Top Tips Things to Consider to Get Your Access App Project Started (Part 1: Universal Design Principles – What Are They and Why Use Them?)

Dr. Juliette Fritsch

May 23, 2017


blind and low vision; crowdsourcing; quality of experience; Universal Design; verbal description



What is this study about?

This series of case studies looks at a set of questions to pose and directions to consider when you want to start an Access App project. When we built the Access App project, we spent a lot of time discussing various scenarios of purpose, use, and potential user outcomes. Much of this thinking is gathered here for you to consider so that you don’t have to start from scratch. Here, I look specifically at our aspiration that the project adhere to Universal Design principles.

Top line summary

This case study looks at three key issues that occupied the Access App team’s thoughts throughout the project:

  • What is Universal Design and why use it?
  • Independent access to content
  • Equal quality of experience
About the author

Dr. Juliette Fritsch was the Principle Investigator for the Access App project and Chief of Education and Interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum.


When the Access App project team first assembled in the fall of 2014, we had a long discussion about our aspirations for the project and which directions to take as our principal starting points.

A common goal for all the partner institutions was not just to fulfill baseline accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but also to reach beyond into best practices for audience engagement and social justice outcomes. Minimum fulfillment of the ADA in terms of interpretive provisions requires alternative means of accessing any information presented, whether it be object labels, guidebooks, or other interpretive media. For example, providing a transcript of any audio, or providing a means of reading labels aloud. The latter seems obvious for blind and low-vision visitors—just allow their sighted companions to read aloud to them in a gallery space, right? But this assumes that they are visiting with a sighted companion. It also makes them dependent on their companion in a way that is not conducive to a shared experience typical of other social groups visiting museums or other cultural sites, whose members are free to explore with independence and to follow individual paths of interest. So a goal for the Access App is to facilitate independent access to content. This is a principle drawn from the seven basic tenets of Universal Design, an approach which champions creating products, buildings, and environments that are inherently accessible to all, rather than using an add-on or silo approach. For museums and other cultural sites, Universal Design is also pragmatic: integrating accessibility will make your programs and facilities more open to wider audiences, which is very often a high-priority strategic goal.

Another basic principle drawn from Universal Design that the team wanted to explore is that of Equitable Access. In this case, Equitable Access means moving beyond the basic ADA requirement of alternative routes to information, to thinking about providing an equal quality of experience. In addition to independence, this means access to understanding the broader context and environment of an exhibition, historic site, or arts performance. What is the building like? What is the room like? Not just physically, but affectively. What is the shared emotional experience of other visitors and participants? This is where the crowd-sourcing aspect of the Access App comes into play. Users get to eavesdrop on other peoples’ experiences. What piqued their curiosity? What related (and sometimes unrelated but interesting) bits of knowledge and information did people want to share and pass on?

Related to this were the goals the team had for creating a tool that is useful and interesting as an interpretive experience for all users, not just those who are blind and low vision. So it’s not a “VIP audio tour” (Visually Impaired Person’s audio tour) just for one kind of visitor. Following this principle, we also wanted to make it a tool that could be used by deaf visitors, those with low cognition, and also those with motor-skill challenges. Combining these principles proved difficult, as some require features that are exclusive to others – for example, incorporating a facility for blind and low vision users may exclude deaf users. We concluded that we would try to produce something that would be able to accommodate functionality beyond those required for blind and low vision users in the future, but did not include them at the outset. We had to remain focused on the delivery goals we had outlined in the first instance to our funders, which was accessibility for blind and low-vision users.

You can find out more about the seven Principles of Universal Design here, at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.