One of the (many) areas in which recent innovations in technology has had a huge impact is in making cultural institutions (e.g., museums, parks, theaters) more accessible to those with disabilities. While mobile devices have been quite beneficial in improving accessibility, the technology also introduces many new questions for these institutions. This was the topic of a one-day conference this week, Tech@LEAD, that I was lucky enough to attend.
The conference brought together a number of administrators, technologists and accessibility experts. In addition to showing off some new and interesting technologies, the conference also featured lots of great discussion around some of the big accessible technology issues these institutions face. Here are some of the topics that were discussed.
Helping the disabled (and also the able bodied) to navigate a large space like a museum is a challenge. In addition, institutions would often like to provide deeper contextual information on exhibits in an accessible way. Several potential solutions exist, such as WiFi, QR codes and Bluetooth based systems. Boston’s Museum of Science is currently testing a commercial application called ByteLight, which is based on the use of LED lights, and they find it quite promising.
A whole discussion was had around the benefits and drawbacks of visitors bringing their own devices (BYOD) to these institutions for accessibility.The pros of BYOD include the fact that the visitor provides the device (saving institutions hardware costs) and that they’re comfortable with them. On the con side, the institution is then faced with building and supporting functionality to run on multiple platforms. Native apps can provide for greater accessibility, but require more maintenance to ensure they continue to work across all (or many) platforms. Some suggested sticking with mobile web sites to get around the multi-platform issue. Others suggested that too much reliance on mobile devices can make the experience isolating. All agreed that, ultimately, it’s the content that matters and the technology shouldn’t get in the way of the experience.
The application of game techniques was presented as a potential method for improving accessibility. Neuroscientist Dr. Lotfi Merabet presented data showing that the blind learn spatial layouts better through gaming than through direct instruction, so making a game out of learning the institution's layout could be helpful. Games can also help make content more engaging but, as Mark Barlet of AbleGamers reminded everyone, games should ultimately be fun.
Late in the day it was noted that all of this technology being used for accessibility purposes can lead to a wealth of new data on how the disabled experience cultural institutions. If collected and made available to all, these data could be much more powerful than existing studies on the disabled which often have very small sample sizes. This seems like an area that really hasn’t been addressed much yet.
All-in-all there were a lot more questions asked than answered, which was to be expected, since this was the inaugural year for the Tech@LEAD conference. Co-organizer Larry Goldberg, of the National Center for Accessible Media, told me that it seems likely the conference will be held again next year. Let’s hope it is and that technology continues to help make art and culture available to all.
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