Inspiration: Museums Trying to Increase Accessibility for Blind

Jess Mitchell jess at
Mon Nov 2 17:23:17 UTC 2009

Museums Trying to Increase Accessibility for Blind

to a new precedent set by the Justice Department, museums are  
scrambling to
find new ways to include the visually impaired.

By Jesse Ellison
Newsweek, Oct 23, 2009

During a recent conference call among museum educators, one  
participant made
an obvious point. "Art museums are essentially visual institutions," he
said. He wasn't laughed off the phone. And given that those on the  
call were
there to discuss how to make the visual arts accessible to the visually
handicapped, his point was actually fairly profound.

Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990,  
and other institutions have been required to make their facilities
"accessible" to everyone, regardless of their particular type of  
For decades at many museums, this meant little more than providing  
ramps for
people who use wheelchairs and Braille museum guides for people who are
blind. But a landmark 2008 Department of Justice ruling forced museums
around the country to grapple with what accessibility actually means.

" 'Accessibility' is not very descriptive," says Nina Levent, executive
director of New York's Art Education for the Blind. "The issue is, do  
come to museums to ride elevators and use bathrooms, or do they come  
to have
a meaningful social and aesthetic experience?"

Michael Byington, the president of the Kansas Association for the  
Blind and
Visually Impaired, was seeking the latter when he filed a complaint in  
against Washington, D.C.'s Spy Museum, accusing the museum of being
inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Byington, who is legally
blind, cited a lack of docents able to provide a tour for blind  
computer exhibits and terminals with speech outputs; and supplementary
materials in Braille, large print, and audio format. The DOJ opened an
investigation and, four years later, reached a landmark settlement  
with the
museum, which has since spent more than $400,000 updating its  
But the DOJ's willingness to pursue the case, and to make it about  
more than
just ramps and handrails, jolted museum educators across the nation.

"It's historic in that they went quite far and it became quite obvious  
there is no sense of where the bar is or where the bar should be in  
terms of
accessibility," Levent says. "I think they knew they were setting a
precedent." Still, she says, museums need to change their way of  
the DOJ suit is not a legal threat but an educational opportunity. "The
museums are very nervous. But them being nervous has not led to  
programming. It became a legal issue as opposed to an issue of  
education and
outreach," she said.

Following the letter rather than the spirit of the law is a problem that
some people think has plagued the ADA from the start. Among them is  
Dale, President Obama's special adviser on disability policy, who  
himself is
partially sighted. Dale, the first person to hold the position in the  
House, views disability rights as civil rights. "We are working on all
fronts to try to realize the promise of the ADA," he told museum
administrators during the conference call. "It was a bill of rights for
people with disabilities, but the original intent has been lost over the
last two decades. We will restore the ADA to its original intent, and  
Department of Justice has been turned loose to go after people who are
violating civil-rights laws. We have a lot of work to do."

Dale has also convened an in-person meeting of museum directors to  
best practices, and he's thrown his weight behind a forthcoming Web  
called Project Access, that will aggregate accessibility information  
every cultural institution, stadium, theater, national park, and public
venue in the country. "This is the first time the White House has  
taken this
very aggressive stance," says Paula Terry, of the National Endowment  
for the
Arts' Office for AccessAbility. I'm not sure what to expect, but I  
it." Dale's presence in the White House itself suggests that the Obama
administration is going to focus on disability issues more strongly than
ever before.

To be sure, many museums are already doing more than the bare minimum.  
actual question of how to bring the visual arts to those without sight  
seem both impractical and impossible. When we think of visiting  
museums, we
tend to think of quiet, meditative places, where we keep our hands to
ourselves and our voices down. But museums at the forefront of  
are beginning to offer touch tours, tactile maps, and extended verbal
descriptions. Some are even incorporating scent into their educational

But those museums are still the exception, not the rule. "We're not  
yet," Terry acknowledges. "There's still a lot to be done." The American
Academy of Ophthalmology estimates that by 2020, 43 million Americans  
be at risk for significant vision impairment from age-related diseases.
Millions of us stand to learn that "accessible" means a lot more than  

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