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September 2003

Market Your Accessibility

A child stands and works at a counter as woman in wheelchair speaks with staff person standing behind the counter. Overhead is sign saying Soda Fountain Science. Without exaggeration, you can probably say that everyone would enjoy and benefit from visiting your science center or cultural institution. However, for a variety of reasons, people with disabilities may not be coming. How can this be? After all, anyone may have a disability no matter their age, gender, or background. In fact, one in every six people in the U.S. has a disability. That's a sizeable number of people (54 million) with an estimated disposable income of 214 billion dollars.

Are people with disabilities waiting to be asked? What actions can you take to insure that they will be welcomed?

Spend smarter, not more. Begin by taking an inventory of how you currently market your institution's accessibility, and then consider what new marketing strategies you might employ.

Work with your visitor services and floor staff to make a list of what accessible services are currently in place. For many science centers and museums, the list will include assistive listening devices for lectures and large-format films; audio-described tours and films; sign language interpretation; wheelchairs or scooters on loan; brochures in large print and in Braille; tactile maps of permanent exhibitions; newsletter on disk or audio cassette.

Gather examples of all the print materials you currently employ to market your institution to the general public. Newsletters, brochures, maps, annual reports, school and camp programs will likely be among these pieces. Next, make a list of other ways your institution markets its programs, exhibits, and services. On your list may be radio and television public announcements, mailings, telemarketing, and web pages. Get print copies of these messages so you can make a complete review of your current marketing tools.This portion of a line drawing is taken from a museum brochure.  It shows smiling visitors in an exhibit hall. Two children are pictured  at a kiosk; one is in a wheelchair.

Make accessibility explicit. Knowing what services are available and how to request them allows visitors to plan ahead. To what extent do your museum's various communication pieces address accessibility? If the answer is "not much," don't be flustered, start with what you can assure and clearly state these services in all your brochures, on your web site, in your newsletter, and in your press releases.

The list below gives examples of some of the services many cultural institutions provide and advertise. Note how international accessibility symbols are used to quickly alert readers to the service provided.

The most valuable commodity of today's society is information; to a person with a disability it is essential.  For more information, call or e-mail us: (telephone number followed by V for voice and TTY, if have one); (e-mail address of ADA Coordinator or Manager of Visitor Services).

The wheelchair symbol should only be used to indicate access for individuals with limited mobility including wheelchair users. Accessible route and clear floor space.

This symbol indicates a choice for whether or not to display captions for a television program or videotape.A service for persons who are blind or have low vision that makes the performing arts, visual arts, television, video, and film more accessible.Large-format films are close-captioned and audio-described.

These systems transmit amplified sound via hearing aids, headsets or other devices. They include infrared, loop and FM systems. Assistive listening devices are available at the information desk next to the theater.

The symbol indicates that Sign Language Interpretation is provided for a lecture, tour, film, performance, conference or other program.Events interpreted in ASL are noted on our website: Requests for sign-language, oral or cued-speech interpreters for events not on this list should be made two weeks in advance.

This symbol may be used to indicate access for people who are blind or have low vision, including: a guided tour, a path to a nature trail or a scent garden in a park; and a tactile tour or a museum exhibition that may be touched. Guided tours of museum highlights are available for visitors who are blind, have low vision, or are deaf-blind. Friends and family members are welcome. Reservations should be made two weeks in advance.
Call (telephone number followed by V for voice and TTY, if have one).

The symbol for large print is "Large Print" printed in 18 pt. or larger text. Request a large-print version of our calendar of events at the information desk.A raised line map of our new exhibition, "Darwin and the Earthworm," can be borrowed from staff at the front desk.

The wheelchair symbol should only be used to indicate access for individuals with limited mobility including wheelchair users. There is dispersed accessible seating as well as companion seating, and seats with flip-up armrests in the Sara H. Middlebrooks Theater. Accessible seating in our amphitheater is available along the back aisle. Wheelchairs are available at the front desk for loan during                         your visit. A driver's license, credit card, or other form of identification is               required.

Respect the power of language. In addition to using disability access symbols in the above statements, did you notice the language? You won't find the word "special." Also, note the use of "people-first language." That's putting the person first as in person who is blind, person who is hard of hearing, person who uses a wheelchair. The language you use makes a powerful statement about the credibility of your institution.

Connect with this new audience. While individuals with disabilities get their news about local programs and events just as the majority of the population does, many also rely on newsletters, listservs, web pages, and public service announcements produced and managed by local disability-related groups, organizations, and agencies. What they say matters.

Become familiar with these groups and how they communicate places to visit and things to do:

  • ask individuals with disabilities how they learn about community events;
  • call your local Center for Independent Living and your city or county's office on disability.
Woman uses her shoulder to hold an audio wand in place so she can listen and sign to her companion what is being said.When you speak with a group or organization explain that your science center or museum wants to make sure people with disabilities know about its programs, events, and new films and exhibition, and you need their help to do this. Would they be willing to include information through their various communication outlets? If the answer is yes, find out the name of the person you should contact. You will want to talk with him/her about text length, deadlines, and the preferred format for receiving your information (e.g., via e-mail, fax, or mail).

Follow-up by sending a note to the people you spoke with, thanking them for their cooperation and reiterating your hope that they will keep you informed. But don't wait for them to call you; call them back in three months for feedback.

Don't forget older adults and college students. Older adults are a large and growing demographic group in the U.S. while students with disabilities attending local colleges and universities are a renewable audience source. Both groups represent audiences for your programs and candidates for your volunteer corps.

While you can connect directly with students through a college's office for students with disabilities, older individuals may or may not self-identify as having a disability and likely rely on many sources for their news and information. Among the news sources older adults may use are local agencies and groups who work for and with older adults. You will want to contact these organizations and, if they agree, add them to your list of groups to receive announcements on a regular basis.

Achieve success quickly. There is no way to measure the effect of word-of-mouth publicity, but you can be reassured that "grapevines" exist. Similarly, within every community there are individuals who can act as advocates and spokespersons on your behalf. Know who these influential community members are. Invite them to events; provide them with free passes; make sure they know you need and welcome their counsel.

Museum staff and visitor talk at entrance to designated play area for young children. He sits on arm of bench and she in her wheelchair. Two children flank them.Prepare your staff and volunteers. Getting visitors with disabilities to come is one thing; their having a great time, is another. Good experiences depend in large part on visitors' interactions with staff and volunteers. Things fall apart when staff and volunteers do not know what services are available, how to respond to questions and complaints, or who on staff is responsible for accessibility services. New, as well as experienced staff and volunteers need up-to-date information, reminders, practice, and backup if they are to give quality customer service.

Identify any remaining physical barriers and make a plan to remove them. It's not unusual that your institution may still need to remove specific physical barriers so that visitors with disabilities can fully participate in your events and programs. Rather than assuming that there are no barriers, find out. Take these steps:
  • identify individuals with disabilities and ADA professionals with and without disabilities to work with you;
  • download a checklist for barrier removal (see below);
  • divide the checklist into manageable parts;
  • mixing staff, ADA professionals, and people with disabilities, conduct surveys of the public areas of your institution (drop-off and parking, accessible entrance, path of travel, rest rooms, and emergency egress are priorities);
  • make a transition-implementation plan based on what you learn.

The most efficient transition-implementation plans include what needs to be done, who is responsible, the expected date of completion, and budgetary implications. Some changes can be accomplished with little or no money while others will take more time and resources.

With a plan, you can respond to questions and even complaints with "We appreciate your feedback. We know it's a problem, and we are working on it. We expect the work to be completed by ____. We value you as a visitor."

Cover of the brochure produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art to advertise the availability of sign language, captioning, and assistive listening devices for its programs May through June, 2003. Accessibility symbols are shown and the type is at least 18 point. Inventory any missing accessible services. Removing physical barriers is important; adding accessibility services is, too. These services may mean the difference between individuals with disabilities visiting or not.

Ask yourself: Do we know how to find sign language interpreters? Are our films and videos captioned? Which assistive listening systems would work best in our theater and for our films, lectures, meetings, and tours? Who can Braille print materials for us? Is the map of our floor plan available in large print? Do we have a tactile version? Are brochures and newsletters available on audio cassette or disk?

Your colleagues at other cultural institutions may have answers for you, and the disability-related agencies and organizations in your community can point you to helpful sources as well.

Feedback is important to know how well your marketing is working. There may be no need to change how you hear from visitors, but you will want to check on how inclusive the processes are. Take comments cards. Ask yourself: Are some available in 18 point type sans serif? Are cards within reach?

It takes time to build an audience. People with disabilities have a variety of interests as well as experiences with cultural institutions. In fact, you may run up against the perception "there is nothing there for us." Fortunately, perceptions can change. Change, however, depends in large part on the leadership of the marketing department. Continue to listen to people with disabilities and the organizations that represent them and your audience will grow, and your institution will prosper.

Read Others' Experiences for more ideas and please Share Your Own.

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National Science Foundation LogoAccessible Practices EXCHANGE is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. ESI-9814917 and HRD 9906095. Opinions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and presenters and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation.
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