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Blind People Can See Your Collections With a Little Help From You

A two-year old, Korean-American boy sits solemnly on the beige-carpeted steps. His dark-brown bangs cut straight across his tan forehead. With his small, heart-shaped mouth pursed, he looks directly into the camera — thoroughly unabashed by the photographer. His short-sleeved, purple tee shirt and apple-red overall shorts create the backdrop for a well-worn, white, stuffed bunny held tightly under his left arm. Navy blue leather sneakers over white ankle socks cover his feet.

To his right, two steps above, lies, belly-down, a small, scruffy terrier — brown and black fur going this-way-and-that over his eyes and paws. The pup’s chin rests on the stair edge, bringing his keen brown eyes and shining black nose to the level of the child’s ear. He, too, watches the photographer with no self-consciousness.

Can you picture these best friends? Can you see how the boy and his dog are posed in this “photo” and can you read what is on their faces? Clear and precise description is only one of the ways that you can bring alive your collection for visitors who are blind or visually impaired — as well as for sighted visitors who do not look as carefully as you would like.

Accessibility for visually impaired and blind individuals is a long-unsolved dilemma for museums: how to make collections, which are often behind glass and very fragile, accessible to people who cannot see well or at all. Issues of conservation and preservation have kept museums from doing much to serve this audience.

But things must change. On July 26, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, more commonly known as the ADA. This law requires that museums, and other organizations offering public accommodations, make their programs accessible to all people with disabilities, beginning January, 1992. Now all museums across the country must tackle those problems they thought could not be solved. And you, the docent, will be a major resource in this effort.

Concerns of conservation and preservation are not going to go away and the ADA does not require that they be discarded. No one wants to destroy our nation’s collections. So museums are going to have to become more creative in their exhibition designs and programming to allow people with visual impairments access to works of art. historic artifacts, and examples of nature or scientific progress. But how do visually oriented entities like museums do that for people who are blind (have no residual vision) or visually impaired (have varying degrees of usable vision)?

Description is one way. Objects that cannot be touched, and even those that can be seen through touch, can come alive through words well chosen. Here are some beginning suggestions:

  • Start by asking the person who is visually impaired how much he can see of the painting, object, or room you are planning to describe. Draw from that information a frame of reference as to the gaps you will need to fill for understanding this object and others. And never be afraid to continue asking questions to assure you are giving the information that is most important and relevant.
  • Feel free to use words such as “look” and “see.” These words are part of our vocabulary — regardless of our visual abilities.
  • Move from the general to the specific: describe the overall display and then work back to the details. Include color in those details. Even people who are congenitally blind want to know how artists, craftsmen, or inventors relate colors to each other.
  • Connect the descriptions to the person’s individual experience: pace out together the size of a large object; give a sense of height in relation to the person’s own height; describe objects’ shapes in terms of other, more common objects (e.g., this is shaped like an apple); describe texture (if they are not seeing tactually) in relation to what can be readily touched.
  • Use common language to describe objects. For example, make sure people understand architectural terms before launching into a full description of colonial construction.
  • If sighted visitors are also on your tour, include them in the description process. Ask questions that require identifying details — as the visitors with average vision look more closely and begin to describe what they see, they give information to the person who may not be able to see it.

Just good tour techniques, you say? You are right! Most accommodation for people with disabilities is a mixture of common sense, good teaching, and sensitivity to your audience’s level of understanding and experience in museums. If you include these methods in your tour–whether or not you have participants who are disabled–you will have a better tour all the way around.

Now that the task is not so daunting, let’s look at a few more ways to accommodate people with visual impairments.

Be aware of accessibility problems in your museum. A big issue for people who are visually impaired is lighting. General low lighting or bright spots of light in darkened areas may create a dramatic atmosphere, but each also creates serious problems for visually impaired visitors. While you may not be able to change the light level, you can be aware of when your visitors may need extra assistance.

Offer your assistance but do not be offended if the visitor declines. If he wants the aid of a sighted guide, ask him how you can best fill that role. Different people use different techniques, so let the visitor be the teacher.

Start your tour with a verbal orientation. Let the visitor know how the museum is laid out and where you will be going. You may need to do this again when entering individual rooms or galleries–complex exhibition floorplans result in obstacle courses in which people can get hurt. Whenever possible, void those cluttered routes, and heighten your awareness if your audience has to use them.

Use supplemental materials to enhance your explanation of the exhibitions. These materials include: touchable objects, either actual artifacts, reproductions, or even pieces from your museums shop; Braille, audio, and large print versions of brochures and catalogs; raised-line maps and drawings; high-contrast photographs of objects in the collection; and magnifiers. If possible, let everyone in the group–regardless of vision–use these materials. You will be surprised how much they add to everyone’s tour.

The most important suggestion however, is to respect the person who is blind or visually impaired as you would any other visitor. Always talk directly to that individual–not through the person standing next to her. And make sure that she knows who is talking to her. Do not accidentally force a blind person into a guessing game of who you are–identify yourself at the very beginning of your conversation. Once you are talking to each other, things are a lot easier for everyone. At that point blind and visually impaired people can see your collections, with a little bit of help from you.

Janice Majewski is Smithsonian Accessibility Coordinator in the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Museums. She earner a Master of Education of the Deaf degree from Smith College and taught elementary-level hearing impaired children for three years. In 1978, she joined the Smithsonian’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education as the Coordinator for Special Education. Ms. Majewski assumed her new position as Accesibilty Coordinator in January, 1991. She is the author of the training package Part of Your General Public Is Disabled, and she has presented workshops and lectures on the subject of museum accessibility throughout the country.

 Majewski, Janice ” Blind People Can See Your Collections With a Little Help From You,” The Docent Educator 1.1 (Autumn 1991): 8-10.

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