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The Southeast DBTAC, a project within the Center for Assistive Technology & Environmental Access (CATEA) recently completed an accessibility study on the Georgia Aquarium. The Georgia Aquarium, a 550,000 square foot facility, and expanding to 580,000 with over 500 species of fish and other aquatic life, is the largest aquarium in the United States. The Aquarium's vision is to be "the world's most engaging aquarium experience" to a wide variety of people - people of all ages, with and without disabilities.
While the Aquarium has disability access such as an accessible drop off area, a supply of wheelchairs on hand that can be checked out by visitors, and assistive listening devices to provide better communication for people with hearing impairments, the accessibility study offered a way for the Aquarium to enhance their efforts by obtaining information on how individuals with disabilities interact with the exhibits and how they feel about the experience.
"People with disabilities want to participate in the same community activities available to their non-disabled counterparts," said Shelley Kaplan, director of the Southeast DBTAC project. "However, due to various physical, programmatic and attitudinal barriers, their experiences are not always as meaningful. Many of these barriers persist because we don't actively engage people with disabilities in developing solutions. This was a unique opportunity to take a first-hand look at how well existing access features enhanced the Aquarium experience by a variety of individuals with different disabilities."
Using visitor observation and touring interview techniques, CATEA co-investigators Beth Bryant and Carrie Bruce shadowed several small groups of people with a variety of disabilities as they toured through the various exhibits.
"We wanted to investigate a range of experiences from individuals with varying abilities," said Bruce. "Adult participants with lower motor, upper motor, speech, language, voice, hearing, vision, and cognitive impairments were included. We learned a great deal from the participant groups and about how existing and potential exhibit designs need to meet all visitors' needs."
Study participants were given a set of exhibits to visit. As Bryant and Bruce followed the participants, they interviewed participants while visiting the exhibits and took notes on how each person interacted with the exhibit. After touring the Aquarium, participants met in small focus groups and discussed the experience.
The study team monitored three main characteristics of an environment that can either act as a barrier or facilitator to viewing and interacting with an exhibit. These were: (1) display - which includes viewing height of the exhibit, interaction height, and visibility; (2) interpretation - which includes position of exhibit information, readability, lighting, visibility, and sufficiency of information; and (3) surrounding physical environment - which includes crowd, noise, and lighting.
"Watching people with various disabilities interact with the exhibits was an eye opening experience," said Bryant. "Usability and accessibility testing that incorporates users with varying abilities throughout the design process typically leads to better outcomes -leading to more universally designed exhibits that everyone can enjoy."
The study team made suggestions related to features and characteristics such as path lighting or bottlenecks, display height, depth or distance, and interpretation placement, readability, or sufficiency. "The objective was to create an awareness of usability problems for visitors with disabilities and to inform Aquarium staff and others on the need for and direction of additional research," said Bryant. "The most significant recommendation was to analyze and test key characteristics of current and potential exhibits, before costly or significant changes are implemented."
"And for us, we will use the results to share with other similar venues both regionally and nationally," said Kaplan.
For more information on the project, contact Carrie Bruce at carrie [dot] bruce [at] coa [dot] gatech [dot] edu . For more information about the Americans with Disabilities, contact the Southeast DBTAC at 1-800-949-4232 (v/tty) or sedbtacproject [at] law [dot] syr [dot] edu.