Project Access New York

Project Access New York: Best Practices for Access and Inclusion in the Arts was a one-day special conference held at the Museum of Modern Art on May 2, 2013. As you would expect, the organizers, did an excellent job of making the videos of the conference accessible on YouTube with closed captioning and verbal descriptions. They are included in the Agenda for the event below.

I was invited to present the Smithsonian’s work on the Access American Stories app and our plans to “productize” the app and platform so that other organizations can reuse and customize the code to create their own apps for crowd sourcing verbal descriptions and more. More on how that idea has developed here.

I got useful feedback on the app’s development from the audience both in response to my presentation and informally outside of the sessions:

  • In addition to the crowdsourced verbal descriptions, include the text from object labels in the app. The ability to enlarge the text on the smartphone screen or use the screenreader to have the label text read to users is very useful and is a “universal design” opportunity that will help people who have no vision disabilities if there are crowds around specific objects so that it’s hard to get to the label to read it.
  • Let people know they don’t have to listen to everything in the app. This one surprised me a bit, but I have heard that some people think “audio tour” when they see a museum app, and feel obliged to listen to everything in it. This can put an unnecessary time pressure on the visit and app use. In the same vein, one attendee wondered if there’s a way the app can help people “stay on target” as they tend to run out of time in the gallery. I’m not sure that is this app’s job, though it is interesting food for thought…
  • Include a skip function so people can quickly move away from a verbal description that isn’t done in a style they like and listen to a different contribution instead. At the same time, give users a way back to messages they liked!
  • When the app is opened, the audio should not automatically start playing. This was not a big surprise: this feature was a test of the way the Scapes app, on whose opensource Roundware code the first version of Access American Stories was based, worked. It made sense in the context of a mobile art installation for the deCordova Sculpture Park, but worked less well for a more informational/interpretive experience in the galleries.
  • Tell people where to start. Again, a bit surprising if you think people want total freedom in the museum – and they do, but they also like to be led by the hand a bit, especially as they are getting their bearings. A locator audio message  can help with orientation as well as use of the app.
  • Include an audio message describing where the object is in the gallery before each object’s verbal description – just in case the other positioning solutions (be they a human companion or some fancy indoor positioning technology) aren’t working at that moment!

There were professional verbal describers in the audience who were anxious about the idea of crowdsourcing verbal descriptions. I don’t think this was just because it may seem to threaten their jobs, but also because of legitimate concerns about the quality of the descriptions. There is no reason why Access American Stories and any other app built on the Roundware platform can’t also include professional verbal descriptions. We hope to be able to test user response to a mix of professional and crowdsourced content. I suspect that people will vary widely in what they like, with those who are used to traditional, professional verbal descriptions favoring that mode at least a little. As the 2007 study of visitors’ interpretive preferences in the Matthew Barney exhibition at SFMOMA found, more people use wall labels than any other interpretive platform (including audio tours, cellphone tours, brochures and kiosks) even though they report the lowest satisfaction with wall labels. Museum visitors’ habits tend to be as ingrained as museum practices! But we think there are also audiences for other approaches, and are hypothesizing that crowdsourced ranking of the user-contributed verbal descriptions will help the crowd-pleasers rise to the top of everyone’s playlist in the app.

The whole conference was great, but I was particularly inspired by Aimee Mullins and the panelists’ responses to the way she approaches disability as an opportunity. Watch that session here. I was also convinced to visit the Brooklyn Children’s Museum by Weema Harris’s presentation about their sensory room for children and families with sensory integration challenges.


Morning Greetings:

9:30     Welcome [5 mins]

            Glenn D. Lowry, Director of The Museum of Modern Art

  • Access at MoMA and the history of accessibility in NYC

9:35     Welcome [5 mins]

            Kate D. Levin, Commissioner of NYC Department of Cultural Affairs

  • New York City’s cultural organizations are at the forefront of accessibility and these are the types of strategies we should think about, etc.
  • Introduces the themes of the day: Public Policy, Law, Audience and Best Practices/Case Studies
  • Introduction of Commissioner Victor Calise 

9:40     Agency Priorities for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities [10 mins]

Victor Calise, Commissioner of Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

  • Public Policy, MOPD, its work, and Project Access and its goals

9:50     Access Law Updates and Definition of Reasonable Accommodations [30 mins]

Chair: Nicholas R. Williams, Esq. Senior Partner, Clifford Chance / Board Chair, Art Beyond Sight

Lara Eshkenazi, Deputy Chief, Civil Rights Unit, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York

  • The ADA and what it means for cultural institutions.

Edward O’Callaghan, Partner, Clifford Chance, Formerly an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York

  • Recent settlements and case study

10:20   The Changing Face of the Disability Community and Technology [50 mins total incl. Q&A]

  • Why and how has it changed? Changing face of the disability community in NYC
  • What are the disability awareness, equity, and other social and ethical issues around cultural inclusion?
  • What is legally required and fundable

Chair: Sunny Bates, Sunny Bates Associates and TED Talks

Piotr Adamczyk, Google Cultural Institute on Technology

Aimee Mullins, Athlete, Fashion Icon, Actor, Advocate and Design Innovator

11:10   Accessibility in Practice [50 mins; 10 per /10 Q&A]

  • NYC Cultural institutions the strategies they used to address issues in accessibility, successes and challenges of their approaches; how access fits within the institutions’ missions and allows them to preserve the integrity of the art form.

      Chair: Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community and Access Program, The Museum of Modern Art

Wema Harris, Brooklyn Children Museum

  • Talks about the newly open sensory room and other initiatives for children with disabilities.

Jacqueline MartinezAssociate Vice President for Human Resources and Administration, New York Botanical Garden

  • We have found that the best way to approach accessibility is through a collaborative effort between staff and visitors.

Lisa Carling, Director of Accessibility Programs, The Theatre Development Fund

  • TDF’s most visible access programs—our National Open Captioning Initiative and Autism Theatre Initiative—encourage taking advantage of local resources in the community, which helps to strengthen the introduction of new access services and encourage sustainability for the long run. The consumer’s voice speaks the loudest in terms of bringing about accessibility changes Cost versus impact?  Making tough decisions on providing services.

Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director, Historic House Trust of New York City

  • The Anarchist Guide to Historic Houses: Thoughts on Access Issues of access and inclusion within a new conceptual framework for historic house museums framed on: Physicality & Interactivity / Visual Expression of Habitation / Community & Information Engagement / Condition & Preservation

Afternoon Greetings:

1:00     Welcome [5 mins]

Shirley Levy, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs

  • Cultural Affairs’ support of increased access through capital projects and programs that improve public access for people with disabilities

1:05     Reaching Art Patrons with Disabilities [40 mins incl. Q&A]

  • Presenters discuss how to target and market cultural offerings to people with disabilities.

            Jason Mischel, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

  • Why access is important and a look at NYC audience statistics.

            Joan Pursley, Art Beyond Sight

  • Highlights from six focus groups held with adults with disabilities on things arts/cultural organizations can do to make their participation more meaningful – no-cost/low-cost changes that make a big difference.

Tahra Grant, Board Member, Art Beyond Sight and Senior Account Executive, Rubenstein Communications

  • Will address instances and case studies of successful and unsuccessful approaches to marketing to and supporting people with disabilities. I will speak on a cross-section of what works, what doesn’t, what’s important to keep in mind.

Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director, Historic House Trust of New York City

1:50     Access Possibilities thru Emerging Technologies: Roundtable Discussion [50 min w Q&A]

  • Presenters will discuss emerging technology that will make museums, cultural institutions, and experiences accessible to all audiences, including those with sensory disabilities and learning differences.

            Chair: Nina Levent, Executive Director, Art Beyond Sight

       Anna Lindgren-Streicher, Research and Evaluation Project Manager, Museum of Science, Boston

  • The Museum of Science, Boston hosted a workshop based on rapid application development and hackathons that focused on a specific design challenge related to better serving visitors with disabilities in museum settings. The process used during the workshop, its outcomes, and the applicability of the model to other institutions will be discussed.
  • How can the museum field best draw on the expertise of individuals from other areas of work to solve accessibility-related problems? Are the replicable methods of rapid exhibit development that can be shared across the museum field? 

            Duann Scott, Designer Evangelist, Shapeways

  • How can 3D printing used to help the visually impaired? 
  • How can the visually impaired use 3D printing?

Scott Harmon, Vice President of Corporate Development, 3D Systems/Geomagic

  • Virtual touch systems in museums and virtual touch project at the Manchester Museum

            Piotr Adamczyk, Google Cultural Institute on Technology

  • What changes qualitatively in how we look at art when we use technology? Do we need, or are we creating a new vocabulary for these kinds of art experiences? Is this the New Aesthetic, just more in-gallery and object photography, or something else?

2:45     Access with Mobile Devices: Roundtable Discussion: [35 mins]

  • Discussion of accessibility challenges and opportunities that arise with the proliferation of mobile technologies, smart phone and open source software.
  • How mobile devices level the playing field (more so than any other device)

Chair: Cynthia Overton, Senior Research Analyst in Education Human Development and the Workforce, American Institutes for Research

Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director, Institute for Human-Centered Design

  • Universal Design and how to address the growing audience of people with different functional limitations and millions of patrons with invisible disabilities

            What is a greater institutional rationale for accessibility   

Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives, Smithsonian Institution

  • Will describe the Smithsonian’s plans to develop an open source “access app” platform and toolkit for reuse by other organizations, both within the Smithsonian and beyond, and will invite ideas and collaboration from the audience on this project.
  • Will address key challenges and learnings from the pilot “Access American Stories” app project, including interface design and interior location-based services that can help people know which object they are in front of.

Matthew Kaplowitz, Founding partner/ Director of Technology and Content Innovation, Bridge Multimedia

  • Museum, mobiles and accessibility: where are we going? How do we move towards universal access to content management? 

3:20     Closing Remarks & Thank Yous [5 mins]

        Shirley Levy, DCA & Jason Mischel, MOPD  

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