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published: April, 2002

© Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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   ribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License

MW2002: Papers

Designing the Accessible Web Museum: If I Can Experience It, Everyone Can Experience It Better

Jeffrey J. Moyer, M.R.A, Consultant on Access, USA


Individuals with disabilities face barriers when seeking to interact with virtual  and physical museums.  Solutions to accessibility problems can provide an individualized experience for all visitors.  The application of international standards can provide accessible web museums.  Onsite, museum location-specific web portals will make the treasures of museums available to everyone in the manner and with the content they desire. Cutting edge technology will open both aspects of the museum experience to all visitors.

Keywords: disability, access, standards, location-based information, solutions

Accessible to Whom?

There are many compelling reasons to design web museums that are open to and accessible by all cyber visitors.  In addition to opening access to people with a range of abilities and limitations, accessible design also provides websites that are more usable by all, and available through a wider array of technology.  When most designers think about access considerations they try to imagine the needs of what they assume is a very small population that has no real need or desire to seek or use their information.  However, recently released data from the U.S. Census presents a very different picture.  Consider the following.  (Data from the U.S. Census  is  used – not because of a U.S.-centric perspective – but because these current and reliable figures represent an excellent snapshot of the human family in developed countries.)  Of all Americans over 15 years old, 3.7% have difficulty seeing words or letters, 3.8% have difficulty hearing conversation and, we can assume, sound content on websites, 3.2% have difficulty grasping objects, including a computer mouse, 1.7% have learning disabilities, 0.7% have retardation, and 0.9% have Alzheimer's, senility, or dementia (McNeil, 2001). For each of these subgroups, there are design considerations to remove the barriers to website use that do not detract from the nature, depth, quality, or design interest of accessible web pages.  These percentages are not additive, because   many people with disabilities experience multiple disabilities.  However, almost one in five Americans self report having a significant disability.  

Disability Facts and Design Fixes

Let's look briefly at what the facts are about some categories of disability and what museum web designers and administrators can do to create welcoming and usable web museums. 


For those who are functionally blind, we can assume that there will be no screen or mouse access.  Computers, whatever the application or function, are used through speech synthesis or electronic Braille displays.   This presents the need for linear text presentations and specific table clarity when tables are used.  Alt tags can provide text descriptions for all graphic or non-text images.  Further, alt tags and text on links will provide specific information of benefit to those not able to follow visual elements like "Click here."   Avoid multiple columns when presenting text.  Screen readers may read all text on a line, disregarding columns, which will result in unintelligible verbal garble.  When my now-adult son was learning to read as a child, he did not understand columns and read the following sentence as his eyes jumped the white space between two columns in a children's encyclopedia, "Dogs are human beings…and the only mammals with wings."  Articulate row and column for each table cell.  That is, don't present numbers within table format without writing within the cell its row and column position.  Summarize tables to highlight significant data if specific detail is not needed by the user.  Avoid boxes around text because they can interfere with the understandability of surrounded data.  Imagine hearing "underline," or "asterisks," 67 times as the speech synthesizer reads what is on the screen.

Low Vision

The majority of individuals with vision loss have low vision -- defined as loss of visual field, limited acuity, or both.  People with low vision have a wide range of visual abilities and often use computers by reading enlarged or enhanced text.  Access is often gained through variable screen enlargement, a technique that by definition reduces the percentage of the total screen that can be viewed at one time.  Such enlargement also necessitates left-right scrolling.  When laying out pages, present text outside of graphic elements, making text easier to read.  Avoid difficult-to-read fonts.  Avoid moving text and pages that auto-refresh because many users with low vision, and other disabilities, may read more slowly.  Maintain high-low glare contrast – contrast sensitivity is often diminished for people with low vision.   Provide the ability to over-ride style sheets with personal style sheets, thereby allowing low vision users to employ color and contrast selections to assist with maximum individual usability.

Color Blindness 

Most of us would not think of color blindness as a real problem for web users.  However, that is not necessarily true.  Color blindness ranges from color deficiency to total color loss.  The worst colors for many individuals with damage to color perception are reds, greens, oranges, and yellows.  Color coding and critical highlighting can prove problematic for people with color perception difficulty.  Use additional designation for critical color attributes, i.e. asterisks or grouping.  Use bright, pure colors, rather than muted or darker hues.  Like low vision, provide for user ability to over-ride style sheets with personal style sheets.  To analyze your museum site as it might appear without color attributes, try checking your site on a black/white monitor. There is an excellent website that provides a general color-blindness simulator, www.vischeck.com .  

Deafness and Hearing Impairment

Deafness and Hearing Impairment, like all disabilities, presents a full continuum of loss.  Assume that the audible portion of your site will be inaccessible.  Lip reading, a generally ineffectual means of receptive communication under the best of conditions, becomes impossible on computer monitors.   Furthermore, lip reading and sign language use are not universal among people with hearing loss.  Provide synchronized captions and/or transcripts for audio elements of web pages. To understand this concept, consider the model of television captioning.

Physical Disability

 Physical Disability can represent a range of limitation to hand dexterity and control, often interfering with mouse use.    Access to computers for people with severe physical disabilities is gained through keyboard or alternative switching systems that take advantage of whatever volitional control may be available.  These may include; key guards to avoid inadvertent key strokes, head or mouth sticks, puff and sip switches, tongue-operated switches, and eye-gaze systems.  Individuals who have physical limitations often experience fatigue when multiple repetitive key stroke sequences are demanded.  Avoid navigational strategies requiring only mouse use.  Provide for means of skipping long link lists to avoid fatigue.  Number links for immediate access and implement access key for selectability.

Cognitive Disabilities

When we consider cognitive disabilities, we must again think about a continuum of cognitive abilities and limitations that includes memory impairment, retardation, and learning disabilities.  The genius Einstein lived with cognitive disability.  More typical are the millions of individuals with disabilities in this category  who learn, work, and live normal lives.  The effect of these disabilities on web access is the inability to orient to and navigate within overly complex and poorly organized sites. Consider the following suggestions.   Develop simple and intuitive interfaces.  Clearly and directly word text.  Keep navigational schemes consistent.  Use non-decorative representational pictographics. Maintain alt tag text and the ability to freeze animated graphics.  Individuals with reading limitations may use text to speech software. Provide a variety of searching strategies.

Seizure Disorder

Seizure Disorder is rarely considered when thinking about public places or public websites.  Some seizures may be triggered by flashing light between 2 and 55 Hz. Simply avoid flashing banners or other page elements that attract attention but may trigger seizures.

Technical Standards and Resources

The source for international standards on accessible web design is www.w3.org/WAI.  The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is the international standards consortium.  One of the greatest contributions they have given the web community is the priority levels for their accessibility guidelines.  Priority 1 designates essential design elements for access by one or more subgroups of people with disabilities. Priority 2 indicates strongly recommended design elements, and Priority 3 desirable design elements. Further, the WAI provides technical "how to" standards, guidance, and materials for web designers. 

For those interested in applying the principles of accessible design to their museum websites, there are a plethora of resources that can teach, guide, direct and assess efforts.   

Here are just a few: 


  • Web Accessibility in Mind.  This program educates, and trains web developers.  It is an initiative of the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University, funded through U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (LAAP).


  • Bobby - a cyber survey and available software package on web site accessibility- is found here.  Using WAI standards and priorities, Bobby provides software on web site accessibility, sponsored by IBM.


  • a compendium of web access resources, cyber surveys of web site accessibility, extensive resources and practical guides.  WebAble is a Boston-based company whose president, Michael Paciello, is the author of Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities.

Web Accessibility Initiative Quick Tips

Here are ten quick tips on accessible design from the Web Accessibility Initiative, www.w3.org/WAI

  1. Images and animations - use the alt attribute to describe the function on each visual element.

  2. Image Maps - Use the client-side map and text for hotspots.

  3. Multimedia presentations - Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video. 

  4. Hypertext links - Use text that makes sense when read out of context.  For example, avoid "click here."

  5. Page organization - Use headings, lists, and consistent structure.  Use CSS for layout and style where possible. 

  6. Graphs and charts  - Summarize or use the longdesc attribute. 

  7. Scripts, applets, and plug-ins  - Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.

  8. Frames  - Use the noframes element and meaningful titles. 

  9. Tables  - Make line-by-line reading sensible and summarize. 

  10. Check your work  - Validate and use tools, checklist, and guidelines at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG.

The Future

Web museums are virtual representations of physical museums in most cases.  Occasionally virtual museums reflect no “brick and mortar” place of collection.  In either case, the desirability of making virtual visits possible that are not tied to a desktop computer is obvious.  Further, when the museum on the web reflects a physical museum, being able to access the web while visiting the physical museum opens a never-before tapped potential for content exploration for everyone as well as a means of providing access to data currently unavailable to those unable to see or read labels and signs. 

The New York Times Circuits Section reported on February 14, 2002, that, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market research firm, only 10% of the U.S.'s 130 million cell phone users currently use phones to send and receive data.  The Yankee Group projects that by 2006, fully half of all cell phone customers will use wireless data services.  A new generation of cell phones will be needed and is under rapid development.  Future phones must have location functions built in, most of today’s phones do not.  It was also pointed out that in order for users to browse the web with tiny 5 line displays, websites will have to develop scaled-back versions, free of graphics and band-width-hogging material. The prototype design mentioned for this type of access is Amazon.com's text only service for users with visual disabilities.  The website, www.amazon.com/access , is free of graphics, advertisements and pictures.  The Times noted that such design is perfect for cell phone users.  This type of web use will employ Short Messaging Service, or SMS.  SMS will be the next breakthrough service according to Verizon Wireless (Hafner, 2002).  Such portable on-site web museum access then will necessitate attention to the same type of design that today will assist any user using speech for reading.  

The article further notes that with GPS, location-based services present a nearly infinite range of possible applications.  But GPS does not work indoors.  A U.S. company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Talking Signs Inc.( www.talkingsigns.com ), has developed and is installing an access technology that provides directional, way-finding information through infrared transmitters and receivers.  (Note: The author serves as Director of Community Relations for Talking Signs). This innovative access technology also holds the potential for solving the problem of location-based services indoors.   Talking Signs® transmitters incorporate PointLink™ technology - now being installed in all transmitters in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.  This combined system includes directional infrared transmitters that provide human voice way-finding sign messages and simultaneously emit an identification, or domain, code for accessing web pages particular to that location in the built environment.  This will be accomplished when next generation receiving devices -- such as future cellular web phones or PDA's -- can process the received unique domain code and then communicate with wireless local area network technology or cellular service.  The company is installing the system in numerous public places worldwide including on buses, in transit stations, universities, convention centers, intersections, and a variety of other public venues.  This remote infrared audible signage has been installed in many museums including a pilot demonstration at The Boston Museum of Science and a complete installation at the Cincinnati Children’s Museum.  An extensive installation of 300 Talking Sign® transmitters are incorporated throughout the new The Pequot Museum, outside of Mystic, Connecticut.  While earlier Talking Sign® system installations were for the purpose of directional way-finding alone, all current Talking Sign® transmitters incorporate PointLink™ technology.  Presently the following Japanese museums are equipped with Talking Sign® and PointLink™ transmitters: the Nature Museum, Kanagawa Prefecture; the Nature Museum, Ibaraki Prefecture; the Archaeology Museum, Kani City; the Dejima History Museum, Nagasaki City, and the Exhibition Centro of the Tokyo Gas Company, Ltd. 

Let’s get back to imagining how web access will be provided using location-based information through PointLink™ technology.  The handheld device is pointed at a PointLink™ transmitter and, by receiving and processing this infrared transmission, communicates the  “domain code” of that particular location to an Internet Service Provider.  The web page of the location will then appear on the hand held device where the desired information is presented to be browsed by the user, either through visual or auditory means.  Imagine visitors to your museum being able to review content on site in their native language.  Utilizing the power of the web, the museum visitor also has immediate access to the depth and range of data on the museum website germane to that physical location.  In the U.S., Japan, and Europe, the Talking Signs® system (which contains PointLink™) is spreading rapidly, making it the defacto world standard.  A critical aspect of this means of providing location-based services is that, in addition to providing a portal to the web, the technology is device, system, and protocol independent.


So as surely as the curb cut has increased freedom of travel and comfort to numerous segments of the population not envisioned by advocates and planners involved in the removal of architectural barriers in the built environment, developing and maintaining accessible web museums and linking this content to location-based access in the built museum will expand and integrate the web museum as never before.  Providing curb cuts ensures physical access.  Designing accessible web sites will ensure universal access.  We are on the cusp of real change.  We have the technology.  We have the understanding.  Now all we need is the vision and the will.  


Hafner, K. (2002, February 14). The future of cell phones is here – sort of.  The New York Times, p. G7.

McNeil, J. (2001). Americans with Disabilities: Household Economic Studies (U.S. Census Bureau P70-73).  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.