Access: New Tools to Welcome a Broader Audience

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Jul 10, 2023

Woman sits in a movie theater and uses a hand-held device to see close captioning for a film on screen.

Wex Visitor Experience Manager Joanna Hammer tests a new system for closed captioning in the Film/Video Theater; photo: Helyn Marshall

Helyn Marshall’s office is a cozy nook with comfy chairs, art on the walls, an electric teapot, and an assortment of teas. But the amenities aren’t just for her. Marshall offers her area as a lactation room for center staff and a comfort room for patrons. “Sometimes you need a quiet place to go,” she says. 

As Accessibility Manager for the Wex and a veteran of the Visitor Experience team, Marshall is uniquely tuned in to the needs of people who inhabit our spaces. She’s the person you contact to reserve wheelchair seating for a performance or to ask about ASL interpretation for a talk. She was also instrumental in the creation of 3D image tactiles for the exhibition Meditation Ocean, in partnership with Ohio State's Office of Digital Technology and Innovation. Her approach is grounded in empathy and understanding, forged in part through her own lived experiences with multiple disabilities. 

“Really, accessibility is about providing options," Marshall says. 

Historically, Marshall has been central to efforts to outfit the Wex’s accessibility toolbox. In recent months, she initiated and collaborated on a style guide for alt text and image descriptions. 

Alt text stands for "alternative text," which is coded into the background of digital images and which screen readers speak aloud to share basic information on what images depict. This provides access to people who are blind, have low vision, or who use a screen reader for other cognitive or learning disabilities. Federal standards dictate that any image on the internet must be accompanied by alt text. 

Image descriptions give more detailed information and aren't coded into the images, but are made available nearby, like captions. Although no federal standards exist for these yet, image descriptions are a developing accessibility practice around the world.

Marshall collaborated with 2022–23 Accessibility Intern Nate Super to develop the guide, as well as Social Media Coordinator Austin Dunn, with support from the Wex’s Editorial team and Web Developer EJ Josephat. Corey Moore, a specialist in Ohio State's Digital Accessibility Center, reviewed and contributed to the guide. It was also peer-reviewed by Lorena Bradford, manager of accessible programs at the National Gallery of Art.  

"Really, accessibility is about providing options."
Helyn Marshall

Speaking to the need for such guidelines, Nathan Fernandes from Ohio State’s Digital Accessibility Center notes, "I'm a screen reader user, so alt text is crucial to me for understanding what's going on. The problem with alt text is, it's very subjective. It's tricky and it can be intimidating for folks just because they don't know if they're giving the right detail. It's all literally in the eye of the beholder, right? You have somebody who might do audio description for a living that will give very detailed descriptions... But sometimes, really all you want to tell people is, this is a picture of the Ohio State president with a buckeye tree in the background.” 

“Obviously, the arts are in some cases a much more challenging space for accessibility than typical environments, given the fact that a lot of art is intentionally left to be interpreted,” Fernandes adds. “So, the fact that Helyn and the amazing team that Helyn has built around her is doing this work in this space is certainly admirable.” 

Marshall explains that her accessibility work has also included participation in a cross-disability community advisory group, a cohort brought together with support from Elizabeth Sammons, a highly experienced, Columbus-based writer and disability advocate who was born completely blind, had surgical procedures early in life, and is now considered legally blind.    

“We had between us six people: six perspectives, six different experiences,” Marshall explains. “People have different disabilities that need accommodation in different environments, which is something I think a lot of people don't consider when they're conceiving of disability as a state of being.” 

Guided by this experience, Marshall amassed new digital tools and other amenities for center patrons. In addition to the alt text guide, there's new equipment to provide closed captioning on DCP films with caption tracks for Deaf and hard of hearing filmgoers, augmenting the system already in place at the Wex to support Assistive Listening Devices. There are also items like an LCD writing board for the front desk to aid people with any communication-based disability. And Marshall's purchased fun, colorful fidgets that can fit in a pocket: soft-feeling stars with affirming messages printed on them and small, squishy animal figures. 

A collection of about 10 fidget toys. Most are colorful star-shaped stress balls with inspiring messages printed on them.

Fidgets available to Wex visitors; photo: Helyn Marshall

"The concept of being neurodivergent is that it is a difference in your thinking processes, and that these 'divergences' are also frequently tied to emotional processing and memory processing,” explains Marshall. “Things that provide some kind of sensory information to your body can be comforting. And sometimes, repetitive physical motions give a sense of comfort. It's like you can change your mood a little bit, because you're out of your brain. If you're having an invasive thought or repetitive thought, instead of the thought, [you can] just squeeze this. And you happen to have a little reassuring message like, 'Yes, I can do it.'” 

Marshall is also working with center staff like Senior Exhibition Designer Dave Dickas to expand seating options around the building, and with Head of Visitor Experience Mark Spurgeon on more directional signage. And with a $25,000 grant from Ohio State’s Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme, there are means to provide more accessibility options for audiences. Coming soon is a motorized scooter to make maneuvering the galleries easier for those with disabilities that affect mobility. 

Marshall says that some visitors with disabilities may decide they don't need these tools, and she doesn’t want to tell anyone how to exist in their own body. Still, “You're looking at really getting something out of your visit, to be able to stop somewhere and really think about a piece of art and feel like you can go around or get intimate in this space and be in the presence of great art," she says. 

"I don't know if you've ever felt that feeling, but I have. It is a goosebumps-inducing connection to the stuff of life. That's what I think a lot of people strive for when they come to these places: the feeling of connection, with the electricity of humanity running through you, being in beauty, and being part of something greater.” 


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