All museums should aspire to make their websites more accessible to diverse user groups. Michelle Padilla and Peggy Speir share with MuseumNext their experience in enhancing the Disability, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) initiatives at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. They have successfully carried out an extensive alt text project, making the museum’s website more accessible to the wider community.
The Amon Carter Museum, like many other museums and cultural organizations, has been diligently working to make its online experience inclusive and accessible. At the heart of this endeavor is a significant emphasis on alternative (alt) text for their digital assets, resulting in a more impactful online presence.
The alt text initiative, which has so far updated over 500 art pieces, aims to progressively include thousands of the museum’s most remarkable exhibits. The objective isn’t just to comply with the minimum standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but to provide a holistic solution for their diverse audience.
The alt text project started early in 2022 when Michelle Padilla, the museum’s Digital Content Strategist, and Peggy Speir, Manager of Access Programs and Resources, took up the task of researching, writing, and planning alt text for many of the museum’s non-collection images.
“Our website was redesigned in September 2019, with expansion work going on till the end of 2021, all centered around accessibility and mobile-first. The right time had come for us to focus on online accessibility, having already concentrated on in-person visit accessibility,” says Michelle.
Peggy adds that during the onset of the pandemic, they intensified their accessibility efforts, for instance, by making closed captioning compulsory on all videos. They also began focusing on building their online visual descriptions and accessibility tools.
“We have a strong group of writers – some of whom had some existing expertise in this area and others who had no art historical background. We knew this could actually be very helpful in writing alt text because they would be more likely to describe artworks in simpler, less technical terms.”
Achieving website accessibility with appropriate expertise
A crucial aspect of the museum’s accessibility program was to bring in the support of external experts – organisations able to identify best practice and present ideas that could inform more effective user engagement. This involved collaborating with community partners to test and gain feedback.
One such partner was Lighthouse for the Blind – a local organisation serving those in the community with low or no vision. Peggy says
“We wanted to partner with them because we wanted insight into what our end users needed for the best online experience.
“They shared with us their knowledge of how readers could be used and, most importantly, what resonated with people. We were very conscious that the language used by those with a background in art history might be very different to the language that is most beneficial to a visually impaired audience, for instance.”
Peggy explains that, through their work with Lighthouse for the Blind, live training sessions were developed to help the writing team create effective content. The training session incorporated discussions around the pros and cons of different terms and approaches, as part of a constructive critiquing session.
Both Michelle and Peggy also note that they gained a lot of information by researching what other museums and cultural institutions were doing in their accessibility programs. Michelle says,
“We took a lot of inspiration and guidance from the likes of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I also looked beyond the museum industry for information on how alt text might be developed and applied to museum websites.
“One thing that became clear was that we needed to be decisive, make choices and simply be aware that we might not get absolutely everything right first time. But the beauty of the web is that we have the power to change things as we learn.”
The challenges of description in alt text
Going deeper into the mechanics of improving the accessibility of the website, Michelle suggests that one of the most difficult aspects of the project and of any descriptive initiative is how to approach certain themes and issues.
“For example, how do you appropriately describe images featuring people of different races and ethnicities for those who are visually impaired?” she says. “How do you describe artwork featuring disturbing elements? And how do you explain a very abstract artwork that has unusual patterns and colours?”
Peggy adds, “We created a style guide to give our writers a helpful steer on how we had agreed to handle certain terms or present numbers. It certainly helped that we already had quite a reputation as an institution for our work on accessibility and that discussions around some of the challenges weren’t entirely new or unfamiliar to our team.”
The team acknowledge the importance of being able to admit where the sticking points are and be candid about sensitive topics that warrant internal and external consultation.
Michelle and Peggy are now in the process of preparing for the next phase of alt text development. They say there are some clear areas where they will aim to provide their writing team with more guidance and support – particularly around areas such as abstract art and describing race.
“Overall, I think we’ve learnt the value of being as precise as possible,” Michelle explains. “Alt text should be short and so there is a need to use descriptive words very carefully.”
Peggy adds, “I think the training and the process of testing our approach has been invaluable. Over time you almost begin to see things in alt text. You become more adept at speaking precisely and concisely.”
It is these learnings that will help to carry the team at the Carter forwards as they roll out this project over thousands of pieces as they continue to make their website more accessible over the coming years.
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