Mapping Access in Cultural Spaces

CDL member Alessandra Pearson shares her thoughts on the process of designing a project on the accessibility of cultural spaces, including how accessibility mapping methodologies and specific digital tools can inform ways of thinking about accessibility as a right and obligation of public amenities.

-Alessandra Pearson-

Access to culture is a civil right. Such a generalized sentence could refer anything: Physical access to a museum or play? Internet access to a transcript of a panel discussion? How can we define ‘access’ within the context of cultural spaces? And how can we make others outside of our field understand why access is important in the first place?

Increasing access to cultural institutions with individuals with embodied differences in mind is mutually beneficial. Institutions can welcome more people through their doors, and disabled people can experience cultural programming. Of course, there are multiple methods for exploring this intersection, but this particular project stemmed from my interest in understanding what the Critical Design Lab’s Mapping Access project could look like from a cultural standpoint and when implemented in a different geographic region (such as Denver, where I’m currently located).

I was curious: what does a comprehensive overview of current local cultural accessibility teach us? And, what can cultural organizations learn from this? I was hoping to create a map could increase the understanding of the importance of cultural accessibility, particularly for those who don’t necessarily consider access as key to/necessary for cultural experiences. With an overall visual of various institutions that advertise certain accessibility features, perhaps we can search for gaps in access and influence institution- and city-wide improvements.

Another challenge I am exploring with this project is approaching what a non-visually-prioritized map looks like. How do you decrease prioritization of the visual in mapping? What information is most helpful to users who rely on screen readers or their other senses to take in the information?

As with Mapping Access, one influence for the project is Vancouver’s Radical Access Mapping Project (RAMP). This project provides guidelines for accessibility audits and uses the Google MyMaps tool hosted on BatchGeo to list local organizations. Viewers of the map are linked to Google docs listing full audits of the spaces to find information about ramps, accessible restrooms, parking, and more. The open source features of this resource and the extensive detail of the listed access features for each space on this map make it useful for most disability communities.

Talking to potential users of this tool, I found that it is most useful as part of a larger suite of access-related resources I am compiling for my thesis project at University of Denver. One person, Damon McLeese from Denver’s Access Gallery, specified that having easily-viewable links to accessibility features on organization’s websites would be great to have all in one place. Another potential user, Jenny, specified that it would be helpful to have directional information about the entrances to organizations, since she would be accessing the information with the help of a screen reader and thus will not use the visual map component.

I began by testing various substantial mapping tools online like MapBox and OpenStreet Map. These provided complex features but are harder for both creators and end users of the map. Then, I tested free and user-friendly mapping tools such as Google MyMaps. I ended up focusing on this tool given its simplicity and the fact that I was able to get something up and running quickly. (Check out the first draft iteration here).

To ensure that I have comprehensive accessibility information about each location, I chose to do a few test audits with an accessibility checklist provided by Vancouver’s RAMP project. I modified their open source checklist to suit this project by removing checklist sections specific to events or restaurants, for example.

After doing my first audit, though, I realized that spending so much time reviewing organizations might not be the best use of my time on this project. I’d like to keep adding organizations to the existing Google MyMap that I’ve created so far – but I am currently deciding where to go next with this project. While thorough access audits are important for disability communities to get as much information as they need about a space, I also want this resource to be a call to action for cultural organizations who need to make access feature improvements.

We’ll see where the project goes from here! This could mean reaching out to organizations to inquire about performing internal access audits, since not every place lists even has an ‘accessibility’ page on their website listing features that help disabled people access their programming.

Further, I’m hoping to continue exploring the non-visual component of the map by testing out a few basic HTML-based maps that feature directional information and links to the organizations’ websites.