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March 07, 2021

Kay Slater on the Importance of Online Accessibility

Kay at group show hosted by Gallery Gachet.

Kay at the Oppenheimer Park group show hosted by Gallery Gachet in 2019. Photo credit: Tom Quirk, 2019.

[Image description: Person wearing a yellow raincoat stands in front of a white gallery wall on which 3 works of art are displayed.]

It shouldn't take a pandemic for organizations to prioritize accessible online programming—something that sick and disabled artists have long been advocating for. And, as digital arts programming increases, we're concerned that students with limited access to technology will be left out. 

We aren’t experts—we are still at the beginning of our learning journey, but ArtStarts is striving to make sure our content is accessible to everyone. 

We asked our Gallery Coordinator and Preparator, Kay Slater, who you may recognize from our weekly ArtStarts Explores workshops, about their experience delivering online programming during COVID-19 and to share their reflections on accessibility in this two-part blog series on accessible online programming. 

Thanks to Kay, ArtStarts has been able to facilitate weekly workshops on the ArtStarts Facebook page, but the work is not without careful consideration and a concerted effort to prioritize accessible content. Read on to learn what Kay had to say on accessible online programming!

ArtStarts: How would you define accessible online programming? 

Online programming, designed universally for as many people as possible, allows people both who are normally excluded or who require accommodation, and those who normally aren’t, to experience programs on their own terms. It requires more time and effort on the part of program designers to think beyond their own lived experience and access to information and technology, and it requires transparency and patience.

Simply put, for something to be accessible online is for an audience to show up and engage, without needing to RSVP their access needs in advance. 

Luckily, for most online programs, there is time prior to an event or classroom performance to advertise and solicit your audience to inquire about access needs, but if you’re only going to implement solutions if you have to (a specific audience member requests it), your programming is not accessible. Your program is adaptable. It’s a good first step, but calling yourself accessible is premature.

Let me give a personal example. I am hard of hearing. It means that almost every single program, whether it is online or in real space, requires me to contact the organizers to check about captions or interpretation. For me, I am lucky enough to be multilingual and so if I can have either, I can understand most of the program. However, most programs require someone to RSVP or request interpretation or captions - which then put the burden on the guest. If I become sick, or unable to make the program, the organization has now “wasted” their money because their perception was that this service should only be included if someone “needed it”. If I am the only one who requests it, I am sometimes called out by name as needing the service, making a spectacle of my needs. There is no consideration to visibility (hearing folks getting to see and experience ASL), no consideration that an audience member may have shown up or has someone behind their screen that was expecting their partner or family member to translate for them, or to show their commitment to access as a leader online. 

If you incorporate multiple ways of access to and to engage with your programs, you give your audience members, and students, real agency. 

AS: Why is accessible online programming important? 

Kay: If you’ll allow me, I think the primary problem with accessibility online is that it is still reactive rather than proactive. Until someone can’t access a program, there is really no need for a presenter to think beyond their own capability and access. This is why accessible design, the building code, and all the various systems that exist in real space fail so many people - it’s a minimum requirement and generally only used when enforced or asked for. When we moved online, many folks who are disabled or differently abled rejoiced as they had been calling for the move for ages - only to find that able-bodied individuals still tried to control the script. Rather than listening or engaging communities who already existed online, facsimiles of “normal” such as video conferencing (in particular Zoom, which is still baffling to me as to its popularity and use) and scheduled check-ins were hurriedly put into place leaving both those who had experience online and those new to it exhausted and frustrated. 

Universal design, a phrase coined by Ronald Mace in 1988, is defined as a design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaption or specialized design.” If folks were designing spaces and programming for a potential audience, and beyond the assumption that their audiences will be primarily able bodied, we would both be welcoming folks who are typically left out of conversations and experiences while also providing a wider space to those who would not normally ask for or think they need accommodation. How does a hearing audience suffer from captions, or language translation? How is a visual audience inconvenienced by a transcript? Why are text check-ins lesser to a video check-in, when the burden of data and streaming are on the shoulders of the at-home worker? Why is an audience member who is looking down, not engaging correctly? If someone can’t or doesn’t want to face a screen, why is their experience of the program lesser to someone who has learned to watch and appear receptive? There are so many assumptions made (often unintentionally) by a program facilitator or designer when designed for a single (and most oftenly, able bodied) audience - but there are so many possibilities and points of entry, when we plan universally.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview series with Kay to learn more about the nuances and components that make up accessible online programming!

If you are an artist, a creator or a teaching artist hoping to take the first steps in building access into your planning, practices, exhibitions, and workshops, register for Kay’s Captions and Transcriptions: Non-Auditory Access workshop designed to provide you with a tangible course of action towards online accessibility.

The workshop is on March 18, 2021. To apply, fill out this short form by March 12 at 11:59pm.

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