Part 7 | Designing Accessible Institutions

Community Involvement: The Key to Access and Inclusion

by John Rae | October 2015

Editor’s Note: In his first six articles for the OHS Bulletin, John Rae examined a variety of access issues for museums and heritage organizations. In his seventh installment, John discusses the importance of involving members from the disabled community in your efforts to make an organization or institution more inclusive. John, an OHS member and volunteer, is also a member of the Inclusive Design and Accessibility Committee at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg.

This article first appeared in the October 2015 OHS Bulletin (Issue 196).

John Rae experiments with one of the CMHR’s new digital kiosks, designed to increase accessibility.

Even before the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened last year in Winnipeg, former president and CEO Stuart Murray promised that “Smithsonian guidelines for accessible design will be met or exceeded, as will the most stringent criteria under the National Building Code and Web-based accessibility standards. That means using things like multisensory technology and design expertise, so everyone can participate equally—whether blind or Deaf, in a wheelchair, intellectually challenged or culturally diverse. No other Canadian institution has ever been able to approach accessibility in this way.”

But this commitment may not have been realized if the Museum hadn’t actively involved the disability community throughout the development process. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) led the charge.

“From the announcement by Izzy Asper of his vision for a human rights museum in Winnipeg, we (the disability community) knew that we must engage as fully as possible to ensure access and that the disability rights story was told,” said Laurie Beachell, former National Coordinator of CCD.

“The exciting thing for people with disabilities is not only that a space is being created for a new understanding of human rights, but also that it will be fully accessible,” she added. “As our understanding of human rights evolves, so will our understanding of access and inclusive design. The disability community is pleased to be part of something that can raise awareness about what inclusion really means.”

“Collaboration was the name of the game; on design, on content, on sharing information and knowledge. The CCD’s commitment to work with all partners (engineers, architects, curators, media relations) has resulted in a very disability friendly and accessible museum,” added Beachell.

“The Museum’s bold, new approach is an amazing opportunity for accessibility to permeate all aspects of design right from the beginning – as opposed to tacking it on later,” said Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design. “The timing is perfect because the technology now exists to take accessibility to a new level that was not possible before.”

Winnipeg human-rights lawyer Yvonne Peters, who is blind, said that access issues go far beyond moving wheelchairs through doors. “I get very frustrated when I go to Museums,” she said. “I want to be included in an experience that is designed to include me, where my needs are not considered as an afterthought.”

The CMHR is the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights in Canada. While it has a diverse permanent collection along with visiting exhibits, it focuses primarily on providing information to help enhance our understanding of human rights.

The CMHR’s accessibility features include:

  • A unique tactile keyboard designed by the Museum and vetted by the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD- which is incorporated into touchscreen installations- will enable vision-impaired and mobility-restricted visitors to navigate digital exhibits independently.
  • Software interfaces which exceed best practices in areas like colour contrast, reach, and functionality (for ease of digital navigation and comprehension).
  • Tactile wall and floor elements to indicate the location and orientation of various exhibits and assist in wayfinding.
  • Film and video displays that include open captioning, descriptive video, American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ).
  • High contrast visual elements and text to accommodate low-vision guests and visitors who are colour blind or dyslexic.
  • Mobile and digital media that incorporate elements like closed and open captioning, described video, ASL, and LSQ. The Museum is also investigating Near Field Communication technology which would prompt visitors when (via proximity) to access descriptions and supplemental interpretation on mobile devices.
  • Staff training which will ensures that interpretive programming and visitor interactions are inclusive and mindful of a full range of accessibility needs.
  • Graphic standards that meet or surpass Smithsonian guidelines for text organization and visual presentations. Examples include: easily legible typeface, font size, weight, contrast and proportion.
  • Consideration of the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, children, the elderly, those with language barriers, and the mentally ill.