Making Public History More Accessible During Times of Uncertainty

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Children and a man holding sacks around their bodies prepare to jump across a field.

A Park Ranger participates in a sack race with students during the “Sensory Friendly Night” event at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in June 2019. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is as good a time as ever for every museum and historic site to devise strategies to make public history more accessible. For public historians—as with many other industries related to travel and tourism—this year has been filled with chaos, uncertainty, prolonged furloughs, and unemployment. Current graduate students find themselves entering the field at a terrible time, while others who are already in the field wonder how this situation might affect their career prospects. The political and economic challenges facing historic sites and museums moving forward necessarily requires us to think of new ways to solicit support for these sites moving forward. For my own work with the National Park Service, the importance of creating accessible visitor experiences and educational programming has never been more important.

Accessibility in public history, broadly defined, allows for more visitors to better use, understand, and appreciate the role of history in their daily lives. On the one hand, accessibility refers to the need to provide equal experiences for people with disabilities. For example, whether it’s a museum exhibit, an interactive video, or a social media post, efforts should be made to incorporate audio descriptions and captions for those who are blind/low vision or deaf/hard of hearing. After all, a photo may speak a thousand words to someone who can see the photo, but for someone with visual impairments, that photo says nothing. On the other hand, accessibility also refers to the importance of clear communication and ease of use for all. Translating a site brochure into Spanish, writing an exhibit text in concise language, and creating clear signage are all examples of addressing accessibility needs across all age groups and backgrounds. As Janice Majewski argued shortly after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed thirty years ago, “accessibility is for the majority [of people],” not just those with disabilities.[1]

The topic of accessibility has not often made its way into scholarship about public history. In an essay and working group presentation made at the NCPH Annual Meeting in 2019, I argued that Freeman Tilden’s famous 1957 book about interpretation, Interpreting Our Heritage, lacked appropriate attention to both education theory and accessibility needs. If Tilden’s six interpretive principles are to be embraced in educational programming (and some public historians today would recommend scrapping them altogether), accessibility needs must be also be incorporated into this programming. Additionally, Perri Meldon will soon have an essay published on this blog, “Interpreting our Disabled Heritage: Disability and the National Park Service,” that will address some questions about accessibility in the NPS, and the topic has been discussed at previous NCPH conferences. Nevertheless, more recent scholarship often uses the term “accessibility” in reference to collections management rather than access to museums and historic sites more broadly. One notable exception to this trend, however, is Katie Stringer Clary’s fine book Programming for People with Special Needs. Clary points out that museums and historic sites have historically been places of exclusion and limited public access, meant to overawe visitors with grandiose artifacts and architecture while doing little to provide much in terms of educational programming or accessibility. As such, according to Clary, public historians must actively work to dismantle previous barriers to accessibility by embracing concepts like Universal Design, which “encompasses everything from signage and way-finding materials to written text and lighting to access to space and objects within structures” to provide better access.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my colleagues and I at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site created a special program in the summer of 2019 that was geared toward students with autism. We created four separate activity stations at the park for a “Sensory Friendly Night” and took steps to make the activities inclusive and accessible. We did little things like staying open after standard operating hours, lowering the volume and lighting while showing the park film, and creating a giant puzzle of Ulysses S. Grant for students to work on. Most importantly, we partnered with local organizations to help us connect with this audience. Easterseals Midwest organizes monthly community programs at historic sites, museums, and nature sites for students with autism throughout the St. Louis area. Grant’s Farm, a nearby animal park, provided goats for the students to pet and take pictures with. And area musicians who specialize in music therapy performed a variety of songs and brought hands-on percussive instruments for the students to play. All told, this evening program brought more than 100 students and family members to the park. By our visitation standards, this event was an immense success. Almost every participant had never been to the park before, and an exit survey conducted by Easterseals indicated high approval from the families who attended. We had another “Sensory Friendly Night” in the works for 2020 before the pandemic forced the event to be canceled.

Now that public programs like the Sensory Friendly Night are on hold, we have turned our attention during this difficult time to addressing other accessibility needs both on the park grounds and with our social media programming. Although their mechanisms are not very intuitive when it comes to accessibility needs, both Facebook and Twitter provide opportunities to make social media posts more accessible. Facebook allows users to add captions to videos and provide alternative text for screen readers. However, as of this writing, the site does not allow users to download caption files created within Facebook, and posts with photos must first go live before one can add alternative text to them. The alternative text option on Twitter is easier to use and can be accessed by clicking on “edit” when uploading a photo, but from what I can tell, as of this posting, few public history organizations use this function when tweeting. This is even more disappointing because sites managed by the federal government are bound by federal law to provide audio descriptions, captions, and alternative text to relevant media. And if a site is privately run, there is nothing wrong with still making social media accessible for the simple fact that it’s the right thing to do.

When creating educational videos, the park is now using an accessibility checklist to ensure compliance with federal law. When producing my own films, I like to use a teleprompter app on my cell phone to write out a script ahead of time. By using a script, my captions are ready to be uploaded when the final product is completed. We have also used, a captioning website that provides .srt caption files in a timely manner. After the video is recorded, I use Adobe Premiere Pro to add an audio description disclaimer at the beginning of the video and audio descriptions throughout. During this process, I use a studio microphone that can be connected to my computer with a USB input to record the descriptions. You can see one example of a video with appropriate accessibility compliance here.

For those with less technical knowledge or resources, the key to good audio descriptions is being descriptive throughout the recording process. For example, presenters should describe their surroundings when beginning a video (“I am standing outside next to a two-story frame house at ____ National Park”) and clearly describe any visuals they use. When highlighting documents, artifacts, or photos, take a few extra seconds to describe what these items look like and summarize any text that might accompany them. These descriptions do not have to be excessively long, but they should be long enough that someone who is visually impaired can have as close to an equal experience as someone without visual impairments.

For all the darkness that 2020 has brought to the public history world, it has reinforced the importance of making public history more accessible to all people. While many people anxiously look for more historical content from the comfort of home, those of us in public history can take concrete steps to ensure that the stories we tell are meaningful, easy to find, and easy to enjoy.

~Nick Sacco is a public historian who works as a Park Ranger with the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

[1]Janie Majewski, “Accessibility for People with Disabilities: Razing the Problems.” Public Garden (July 1993), 8-9.

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