Access to Museums and Parks for Patrons who are Blind or Visually Impaired
Joe Strechay and Tara Annis
People with vision loss want, and increasingly expect, to experience a museum or park as fully as a person with normal vision. Museums and parks have made great strides in accessibility for patrons who are blind or visually impaired. The use of audio descriptions, GPS devices, and other accessible technologies, along with exhibit design improvements and better information sharing among cultural and educational institutions, have made these resources increasingly enjoyable and accessible to visitors with vision loss.
Organizations Dedicated to Improving Access to Cultural Institutions
Art Education for the Blind & Art Beyond Sight
Art Education for the Blind (AEB) and its website, Art Beyond Sight, provide materials specific to accessibility strategies and standards for art museums. AEB has made it its business to work on improving access to the arts in the US and abroad for people who are blind or visually impaired. It promotes national and regional programs through exhibitions, granted projects, and more. AEB worked with the AFB Press division to create the textbook Art Education for the Blind and Art Beyond Sight, a resource for teachers, rehabilitation professionals, and those interested in art education for people with vision loss. The book contains extensive information, techniques, strategies, and approaches.
Both the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) have interest groups specific to the arts. Both organizations have worked with museums to promote access in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Accessibility Devices and Strategies Currently in Use in Cultural Institutions
A variety of devices are used in museums and parks today to increase access for blind and visually impaired patrons. Though no single strategy will answer the accessibility needs for every institution or exhibit, many of these devices provide great improvements to access.
Durateq from Softeq
The Durateq is a top-of-the-line audio description device suitable for use in parks and museums. The Durateq uses GPS for providing access to outdoor points of interest. Indoors, it uses small beacon-type markers to trigger descriptions of exhibits or objects.
guidePORT System from Sennheiser
The guidePORT is a handheld device that offers a variety of programming options to provide more- or less-detailed tours depending on visitor preference. The device can provide a wide variety of language programming for institutions with international or multi-lingual visitorships.
The Tourmate is an older device still in use in many museums. It uses recorded descriptions associated with specific objects or exhibit identification numbers. To hear a description, the user enters the identification number (found either through braille or the assistance of a sighted helper) into the device via a keypad. The Tourmate is not as flexible or convenient as an automatically triggered device.
Push-Button Audio Boxes
A common and often-preferred method for delivering audio description, the push-button audio box system provides all patrons the same method of access to information about an exhibit. The boxes can be designed to be weatherproof as well, allowing for indoor or outdoor use.
When it comes to objects such as sculpture, silver collections, and glass collections, nothing beats making a portion of the exhibit available for tactile exploration with guidance from museum staff. Of course museums can’t make priceless or delicate works or objects available to the public for handling, but providing representative pieces or reproductions appropriate for tactile exploration is an incredible improvement to accessibility and vastly enriches the experience of the patron with vision loss or blindness.
Accessibility Suggestions for Museums and Parks from People with Vision Loss
Braille signage should be formatted correctly and placed in appropriate, easily discoverable locations.
Audio descriptions, large print, and braille should provide the same information as the standard print formats.
To better accommodate people with low vision, signs describing artwork or exhibits should be large and use large sans-serif fonts with highly contrasting colors.
Audio-described tours using portable access devices should provide navigation that allows the patron to skip around when listening to descriptions.
Museum and park staff should be trained to effectively interact and communicate with people with disabilities, including those with vision loss, and should be trained in the access devices at use in their institutions.
Visual displays and electronic signage should use large fonts in highly contrasting color schemes.
Objects such as sculptures should be placed in front of high-contrast backgrounds to make them easier to see.
Lighting should be designed to reduce glare on exhibits and works of art.
Museums should provide access through senses beyond sight. Some museums have representations in a smaller tactile version to allow patrons to feel the shapes and design in specific paintings.
Recommended Cultural Institutions for Visitors who are Blind or Visually Impaired
The Huntington Museum of Art
The Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, West Virginia, is an example of a smaller museum making strides to provide accessibility to people who are blind or visually impaired. The museum has made a number of efforts to enrich the experience of patrons with vision loss or blindness, including adapted pottery classes, audio tours, specialized training in audio description for docents, a sensory trail surrounding the museum. The museum embraces the visually impaired community, sets a high accessibility standard for small museums across the nation, and continues to work on additional strategies to provide more accessibility.
Disney Theme Parks
Walt Disney World Hotels and Resorts have made accessibility a priority for a number of years. Well-known for impressive customer service, Disney is committed to serving people with disabilities, including those who are blind or visually impaired. In 2011, AFB presented Disney with an Access Award for instituting the use of the Durateq device at Disneyland in California.
National Park Service
The National Park Service (NPS) has embraced new technologies to provide more accessibility for exhibits and tours. The African Burial Ground site in Manhattan features an accessible tour with audio description that provides access to multiple forms of media including video and print. The NPS is currently investigating access to images from parks and exhibits via the Web, a strategy that would provide more viewing options to people with low vision.
Additional Highly Recommended Museums
The New Britain Museum of American Art—New Britain, Connecticut
The Ringling Museum of Art—Sarasota, Florida
The Boston Museum of Fine Art—Boston, Massachusetts
The Metropolitan Museum of Art—New York, New York
The Museum of Natural History—New York, New York
The Intrepid (Naval aircraft carrier ship /museum)— New York, New York
African Burial Ground National Monument—New York, New York
Hamilton Grange National Memorial—New York, New York
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores—Moorhead City, North Carolina
The Dallas Museum of Art—Dallas, Texas
The Smithsonian Institution, the Castle—Washington, DC
The International Spy Museum — Washington, DC
What’s Ahead in Audio Description
To get a sense of the common challenges for deploying audio descriptions in cultural institutions, I spoke with William Patterson, head of Audio Description Solutions (ADS), who has a long career in audio description and has provided training in this area since the 1980s. ADS set the original standards for audio description and continues its work today. Patterson is a founding member of the Audio Description Coalition, a national organization dedicated to maintaining the highest quality audio description through training, mentoring, evaluation, and professional development.
ADS currently contracts with museums, parks, and other cultural institutions to help them provide better audio description options to the public. According to Patterson, the most important aspect of a successful audio description program is for “organizations…to think about accessibility before they design and implement their exhibit.”
Patterson has helped museums and parks nationwide provide descriptive access to their collections and exhibits. He has extensive experience with many different audio description devices, including the Durateq device currently used by Disney and many other organizations. When it comes to the best practices for installing these types of devices, Patterson offers the following advice: “The placement of beacons or transmitters is important because you don’t want to restrict access in areas with a crowd.… [Poor] placement of a beacon could cause a person to hear the description for one exhibit while standing in front of another. This is not an uncommon experience.”
In addition to providing guidance on the physical implementation of devices and their supporting equipment, Patterson works with organizations on the nature of the information contained on these devices. He stresses the balance between offering enough information so users have a rich and complete experience, without overwhelming them with an overabundance of detail or history. Patterson also stresses the importance of using language that most people will understand easily.
Visit Audio Description Solutions for more information about their services.
While much work has been done to improve accessibility in cultural institutions, there is still more to do to ensure people with vision loss can participate equally. I hope this report inspires you to get involved with your local museums and parks—get out there and experience the world!
The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Sheila Amato to this article.