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Increasing Accessibility for Visitors Who Are Visually Impaired: Simple Solutions for Small Museums

by Janice Klein and Chuck Dean
First published on the American Association for State and Local History blog: April 05, 2016 

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided museums and museum associations the opportunity to review and reflect on the ways in which visitors with disabilities can be provided with improved access to museums. Recent professional development workshops, webinars and magazine articles have shown how a number of museums have created programs that provide imaginative new ways for their visitors with disabilities to experience museums. Unfortunately, many of these ideas provide access to only one exhibit or require extensive time or money to implement. This article focuses on visitors with visual disabilities for two main reasons. First, there are more than 800 diseases of the eye and they present themselves differently in different people. Some people who are visually impaired can read large text or Braille; some can’t read either. Some see better in bright light, and for some bright light totally obscures or fractures what they see. Basically there is no “one thing” that works for everyone.

Secondly, the development of smart phone apps has revolutionized the way that people who are visually impaired go about their daily lives, from travel using individualized GPS directions to access to a wide range of published materials via screen-reader and OCR apps.* Museums are just beginning to explore how they can use these relatively inexpensive technological advances to make themselves more accessible.

The very best way for people who are visually impaired to experience a museum is a docent tour. Of course that can be difficult for most museums to provide for every exhibit space throughout the entire building. There are, however, three very simple things that all museums can do to make their exhibits more accessible to visitors who are visually impaired:

1. Put your label text (and any other written materials you have, like gallery guides) on your website in a format that can be downloaded.  You’ve written it all out anyhow. People who are visually impaired can access that information in the way they find most useful. They can print it out at home as large text or Braille and take that with them on their visit to your museum. At the museum they can read it directly off the website with their smart phone using a screen-reader app.

2. Use QR codes as part of your exhibit label to provide links to the information on your website. While QR codes haven’t been as successful for marketing as people hoped (to put it mildly), they are perfect for this purpose. In fact, in our opinion if museums were to do one thing to be more accessible, it would be to add QR codes to labels. A visitor with a smart phone can scan the code and hear the text (again using a screen-reader app). There are also smart phone apps that will scan the label itself and read it to the user. Some will even tell the user when the phone is “square” to the label and translate into one of over 200 languages.  (BTW make sure your security guards know to allow visitors to “take pictures” of the label for this purpose).

3. To make your labels and QR codes really useful, be consistent about where you place them (e.g., lower right corner of the case; 3 feet high and one foot to the right of the painting) so that they are easy to find. Using a separate standard sized frame for the QR codes would also be helpful. Ideally, all museums would agree on the same location for QR codes, but at least you can tell your visitors where to find yours.

None of these solutions is difficult or expensive, but would make all the difference in your museum being accessible.

*Standard screen-reader apps are TalkBack on Android phones and VoiceOver on all Apple products. OCR apps include ABBYYTextGrabber and KNFB Reader.


About the Authors
Janice Klein is the Executive Director of the Museum Association of Arizona. She has worked in the museum field for more than 30 years and has served as Chair of AAM’s Small Museum Administrators Committee and on the AASLH Small Museum Committee.

Chuck Dean worked as a tool and die maker until he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease (juvenile macular degeneration) in his early 30’s. Since becoming legally blind he has managed his own business as a licensed massage therapist. He is an avid technology-user and has been using smart phone apps to assist in his travels (and museum going) for more than 10 years. He is a regular contributor to the Apple Vis Website and ViPhone Discussion list. 

A New Resource on Collections Management

We are always on the lookout for new resources in museum management. The newly released book by Angela Kipp, Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections - A Practical Guide for Museums, is a  step-by-step guide for those confronted with an unmanaged collection as well as a tool for those needing to tackle backlogs, accession a large collection or make sense of an inherited system. 

The author describes the guide as a good fit for small museums:
"From a first assessment of the situation to securing the collection physically, from the first sorting to a documentation and collections care strategy, from the first wave of tidying to a complete storage master plan, this book provides an overview of what to do and when to do it. It always keeps in mind that the museum professional in a small museum is limited in money, staff and time. It especially keeps in mind that staff at small museums has a variety of different tasks and can’t work on the collection continuously. Therefore it creates “logical exits”, steps at which it is safe to stop the collections work for a certain amount of time without risking that everything done so far was useless. Wherever possible, it points to useful references and available resources. Overall, it provides ideas on how to bring order into a mess and stay a sane and healthy project manager."

For more information on this new resource, this link will take you to a google docs form with more details. Have suggestions of your own for great resources? Let us know!

Small Museum Friendly Sessions - 2016 Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo

Janice Klein has compiled a list of small museum friendly sessions for the upcoming 2016 Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Washington, DC.  Check out the list below; arranged by day. 

Be sure to visit the Marketplace of Ideas on Friday from 3 - 5 p.m. SMAC-AAM is partnering with the American Association of Museum Volunteers (AAMV) to discuss Recruitment, Retention and Training; 'Help! I'm New to Volunteer Management', Handling 'Problem' Volunteers and Technology for Volunteer Management.

Want to add a session to the list? Let us know!

Thursday, May 26

8:45 - 10 a.m.
  • Using Selfie Culture to Engage Audiences
  • 75 Ideas in 75 Minutes: Boosting Engagement at Small Museums
1 - 2:15 p.m.
  • Social Responsibility and Accessibility at Fallingwater

1:45 - 2:15 p.m.
  • Starting an Accessibility Initiative in a Small Museum


Friday, May 27

8:45 - 10 a.m.
  • 60 Great Ideas for Historic Sites and Historic Houses
  • Construction 2.0: Lessons Learned in Large and Small Museums
  • Stepping Up: The Challenges of Becoming a Museum Director
  • Public Participation in Scotland: Museums Are Part of It!
  • Skwishing Your Museum: A Guide To Sustainability
  • Getting Real About Museum CEO Leadership

 2 - 3:15 p.m.
  • Another Way: Embracing Diverse Expertise in Curation

 3 - 5 p.m.
  • Marketplace of Ideas: Small Museums Talk Volunteers and Sustainability


Saturday, May 28

8:45 - 10:00 a.m.
  • A Capital Idea: Alternative Unique Funding Sources
  • 11 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.
  • Grant Writing Basics for Small Museums
  • Making Small Museum Collections Accessible

2 - 3:15 p.m.
  • Engaging Latino Audiences: Lessons from the Museum Community
  • Where's the Power: Considering Our Place
  • Public Access: Challenges Surrounding Works in Public Places
  • Repatriating the Maori Head: The Power of a Small Museum to Effect Change

3:45 - 5 p.m.
  • Making a Good End: How to Close a Museum
  • Power to the People: Washington Gives Back
  • 75 Ideas in 75 Minutes: Fresh Ideas for Audience Engagement

2016 Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo
Thursday, May 26 – Sunday, May 29
Washington, DC


Advance registration ends soon – Friday, April 29th. Be sure to add your ticket for for the SMAC Luncheon scheduled for Saturday 12:30-1:45 p.m. 

Nik Honeysett, CEO of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC), will discuss the mechanisms, opportunities and downfalls of their collaborative technology initiative and how it might be replicated in your community. The BPOC serves Balboa Park cultural organizations in making cost-effective, sustainable technology decisions. Through resource sharing, the BPOC model helps small organizations gain access to the same kinds of technology resources as larger institutions.

A small museum friendly list of sessions is coming soon!