with disabilities in the design and curation process at an early stage.

“Nothing about us without us” is a slogan used by the disability community. Engaging disabled stakeholders can complicate an already complex project, such as exhibition design, but your results will almost certainly be better for it. The design students we worked with completed written reflections at the semester’s conclusion. They remarked on the value of engaging our disabled stakeholders in the design process. One wrote, “Being able to listen to our stakeholders’ personal experiences with disability is unmatchable. ... In my view, our stakeholders were a huge part of this project taking shape. The information and knowledge we gained from our conversations with them was invaluable.”

Also, there is a difference between asking a few questions and involving stakeholders throughout the process. As another student wrote: “I still think that people have good intentions, but the slogan ‘nothing for us without us’ really struck a chord with me. If I were designing a product for people with disabilities, I would’ve always asked for their opinion, but now I would really strive to have them on the team from the beginning. In hindsight, it’s really obvious that the target audience should be a part of the design process, but I really underestimated the importance of seeking feedback from the very beginning and listening to their wants and needs carefully throughout the process.”

Involve those with disabilities in things big and small. It might be to answer a few questions or to collaborate on producing an exhibition. But asking those whose needs warrant understanding and consideration is the best way to achieve inclusion and accessibility. The receptiveness of our disabled stakeholders to answer questions, no matter how trivial they might have seemed to the question poser, helped the students feel even more comfortable to ask more questions. The result was a stronger exhibition in content and form.

This screenshot from a Peale hosted programming event, which streamed through YouTube, shows six people from an event about the Digital Divide. Clockwise from top left are host Dr. Nancy Proctor, the Peale’s Chief Strategy Officer and Founding Director; Jen, the ASL interpreter; Azure Grimes, Project Coordinator with Libraries without Borders; Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, artist and educator; Debbie Staigerwald with The Arc Baltimore; and Daisy Brown, Storytelling Ambassador and Stoop Shoots project lead at the Peale.
This screenshot from a Peale hosted programming event shows
the host, Nancy Proctor, the four panelists, and the ASL interpreter.
The Peale arranged for ASL and CART transcription for all
events to make them more accessible. 

4. Normalizing accessibility and inclusion requires full-time dedication.

The Peale hosted exhibition programming and arranged for ASL interpreters and live CART transcription. One of the conversations we had when trying to arrange for these services was if we would have audience members who needed them and should we go to the expense if not. Other events often ask that if an attendee needs accessibility accommodations such as CART transcription or ASL interpretation, that they request it two weeks in advance of the event. This boiler-plate language comes across as a half-hearted effort to be inclusive. It puts the responsibility of requesting these services on those with disabilities rather than on event hosts. What if someone who needs these services did not hear about an event two weeks (or whatever timeframe) prior?
Ultimately the Peale staff decided to offer the services whether or not someone had requested them. The thinking was that to make future programming more welcoming and inclusive, you have to show you are committed. Although only a small percentage of the registered guests requested these services, this was a start and a much larger population than before. In addition, we had event speakers describe themselves so that those who were blind would get a sense of what the person looked like. These accommodations are now available for anyone seeking access to past programming. Audience members expressed their gratitude for these services. Further, the Second Life space and website also included alt text and other accessible features as much as possible. The Peale is now gaining a reputation for being inclusive and accessible. Since these programs, we’ve attended other Zooms and webinars where these accommodations are not provided. It’s disappointing and further reinforces the exclusion.

Far too often, inclusive practices are viewed as burdensome. They feel like a burden because we have been fighting the natural order of things by creating non-inclusive societies. We continue to try and reform problematic spaces, practices, language, and policies rather than embracing new ways of being and doing. Normalization takes time and a commitment from all of us to offer these accommodations as the default rather than the exception. We have the technological capabilities to standardize accessibility. Yes, these take time and resources but so do other efforts. We need to change our mindset that using these resources for accessibility accommodations means they are “lost” for other purposes. Prioritizing diversity and inclusion is a gain, not a loss. By committing to inclusion and accessibility today, we make this the default for the future.  

Redefine/ABLE content from Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Second Life, and the project website.
We installed Redefine/ABLE on different digital platforms. Gaining a true
sense of the impact of the project across these platforms was challenging.

5. Trying and failing to capture the inclusion “silver bullet” is still progress.

It’s been 10 months since the digital versions of Redefine/ABLE launched. Were these efforts successful in engaging audiences in learning about disability and accessibility? Are they modifying their language to eliminate ableist terms? Are visitors now aware of the shortcomings of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Although the Redefine/ABLE spaces seemed to be good sources of information, we couldn’t be sure due to an inability to track such reactions. Yes, Google can tell us how many visitors came to the website, Twitter can tell us how many retweets we had, and so on, but what impact, really, did these platforms have? We implemented surveys and other participatory elements to try to track and engage audience members, but we had little participation. Trying to quantify and qualify an exhibition’s impact is difficult. This one, given its many platforms, was even more so.

How can we assess impact if we cannot easily know what thinking and rethinking the content stimulated? Counting visitors is a start, but to what level are they taking in the information? Do they spend a cursory amount of time with the information or ingest everything closely with furrowed brows? Does the information prompt them to make changes in their daily lives, have conversations with others about what they learned, or research other information? How did people with disabilities respond to the content versus those without? In past physical exhibits, we were able to solicit participation in feedback surveys on site, which led to a higher rate of participation. Assessment poses greater challenges as more exhibitions make virtual pivots. Asking visitors immediately post-tour to complete a questionnaire or offering on-the-spot swag to those who fill out feedback forms, is more arduous if not impossible.            

Not capturing the “aha moments” also meant the design students we worked with didn’t get a rich understanding of how audiences responded to their work. Testing the model is a big factor in learning. The virtual options truncated this. Did we find a silver bullet? Unfortunately, we can’t say -- as much of the results of our grand experiment remain largely inconclusive. As we continue to create virtual spaces, we also need to incorporate appropriate, inviting assessment tools to know what kinds of impact, if any, these spaces are having.

We featured people with different disabilities as part of the exhibition content. One of them, Marguerite Woods, said, “Inclusion is the natural order of things. … Diversity is kingpin. ... No one is better than or more than or less than. We all are. That perspective… will open opportunities for everyone. It doesn’t create burdens. It creates opportunity and creativity.” We couldn’t agree more. But diversity and inclusion take deliberate, constant attention. We aren’t fully there yet, but hopefully we are well on our way to achieving universal design.

We want to express our gratitude to Maryland Humanities, The Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom, and the University of Maryland, College Park Friedgen Family Fund. This project would not have been possible without their financial support.

Thanks again to Audra, Naliyah, and Cheryl for sharing their experiences and insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

Author Bios

Dr. Audra Buck-Coleman is a designer, educator, author, and facilitator. She directs, curates, and collaborates on social design projects with underrepresented communities. This includes serving as project director for Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility, a virtual exhibit that addresses disability, inclusion, and ableism. Her work connects design students, cultural institutions, and underrepresented communities and their concerns within a social justice design context. The resulting exhibits empower minoritized communities by elevating their voices and concerns in public spaces. She is a former associate professor and inaugural design program director at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Dr. Naliyah Kaya is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Montgomery College. She has served as an advisor and as an evaluator for cross-cultural exhibitions including Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility. She also teaches TOTUS Spoken Word Experience as part of the Jiménez-Porter Writers' House Program at the University of Maryland, College Park where she was previously the Coordinator for Multiracial & Native American / Indigenous Student Involvement in the Office of Multicultural Involvement & Community Advocacy (MICA).
Dr. Cheryl Fogle-Hatch is the founder of MuseumSenses, a Baltimore-based advocacy studio that researches and develops multisensory experiences for galleries, museums, and other cultural organizations. She collaborated with the UMD design students to create Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility. Previously, Dr. Fogle-Hatch worked as an archaeologist, conducting research in museum collections. Cheryl has taught college courses in archaeology at the University of New Mexico, and she has designed and led hands-on science activities for high school students participating in programs of the National Federation of the Blind.

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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