Recap: “Inclusive Design in Practice at the Smithsonian”

Read Time: 5.5 minutes

SEGD recaps our most recent SEGDVoices session on Inclusive Design in Practice at the Smithsonian with Beth Ziebarth.

When hearing the phrase “accessible design,” people tend to think in architectural terms. Wheelchair ramps. Toilet handrails. Water fountains of differing heights.

And while federal laws mandate specific ways to remove architectural barriers for people with disabilities, the concept of accessible design goes beyond basic guidelines. The concept of accessible design has evolved into “inclusive design,” a much more holistic vision.

“Equal accessibility cannot be an aspiration. It needs to be viewed as a fundamental right for every individual.” says Neeta Verma, Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame and a member of SEGD’s Academic Task Force. “Audiences are not monolithic, and designers are having to rethink design and design considerations to acknowledge these diverse abilities.”

Professor Verma along with her Academic Task Force counterpart, Angela Iarocci, Professor at Sheridan College in Ontario, both participated in SEGD’s latest webinar “Inclusive Design in Practice at the Smithsonian.” SEGD’s Director of Education, Hilary Jay, kicked off this hour-long webinar which drew some 180 viewers and presented some of the challenges designers face when implementing inclusive design principles in practice.

Guest speaker, Beth Ziebarth has a lot of experience in this area. Ziebarth is the Director of Access at the Smithsonian. Her role there is to develop and implement policies and guidelines across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo to accommodate the accessibility needs of 30 million visitors annually—no easy task!

In her presentation titled “Inclusive and Universal Design in Practice,” Ziebarth addressed the challenges of inclusive design, its real-world solutions at the Smithsonian and the continued evolution of what it means to be inclusive from a design standpoint.

Ziebarth focused mainly on the design of exhibitions and began her talk with a definition of inclusive design. Citing the Institute for Human Centered Design, Ziebarth explained that an inclusive exhibition is one that welcomes and engages people across the spectrum of ability, age and culture, and presents content in an equitable and integrated way.

To design a successful inclusive exhibition, Ziebarth recommends a “concept-through-construction” approach. Beginning with the conceptual phase, content developers and designers need to consider inclusivity—and continue to address inclusivity throughout the fabrication, installation, and maintenance stages—rather than waiting to see how visitors use and respond to a finished exhibition after it opens.

“Starting at the concept stage is going to yield a much better end product,” said Ziebarth. 

Which guidelines should designers follow in this concept-through-construction approach? Again, citing the Institute for Human Centered Design, Ziebarth contends that inclusive design goes beyond meeting minimum standards. Federal guidelines, such as ADA requirements, provide a starting point, but designers can expand upon those guidelines to better accommodate a greater range of people with a variety of disabilities.

At the Smithsonian, Ziebarth reported that early inclusive practices began in the 1970s, but became larger priorities in the 1990s when institutional policies were created in consultation with designers and updated in the years since. To Ziebarth, it’s been an evolutionary process and one that continues today.

“I really credit the younger staff who view [inclusive design] as a social justice issue and are very interested in making sure that we do things in an inclusive way,” said Ziebarth. “They’ve been the ones to form task forces at their museums on how to make things more inclusive.”

Public programs at the Smithsonian further enhance the exhibition experience for visitors with specific disabilities. Ziebarth presented three examples:

·  “Morning at the Museums” provides early visitor hours for kids who need less stimulus.

·  “See Me at the Smithsonian” is designed for people with dementia and their caregivers.

·  “How to Visit a Museum” is a series of videos designed to help kids with brain-based disabilities prepare for a visit to the museum.

Although supplemental to the museums’ main draws, public programs like these reinforce Ziebarth’s philosophy that everyone at the Smithsonian has a part in making exhibitions accessible, from security officers to curators and from designers to educators.

Digital accessibility standards came later to the Smithsonian, but have become a priority for Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch whose mantra, ever since leading the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is “diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.” With his support, a new Digital Accessibility Coordinator position is being created at the Smithsonian.

Ziebarth also reports that volunteers are playing a vital role in helping to inform inclusive design at the Smithsonian. Working with the Institute for Human Centered Design, the Smithsonian has created a User/Expert Group composed of people who have physical or sensory disabilities when dealing with their environments. There are now 50 User/Experts based in DC and another 300 based in Boston.

“What’s important here is that the environment is actually what disables somebody,” said Ziebarth. “It’s not necessarily the person and their attributes, but it’s the environment and how someone can work within that environment.”

The User/Experts are participating in prototype testing for digital interactives at the Air & Space Museum (to name just one example). The Smithsonian’s exhibition development teams have welcomed working with the volunteers. Media designers have found that consulting with User/Experts who have a range of disabilities helps improve the end product.

So, where does the evolution of inclusive design lead next? For Ziebarth, the future focus will be on intersectionality of identities. People with disabilities often have a variety of identities—racial, cultural, gender specific, etc.—that aren’t necessarily defined solely by a disability. To be more inclusive, designers will need to have a better understanding of these multiple identities.

“When we think about race, for example, we also need to think about the other identities that people may have,” said Ziebarth. “To me, this seems to be the future of what we will be working on. We need to challenge ourselves to address inclusion by looking at the full diversity of identities.”

Ziebarth wrapped up by presenting four specific Smithsonian projects:

·  Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American history

·  Keypad for the Air & Space Museum

·  Covid19 Reopening Taskforce

·  Art and Accessibility at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park

After Ziebarth’s presentation, Mo Khalfan and Simon Majarian of the SEGD Los Angeles Chapter moderated participants’ questions. You can hear the Q&A’s—as well as the entire webinar—by checking out the online video here.

Wrapping up, Professor Iarocci thanked Beth Ziebarth for her presentation, but also for her leadership in the field of inclusive design.

“One of things that I’m going to come away with is that collaboration is key,” said Iarocci as she thanked Ziebarth. “People with disabilities need to be co-creators in the process, and that’s been reinforced in everything you’ve discussed.”

For more on Inclusive Digital Interactive and best practices view this resourcefrom the Smithsonian, the Institute for Human Centered Design, and MuseWeb.

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