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Making open GLAM and digital access more inclusive

Published onSep 04, 2021

How this area overlaps with open GLAM: GLAMs are increasingly using digital technologies to create accessible format copies of their in-copyright and public domain collections and to expand online access for non-local and less mobile audiences. These activities can engage with disability rights law, intellectual property law, contract law, and institutional policy making around access onsite and online and require a complex balancing of various rights and interests involved.

We might begin by asking “what does ‘access’ mean in an age of greater inclusivity?” And who must be centered and involved in this inquiry? The need to reconsider and more holistically integrate disability access in GLAMs onsite and online, as well as in third-party platforms for publishing media, is not only apparent but long overdue.

11. Accessibility

The UN reports that 15% of the world’s population is currently disabled by social barriers, and designates people with disabilities as “the world’s largest minority.”1 In fact, almost everyone has, already is, or will experience a disability at some point in their life.2 How disability is recognized or protected by law impacts social participation by people with disabilities, including in shaping and advocating for stronger legal protections, access, and representation.3 These social conditions materialize onsite and online in our GLAMs, from who can access them, to who can work in them, to what they collect and display.4

Two primary focuses arise with GLAM and accessibility. First, GLAM digital initiatives can reduce existing barriers by enabling access to heritage collections through their reproduction or adaptation, especially to less local or mobile audiences through digital access. Yet these same initiatives raise new barriers when IPR claims are made in reproduction media or accessible format copies of public domain works. Second, disability exceptions in copyright law enable GLAMs to remediate in-copyright works for disability access, depending on the type of creative work or new format. Yet these exceptions raise follow-on questions around the scope of their application, cross-border access, and legal risks involved.

  • Accessibility must be more inclusive of digital disabled audiences. Open GLAM and GLAMs who make collections available online (both in-copyright and public domain) must revisit terms like “accessibility” and “open” to ensure they consider audiences with disabilities.

  • Use legal exceptions to translate in-copyright works and inform audiences of those rights. GLAMs should take advantage of legal exceptions to make accessible format copies of in-copyright works.

  • IPR claims in accessible format copies and other reproduction media can raise new access barriers. While technologies can enable the rapid transfer (and printing) of digital data worldwide, new IPR in the accessible work and associated media can impede access and reuse by digital disabled audiences.

  • More nuanced approaches to IPR management are necessary. Accessibility and digitization projects should consider more nuanced approaches to IPR management to ensure digital media is available for digital audiences, and especially disability communities to design their own remediations.

11.1. A Note on Accessibility

A few notes are helpful for framing accessibility for the Declaration’s development and public consultation process. These relate to disability models and their use, the term “accessibility” and its use, and ableist assumptions in visual culture, access, consumption, and law.

Disability models, terms, and their use. Various models are used to frame disability. Some of the most prominent include the medical model (which views disability as an impairment requiring a cure), the social model (which views disability as a social construct, produced by barriers that disable people from participation or access).5

Within this, preferences for language styles vary between people first (i.e., “person with a disability”) to identity first (i.e., “disabled person”).6 These preferences extend to terms like “able-bodied” versus “non-disabled” or “enabled” to describe people who do not identify as disabled. Given that most people will experience a disability in their lifetime, the term “temporarily able-bodied” (TAB) is more accurate and representative of why accessibility should be centered during initiatives for open access to cultural heritage. None of these terms are universally agreed upon, but how they are used both by GLAMs and by legal systems is crucial for framing and understanding accessibility.7

The term “accessibility” and its (over)use. In general, there is an overuse of the term “accessibility” to describe digital access initiatives when materials are not actually accessible to disabled audiences in digital form.8 Accessibility is often used to convey digital access, visibility, or availability, each of which can exclude a different and diverse disabled audience. These terms are often conflated or exchanged for one another through us of “accessibility” without it encompassing disability access goals. This results in an understanding of accessibility that assumes because collections are online they can be accessed and consumed.9 But without taking proactive measures to ensure access is extended to (diverse) digital disabled audiences, online digital collections remain inaccessible.

Ableist assumptions in visual culture, access, consumption, and law. Cultural heritage and its consumption in online and onsite is ocular-centric, focusing on visual senses and fidelity at the exclusion of other forms of sensory engagement and neurodiverse approaches. In her book More than Meets the Eye, Georgina Kleege encourages us to challenge the assumption that visual senses are the best or only way to consume art, as well as how artworks have been remediated for disability access with this goal in mind.10 Creating a copy can allow us to appreciate a work in other meaningful ways: to touch, engage through multiple senses, repurpose, or even destroy it. More inclusive remediation might proceed with one or more of these purposes in mind. Rather than focusing on a single disability or goal, Kleege explores how GLAM initiatives might better incorporate intersectional accessibility and neurodiversity through multiple or differentiated remediations.11 When a work is in copyright, this type of remediation can get tricky, especially if national disability exceptions are narrowly drafted. However, when a work is in the public domain, GLAMs can consider more inclusive aspects of accessibility, neurodiversity, and innovative ways to confront the ableist nature of visual culture, its consumption, and how access is enabled.

Legal measures relevant to GLAM accessibility relate to international human rights and copyright treaties, as well as national law. In Human Rights, we discussed the rights to participate in cultural life recognized in Articles 27 UDHR and 15 ICESCR and the express references to accessibility in General Comment No. 21.12 The 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) also requires states to ensure disabled persons can enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats and participate in creative, artistic, and intellectual production for individual and societal enrichment.13

In 2013, the Marrakesh Treaty became the first international copyright treaty to facilitate disability access, digitization, and the cross-border exchange of accessible format copies of in-copyright creative works.14 The Treaty aims to improve access to textual works, and requires states to implement copyright exceptions for accessible copies to be made and transferred across borders. While successful, a 2017 WIPO scoping study found that coverage among states varies significantly and takes different forms.15

There are some practical reasons for this. The key exceptions in copyright law that secure disability access are national and territorial.16 They also generally focus on print disability exceptions for audiences who are blind or visually impaired, involving translations to braille, large formats, or audio books. In countries that have implemented the Marrakesh Treaty, authorized bodies (i.e., GLAMs) can make accessible format copies of in-copyright books under certain conditions. Some countries extend those conditions to artworks or other creative media.17 But these exceptions generally do not apply to requests made from outside the jurisdiction.18

Even within a given jurisdiction, uncertainties in interpretation might chill access. One US study documented multiple stages of the workflow at which copyright might arise and impede disability access, from an initial request to delivery or even storage.19 These national differences can be disabling and undermine the right to participate in cultural life when they affect cross-border disability access to GLAM reproduction media, digital collections, and disability communities unevenly.

Many countries have signed, but not yet implemented the Marrakesh Treaty in national law, which raises potential for those countries to expand its scope beyond textual works. GLAMs should encourage legislative reform that includes other types of creative works, and interpret existing disability exceptions broadly, wherever possible. Without legislative expansion or GLAM risk-taking, digital disabled audiences and disability communities outside their scope may remain excluded from access, appreciation, and participation in culture.

11.3. IPR Aspects

IPR aspects relate to in-copyright works and their remediation to accessible format copies, and to the new IPR that may arise during the remediation of public domain works.

With in-copyright works, uncertainties around IPR and disability exceptions can raise liability concerns. These will be conditional upon national law and require case-by-case approaches.

Where collections are in the public domain, GLAMs can avoid these questions and uncertainties. This leads to heightened questions of IPR. Rather than producing a “faithful” reproduction, remediation to an accessible format copy may result in a new, sufficiently original work that will attract its own IPR.20

This possibility raises novel questions for open GLAM and accessibility. Should GLAMs retain rights arising in the new accessible format copy and associated media? If so, what IPR policies, licenses, or tools should be applied to the various outputs? How might open GLAM goals shape those access parameters to consider disability communities who are non-local or unable to visit physical collections? How might open GLAM goals shape those parameters to consider digital disabled audiences who seek to access and reuse digital media online?

We also might ask whether claiming rights in the accessible format copy and associated media even makes sense. This is because the same disability exceptions that apply to the in-copyright works in GLAM collections will apply to the in-copyright remediations of public domain works (i.e., the accessible format copy) and associated media created during disability access initiatives, as well as the other GLAM initiatives producing in-copyright materials (e.g., 3D reproduction). The irony is that through IPR regimes and incentives, accessible format copies of public domain works can become a new exploitable product for a wider consumer market, rather than released to increase cross-border (digital) access, dissemination, and participation as envisioned by human rights and disability rights treaties.

Such IPR entitlements may seem antithetical to disability initiatives, but they are generally supported by copyright law and theory. For example, with format shifts from 2D to 3D, or vice versa, the originality standard is more easily met. Moreover, IPR’s economic benefits can incentivize third parties to undertake complex remediation partnerships that might otherwise not happen. The new IPR from those partnerships will have commercialization value for purposes other than accessibility. This already occurs with non-accessibility driven projects, like 3D reproduction, for which accessibility benefits may be overlooked. In this way, the IPR regime can pit inclusivity against the wider commercial market of potential consumers, shaping how disability communities are able to access and participate in culture and creative industries.21

To this point, the publication of non-original, raw, and basic digital materials under open tools and licenses can help to offset the impact of exclusive IPR entitlements and decisions to exploit more complex outputs generated during digital initiatives, including accessibility projects. This is because the release of non-original and basic reproduction media in high quality formats facilitates and enables community-led remediation projects, while also facilitating third-party desires for return on investment on the more complex IPR generated during public-private partnerships with GLAMs.

11.4. Open Access Aspects

Open access aspects relate to the IPR discussions above, but also are structural, functional, and more practical.

To begin, digital accessibility requires significant technical implementation and support, which is a larger aspect of engagement that needs attention. It is not exclusive to GLAMs. Disabling barriers are raised by platforms, internet architecture, and operability.22 For users, these barriers extend to how the internet is physically accessed via technology and interfaces, in addition to cognitive barriers, which may require screen-readers, adaptive interfaces, training, and literacy, including around how hardware and software are designed.23 When interfaces are not designed with these functionalities in mind, this results in what Paul Harpur describes as an ableist system of exclusion through inconsistent, broken, or missing support for digital disabled audiences.24 Indeed, GLAMs building in digital accessibility while working directly with disability communities are finding these initiatives also transform the physical institution, educational models, and media delivery onsite.25

Open GLAM accessibility requires greater structural and long term technical support, but GLAMs can begin now by auditing current initiatives to be more inclusive. While disability communities are already active participants in digital spaces, GLAM website terms generally exclude acknowledgement of digital disabled audiences, including how they might legally access and reuse digital content according to disability exceptions. Habits of exclusion extend to licensing models and automated fee quotes online for types of content reuse. Few GLAM websites prioritize the W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines and center disabled audiences in web design functionality.26 There is a widespread need for greater integration of alt text for images, font size, and captioning,27 including for platforms like Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons and other third party platforms commonly used by GLAMs to publish collections and data.28

These omissions could carry legal consequences. In the US, courts have imposed legal liabilities on businesses for the failure to consider audiences with disabilities within scope of online policies and website operability.29 The case was brought against art galleries and antiquities dealers, and raises interesting questions for the GLAM sector, especially for those with commercial picture libraries and even private commercial photo licensing agencies.

Accordingly, how can GLAMs audit, consider, and connect the dots for maximizing digital (including onsite) content and how it can be accessed and reused by disability communities? How might the open GLAM ecosystem ensure equity, and not just equality, is extended, for example, through different iterations of an artwork according to need or via systems that prioritize design and functionality for digital disabled audiences?

Open access to cultural heritage must be accessible. That accessibility can be better built into physical and digital GLAM spaces, even blending the two through digital interfaces.30 It can also be better built into IPR management and open access frameworks for digital collections, and especially the IPR management of accessibility initiatives themselves. When digital collections, remediations, and other outputs are openly licensed, anyone can build on or improve them. More importantly, neurodiverse and disability communities are able to then design their own remediations and make new works. This facilitates a more accessible open GLAM ecosystem where engagement and participation are enabled across various platforms in physical and digital environments. In this respect, laws can be enabling or disabling. One framing of this worth quoting at length:

Fulfillment of the full spirit of the disability rights laws would require not only that users with disabilities have access to the same materials as their peers, but also that they have access with the same ease and autonomy afforded to others. Systems that require remediation impose delays and other barriers to access, resulting in a research or learning experience that is less robust in important ways than the experience available to folks without disabilities. For example, many researchers say they value ‘serendipity’ in their research—the discovery of unexpected materials through informal, unstructured browsing helps them make new connections and take unanticipated directions in their work. When access to materials is highly mediated, it is more difficult to experience serendipity.31

Access barriers and inaccessible technology interfaces in digital environments are further compounded by IPR entitlements in non-original reproduction media and other accessibility media. The open GLAM ecosystem should reposition itself to better consider alternate uses, marginalized voices, and collaborative innovations in disability access to rethink open access to cultural heritage and digital media accessibility.32

11.5. Initiatives and Other Considerations for the Declaration

Are you working on any of the above topics? What else does open GLAM need to reconsider, keep thinking about, or expand to include?

Help us collect good practice around IPR, digital management and accessibility. Suggest resources, guidelines, protocols, and other declarations useful for discussion to develop this list further. We especially encourage submissions that improve representation of community-led projects, initiatives across the G-L-A-M sector, geographic representation, and so on.

Some examples include:

  • Accessible U (University of Minnesota).33 Accessible U is a resource developed by the University of Minnesota with information on the importance of digital accessibility, how to create accessible content, and the core skills to focus on. Guides cover documents and PDFs, emails, images, slide presentations, social media, spreadsheets, and text.34

  • ARCHES (Accessible Resources for Cultural Heritage EcoSystems).35 ARCHES is an open source data management platform developed with disability communities to produce a gesture-controlled multi-sensory technology for accessing heritage artifacts and resources. The delivery method simultaneously engages different senses as “analogues for vision” by using low-cost depth cameras that operate directly on relief surfaces to produce an interactive experience with location-dependent, verbal, captioned, and image-supported descriptions as the artifact is explored by the visitor. ARCHES can be freely downloaded, customized and extended to meet individual needs. Online, informational videos include British Sign Language interpreters, closed captioning, and downloadable machine-readable descriptions and PDFs in multiple languages.36

  • Bookshare.37 Bookshare is an accessible online library for people with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers. The ebook library has more than one million titles in more than 34 languages. Based in the US, Bookshare operates under a US copyright exception which grants nonprofit organizations the ability to make accessible format copies available.38 For access requests made outside of the US, Bookshare receives publisher permission. Users can access books via multiple devices and customize them to various formats like braille, large font, and audio. The platform is free for U.S. students and schools and less than $1 per week for members who join.39

  • Coyote (Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Prime Access Consulting).40 Coyote is an open source description software and workflow tool for image description, with multi-level rights and permissions functions that store description level rights information using CC licenses. Coyote aims to make all 18,000 images of MCA Chicago’s exhibitions, programs, artworks, and even retail items accessible to the widest possible audience.41 The workflow tool incorporates the principles of universal design, which advances that products designed to be useful to one community are likely to benefit a variety of users. The public-facing website includes an opt-in description layer available to any visitor to show users a new way to approach artworks and images and to increase awareness of digital accessibility. On the backend, Coyote supports edits, co-authoring, and attribution, and the metadata enables storage and retrieval of multiple descriptions to capture multivocality.42 While copyright might arise in the descriptions, MCA uses CC0 and views the (original) descriptions as metadata. Coyote has also enabled the museum to revisit onsite inclusivity and integrate new digital functionalities into the physical space to support more independent audiences on site.43 The open source software has since been adopted by Cooper Hewitt.44

  • Cooper Hewitt Guidelines for Image Description.45 Following its implementation of Coyote, Cooper Hewitt published guidelines for image description, which sit as a living document on the museum’s website. The guidelines are informed by work by Sina Bahram and Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli on Coyote and during the Smithsonian’s accessibility initiatives. Examples using various mediums are included along with links to other resources on describing diagrams, like charts, maps and technical images, as well as images in ePub books.46

  • Getting Started with the Marrakesh Treaty A Guide for Librarians (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions).47 The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has published an informational guide for librarians and other heritage practitioners for how to navigate and implement aspects of the Treaty (within national exceptions). The guide is published in English, Spanish, French, and Russian.48

  • Guide for Increased Accessibility through 3D Models (Swedish National Heritage Board).49 The Swedish National Heritage Board has published a guide on 3D models types and ways to increase accessibility. It contains technical information on various formats, practical examples, lessons learned, and other useful links.

  • Inclusive Language Guidance. Many resources are available on how to use inclusive language and terminology. A few include those developed by the Australian Network on Disability,50 the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative,51 Stanford University,52 and the National Center on Disability and Journalism (US).53

  • Pressbooks at Ryerson University.54 The Ryerson University Library has a catalog of open educational resources on digital accessibility and digital education strategies developed by The Chang School. The six books are published CC BY-SA and cover topics from “Digital Accessibility as a Business Practice” to “Web Accessibility for Developers” and “What You Can Do to Remove Barriers on the Web.”55

  • Touch Mapper.56 Touch Mapper uses OpenStreetMap data (rather than data sources that prohibit commercial reuse, like Google Maps) to render a tactile map that can be printed at home or commercially, modified, remixed, or sold. Users are able to enter an address, adjust the map area, and create a file that can be downloaded and sent to almost any 3D printer, as well as a download link for placing online orders. The software is open source, permitting further development. Consider a similar tool that could translate and produce remediations of digital collections.

  • Web Accessibility Statements. Institutions like the National Portrait Gallery in London,57 the Museum of London,58 the Paul Mellon Centre,59 the Smithsonian Institution,60 and Yale University61 feature web accessibility statements on their websites in line with the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative.62 Within this, statements range from general information on web accessibility and what that is, to examples of what functionalities are available, what portions of the website are inaccessible, and even places to seek out tips and training on how to improve web accessibility.

  • Wellcome Collection. With the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, the Wellcome Collection have published guidance on “An ethical approach to interpreting disability and difference.”63 It calls on museums (and heritage institutions more broadly) to revisit the ways through which they frame, and subsequently shape, how people view disability. The document details approaches to interpreting disability via the medical and social models and is intended to be used as a starting point “to address the invisibility and unethical interpretation of disability and disabled people.”64

Considerations for the Declaration include:

  • Incorporating the text of Article 30 UNCRPD to encourage GLAMs and wider communities to prioritize disability access within digital remits;

  • Encouraging use of national legislation to the fullest extent with regards to extending access to in-copyright works;

  • Auditing previous and future initiatives for their accessibility potential and center disability access in their (re)design (especially consider utility of formats like 3D);

  • Resist making blanket IPR claims in media with accessibility potential and adopt open licenses whenever possible;

  • Drafting website terms of use to acknowledge national disability and other copyright exceptions for the reuse of online and onsite media for digital disabled audiences;

  • Incorporating image descriptions for digital collections and extending use on social media platforms;

  • What else? Tell us during the public consultation!

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