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A Tool for Cultural Organizations


Note: This list is not exhaustive and may not include all disabilities or identities.

In general, we recommend using person-first language (for example, “a person with a disability”), unless referring to a person or community who self-identifies differently.

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  • accessibility/access: For the purposes of this project, an accessible museum/historic site is one that welcomes people with disabilities[1] and provides what is needed for people across the continuum of human ability to have full participation[2] in its spaces, collections, operations, exhibitions and programs.
  • American Sign Language (ASL): A visual language used by people who are d/Deaf and/or nonverbal to communicate. The shape, placement, and movement of the hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements, all play important parts in conveying information.[3]
    • ASL user/signer: Someone who communicates using American Sign Language.
    • Note that not all d/Deaf people use ASL. It is a best practice to provide live captions alongside ASL interpretation when it is offered.
  • audience: Groups of people who use the museum’s services, whether in person or remotely. Audiences can be defined by the types of services they use and how they use them (e.g., visitors, subscribers, researchers, program participants), or by their demographic characteristics (e.g., families, school groups, seniors)
    • current audience: The groups or individuals who actually use the museum services.
    • target audience: The groups who the museum wants to be their primary users and for whom they design programs and services.[4]
  • Autistic/Autism Spectrum: Autism Spectrum covers a wide variety of mental processes and social behaviors that have traditionally labeled, but not limited to Autism, autistic, Autism Spectrum, and Asperger’s. Autistic traits appear in early childhood and may impact communication, speech, social behavior, repetitive behaviors, and very specific interests.[5] (See also Neurodiversity.)

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  • barriers: Obstacles that limit access and prevent people from fully participating in society. Most barriers are not intentional and may be invisible. Barriers usually arise because the needs of some people are not considered from the beginning and may be caused by an organization’s limitations, perceived or real.
  • best practice: A procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption. [6]
  • blind: Legal blindness is defined as visual acuity of not greater than 20/200 in the better eye with correction or a field not subtending an angle greater than 20 degrees. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) “encourages people to consider themselves as blind if their sight is bad enough—even with corrective lenses—that they must use alternative methods to engage in any activity that people with normal vision would do using their eyes.”[7]  Note that total blindness (defined as the complete lack of light perception and form perception) is quite rare[8].
  • bylaws: Legal documents that describe matters delegated to the governing authority, such as membership categories, the logistics of scheduling and holding meetings of the corporation and the governing authority, committee charges and provisions for amendments. Self-regulatory provisions for the governing authority, such as membership in the organization, attendance requirements and termination, also are in the bylaws.[9]

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  • captions: On-screen text in a video which is designed to communicate for those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing and typically includes both speech and ambient noises, e.g. coughs, music, door slams, weather or animal noises, etc.
    • Captions can be open (permanently embedded) or closed (able to be manually turned on or off).
    • Note that captions are different from subtitles, which are generally designed for viewers who can hear the audio in a video but do not understand the language—for example, in foreign films.
  • CART (Computer-Aided Realtime Transcription): A technique where a professional captioner listens to speech and translates it to text.  This text is displayed for participants to read and can be projected onto a screen, displayed in a web browser, or integrated as live captions in virtual meeting software.
  • community: Each museum self-identifies the community or communities it serves. These may be geographically defined, they may be communities of common interests or communities formed around identities or a combination of these types.[10]
  • Cultural Proficiency Continuum: The Cultural Proficiency Continuum provides language to describe unhealthy and healthy values and behaviors of people and policies and practices of organizations. Movement along the Continuum represents a paradigmatic shift in thinking from holding the view of tolerating diversity to transformative action for equity.  The 6 points of the Continuum are:

Compliance Based Tolerance for Diversity:

      • Cultural Destructiveness – seeking to eliminate vestiges of non-dominant cultures.
      • Cultural Incapacity – seeking to make the culture of others appear to be wrong.
      • Cultural Blindness – unable or refusing to acknowledge the culture of others.

Transformation for Equity:

      • Cultural Precompetence (Emerging) – being aware of what one doesn’t know about working with diverse audiences or staff. Initial levels of awareness after which a person/organization can move in a positive, constructive direction or they can falter, stop and possibly regress.
      • Cultural Competence (Good) – viewing one’s personal and organizational work as an interactive arrangement in which the organization enters into diverse settings in a manner that is additive to and strives to serve cultures that are different from the organization’s typical, established audience or staff.
      • Cultural Proficiency (Better) – making the commitment to life-long learning as an organization for the purpose of being increasingly effective in serving the needs of varied cultural groups.[11] A central tenet of Cultural Proficiency holds that change is an inside-out process in which a person is, first and foremost, a student of their own assumptions and that communities are best served through co-creation that is knowing, valuing, and using their cultural backgrounds, languages, and learning styles as assets to benefit both the museum and the communities.[12]

For purposes of this project, we have adapted the definitions of the Center for Culturally Proficient Educational Practice to be applicable in a museum setting and focusing on the “Transformation for Equity” section of the continuum to support our performance indicators.

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  • d/Deaf: We use [both] the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture.[13] See the National Association of the Deaf FAQ for more information on Deaf culture and terminology.
  • diversity: All the ways that people are different and the same at the individual and group levels. Even when people appear the same, they are different. Organizational diversity requires examining and questioning the makeup of a group to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented.[14]

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  • effective communication: A component of the Americans with Disabilities Act designed to ensure that communication with people with vision, hearing, or speech disabilities is equally effective as communication with people without disabilities. The key to communicating effectively is to consider the nature, length, complexity, and context of the communication and the person’s normal method(s) of communication.[15]
    • Effective communication is the “how” to the “what” of programmatic accessibility aids or services. (For example, a tactile model combined with verbal description uses two programmatic accessibility tools to effectively communicate an object to a visitor who is blind.)
  • equity: The fair and just treatment of all members of a community. Equity requires a commitment to strategic priorities, resources, respect, and civility, as well as ongoing action and assessment of progress toward achieving specified goals.[16]

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  • fiduciary: Of or relating to a holding of something in trust for another: a fiduciary heir; a fiduciary contract; of or being a trustee or trusteeship; held in trust.[17]
  • financial resources: The income and expenses of the museum.[18]
  • fragrance-free: The practice of limiting exposure to fragrances or chemicals that may trigger individuals with chemical sensitivities or allergies.

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  • governing authority: The entity that has legal and fiduciary responsibility for the museum (this body may not necessarily own the collection or the physical facility) and may include not-for-profit boards, appointed commissions, governmental bodies, and university regents.[19]

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  • hard of hearing: A person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss.  Note that this term can also be used by a deaf person who doesn’t have or want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community.  See the National Association of the Deaf FAQ for more information on Deaf culture and terminology (including discussion of why using hearing impaired is not recommended).
  • Human Resources: All of the people, paid and unpaid, who regularly work at the organization.[20]

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  • inclusion: The intentional, ongoing effort to ensure that diverse individuals fully participate in all aspects of organizational work, including decision-making processes. It also refers to the ways that diverse participants are valued as respected members of an organization and/or community. While a truly “inclusive” group is necessarily diverse, a “diverse” group may or may not be “inclusive.”[21]
  • intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the use of intersectionality as a way for us to understand how discrimination and oppression can be unique for each person. A black woman will likely experience discrimination in a different way than a black man. Crenshaw shares an example that there was a company where black women were laid off, but not white women or black men. [22]

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  • low vision: Uncorrectable vision loss that interferes with daily activities.[23] There is no generally accepted definition of low vision or visual impairment, so we have chosen to use a functional definition instead.  Note that using the term visually impaired to identify a person can have negative connotations, but is acceptable if someone self-identifies in this way.

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  • mission statement: A statement approved by the museum’s governing authority that defines the purpose of a museum—its reason for existence. The mission statement establishes the museum’s identity and purpose, provides a distinct focus for the institution, and identifies its role and responsibilities to the public and its collections.[24]

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  • neurodiversity: Neurodiversity refers to variation in neurocognitive functioning. It is an umbrella term that encompasses neurocognitive differences such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, intellectual disability and schizophrenia, as well as ‘normal’ neurocognitive functioning, or neurotypicality. Neurodivergent individuals are those whose brain functions differ from those who are neurologically typical, or neurotypical.[25]

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  • organization: We have chosen to use “organization” within our toolkit to refer to the wide variety of museums, historic houses, historical societies, and others who may be using it. We use this term instead of institution due to its negative history within disability communities and for the Independent Living movement in particular.[26]

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  • planning: The creation of policy and written plans. Thomas Wolf (Managing a Nonprofit Organization, 1990) lists two essential prerequisites of planning as, 1) an evaluation/assessment of the organization’s current position, and 2) a clear vision of the organization’s future expressed through a statement of mission and goals. These prerequisites apply to all types of planning, whether it is long-range, disaster, exhibition, marketing, or program.[27]
  • performance indicators: Statements that measure the degree to which standards are being met and are cumulative from one level to the next.[28] In the Self-Assessment, these are broken down into Emerging, Basic, Good, and Better.
  • programmatic accessibility: Auxiliary aids or services which enable people with disabilities to experience sites, buildings, objects, and programs in ways that replicate, to the greatest degree possible, what people without disabilities experience.
    • Examples include, but are not limited to: tactile models or graphics, photo or video “virtual tours” of physically inaccessible spaces, verbal description, ASL interpretation, captioning, etc.
    • Programmatic accessibility aids or services are the “what” to the “how” of effective communication. (For example, a tactile model combined with verbal description uses two programmatic accessibility tools to effectively communicate an object to a visitor who is blind.)

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  • sensory friendly: An experience or space where the sensory experience has been toned down to be more comfortable for people with sensory sensitivities. This typically includes lower light levels, quieter sounds, and minimal smells.
    • Also: low-sensory, “lights up sound down,” relaxed performance/program, autism/PTSD friendly
    • sensory friendly room/space: A room that has been designated for sensory rest and recovery, featuring low sound and light levels. This space may also include support materials helpful for people with sensory sensitivities or who are on the autism spectrum, including (but not limited to) noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, dimmable lights, etc.
  • social narrative: Step-by-step descriptive stories in the first person, designed to help visitors who have autism spectrum disorder (and their caregivers or educators) prepare for their visit and know what to expect.[29] Note that this may sometimes be referred to as a social story—however, this is a trademarked term and not typically used in museums unless referring to this specific program.
  • staff: For the purposes of this toolkit, this includes paid staff, volunteers, and interns who are affiliated with the institution on a full-time, part-time, temporary, or contract basis.
  • standard: A generally accepted level of attainment that all organizations are expected to achieve.[30]

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  • tactile model: Scale model of an object or building that allows blind people or those with low vision to interpret shapes and volumes of the object or building through touch.
  • Transition Plan: to reflect both the legal language of the ADA and the language of museums and cultural organizations. ADA uses the term transition plan to refer to the planning document completed after a formal self-assessment. Museums and cultural organizations typically use the term accessibility plan to refer to documents specifically developed to address accessibility concerns.

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  • Universal Design: The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.[31]

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  • values: The core belief system that provides a moral compass and framework for an organization’s goals, priorities and decisions.[32]
  • verbal description: A way of using words to represent the visual world. This kind of description enables people who are blind or have low vision to form a mental image of what they cannot see.[33] Also: audio description, image description.
    • alt-text: Brief, descriptive text which conveys the meaning and context of a visual item in a digital setting, such as on an app or web page.[34]
  • vision statement: An aspirational declaration of a museum’s intentions that may include a description of the ideal scenario or successful future.[35]

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[1] Modified from: Art Beyond Sight, Museum Access: Inclusive Practices in Museums,


[2] Modified from: Sins Invalid, SKIN, TOOTH, AND BONE The Basis of Movement is Our People: A Disability Justice Primer, Volume 2

[3] National Association of the Deaf, “What is American Sign Language?”

[4] Modified from AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 80

[5] NIMH shares the DSM-5 definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder which was then modified by Janet Mulligan Bowen (Bowen openly identifies as Autistic and is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Level 1 parts A/B.). The modification is to respect Autistic advocates who advocate that differences are not disorders.  NIMH » Autism Spectrum Disorder (

[6] [Merriam-Webster]

[7] National Federation of the Blind, “Blindness Statistics”

[8] American Foundation for the Blind, “Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions: Total Blindness”

[9] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 80

[10] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Community & Audience Engagement Assessment Workbook” p. 85

[11] Center for Culturally Proficient Educational Practice (CPEP) “The Continuum”

[12] Modified from

[13] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988), quoted in

[14] AAM, “Facing Change” p. 8

[15] ADA Effective Communication,

[16] AAM, “Facing Change” p. 8

[17] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 82

[18] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 82

[19] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 83

[20] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 83

[21] AAM, “Facing Change” p. 8

[22] Feminism and Intersectionality – A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States – HUSL Library at Howard University School of Law
Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later | Columbia Law School

[23] American Foundation for the Blind, “Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions: A Functional Definition of Low Vision”

[24] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 84

[25] Definition provided by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network whitepaper-Increasing-Neurodiversity-in-Disability-and-Social-Justice-Advocacy-Groups.pdf (

[26] For more on this and the history of the Independent Living movement, we recommend reading the Access Living blog on Independent Living History and the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) About Independent Living page.

[27] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 85

[28] AASLH, Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPS)

[29] Museum Arts Culture Access Consortium (MAC), “Examples of Social Narratives for Visitors

[30] AASLH, Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPS)

[31] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Community & Audience Engagement Assessment Workbook” p. 90

[32] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 86

[33] Art Beyond Sight, Guidelines for Verbal Description

[34] Microsoft Support, “Everything you need to know to write effective alt text

[35] AAM, “Museum Assessment Program Organizational Assessment MAP Workbook” p. 86