Digital Curb Cut

Accessibility, Museums, UX

Accessible Online Learning for Museums

Problem to Solve

In the 1990’s, anti-discrimination legislation in the United States and abroad mandated that museums and cultural institutions adapt their exhibitions and facilities to provide access to persons of all abilities. Today, the access challenges facing museums are digital; technology has the ability to provide unprecedented access to information for disabled persons, yet this promise has largely remained untapped by cultural institutions.

My masters thesis at Harvard uncovered the real and perceived barriers museums face when making online cultural learning more accessible and usable by diverse audiences. The paper was awarded the Dean’s Thesis Prize in 2007. The complete text is available here: Museums and the Digital Curb Cut.


Given the relatively small (but growing) number of museums publishing rich media content online, the numbers analyzed in the surveys are not statistically significant. The invitation to participate in the museum survey was sent via email to 161 museum staff members in various countries responsible for managing multimedia projects, and 44 completed the survey (27.3% response rate). The developer survey invitation was emailed to 69 multimedia developers primarily in the United States, but also in Canada and the United Kingdom. The response rate for the developer survey was slightly lower at 24.6% (17 respondents).


Two surveys were designed to reveal the practices and attitudes related to accessible multimedia design within the museum community. Technical museum staff and external multimedia developers were surveyed to determine the extent of institutional policies for multimedia accessibility, familiarity with access standards and legislation, and how responsibility for accessibility is negotiated between the museum and developers. Three case studies provide specific examples of how these barriers to accessibility are being addressed by museums and the developers who create their multimedia applications.

Case study #1: Churchill and the Great Republic, produced by the Library of Congress and developed by Terra Incognita

Case study #2: Monticello Explorer produced by Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. and developed by Second Story Interactive Studios

Case study #3: i-Map: The Everyday Transformed produced by Caro Howell at the Tate Modern and developed by Dan Porter


The development of accessible multimedia content to date has largely been considered “a burden and a chore” by technical museum staff and their contracted developers (Clark, 2001). The perceived cost of implementing accessibility has been the largest barrier to date towards creating online cultural education that can be experienced and enjoyed by audiences of all abilities. While museum web sites in general are gradually adopting web and accessibility standards as institutional policy, the same standards are too frequently not applied to multimedia content.

The narrow interpretation of accessibility as serving only the “special needs” of disabled visitors has led many museums to not consider persons with sensory or cognitive disabilities as part of their target audience. The lack of institutional policies requiring accessibility for multimedia content, as well as the perceived lack of enforcement of current legislation (particularly in the United States), have also contributed to the lack of compliance. While cultural organizations in both the United States and the United Kingdom have embraced the practice of universal design in development of physical exhibitions, considerably more attention has been given to accessible web practices in the United Kingdom, as the legal requirements are perceived as less ambiguous and more enforceable than Section 508 in the United States.

Accessibility for multimedia cannot be “added on” at the end of a project; the entire structure of the application and the user experience must be designed and constructed to allow for these features. Robert Regan, Senior Product Manager for Accessibility at Macromedia (now Adobe), encouraged interactive designers to step outside their visually dominated model of experience and conceive of alternative pathways towards enjoying the same content (Regan, 2004). To avoid costly retrofitting for accessibility, multimedia projects must take all modalities into account from the initial design phase. If planned for properly, experts suggest that providing for accessibility in this manner should not cost more than 10% of the overall project budget and schedule. Yet, 75% of the developers surveyed cited the lack of time available in the development cycle as a critical barrier towards accessibility.

A small yet passionate community of developers produce the majority of educational multimedia for museums and cultural institutions; they are technically adept, welcome creative challenges, and have a passion for education and culture in addition to technology. They will continue to push the envelope in spite of under-funded projects. In the near future, many of them will increasingly become aware of accessibility practices by necessity, as more and more institutions will require accessible design to meet the demands of funding organizations and changing international laws.

It must be remembered that the need for “curb cuts” to be built into sidewalks was challenged and resisted by the majority of American cities and towns. The idea of providing disabled persons with equal access to city streets, public facilities and transportation was certainly radical in the early 1990’s; yet society as a whole has benefited from these simple provisions for inclusion. Gregg Vanderheiden, Director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, remarked on this phenomenon:

Although curb cuts were put in for persons in wheelchairs, it is estimated that for every individual in a wheelchair using a curb cut, somewhere between ten and one hundred bicycles, skateboards, shopping carts, baby carriages and delivery carts use the curb cut. (Vanderheiden, 1990, p. 11)

While it is difficult to imagine all the ways that multimedia will be accessed in the future, museums and cultural institutions must be encouraged to seek out new digital pathways to invite their diverse audiences to experience the cultural knowledge they collect and preserve for posterity.

Credits: Cover image by Sylvia Richardson via Flickr