More and more museums throughout the United States and the world are striving to make their facilities and exhibitions more accessible to those of us with disabilities. In this post I will talk about some of the accessibility features that can help people with visual impairments learn from and enjoy museums. These suggestions come from an article in AccessWorld, a publication from the American Foundation for the Blind as well as from my personal experiences.
One of the most important aspects museum personnel should consider when making their facilities accessible to those of us with visual impairments is the ease of travel. In other words, features to help guide the person and direct him or her to the various areas of the building should be provided. This can be as simple as providing a Braille or large print booklet with directions to the various locations.
Specialized audio devices can also help individuals who are visually impaired orient themselves to their surroundings in museums. Besides being of great help in exhibits, these devices can be programmed to verbally describe the locations of different areas throughout the museum.
Thanks to today’s technology, museums can implement these audio instructions easily and at a very low cost. Several institutions, such as San Francisco Airport recently began using beacons throughout their facility to help guide blind and visually impaired individuals. By using a Smartphone and a special app, the phone verbally announces the locations and directions to places such as bathrooms, terminals, restaurants, gift shops, etc.
Whether providing specialized audio guides or the technology for people to use their Smartphones as audio guides, it is important to allow users to easily navigate through the guide. So, if I’m standing near the entrance but wish to explore other parts of the museum to get somewhat familiar with the various facilities, the guide should allow me to skip back and forth between descriptions. Also, if the museum is frequently visited by people from different countries, museums might want to consider making such audio guides in several languages.
Audio description, or the narration of visual elements, is also helpful to those of us with visual impairments. It can easily be pre-recorded and incorporated into electronic audio devices. However, a disadvantage to this is that in places like aquariums or zoos, the blind or visually impaired person would not be able to appreciate the real-time actions of animals. In these instances it might also help to provide docents or volunteers to describe these actions to the person should he or she request such service.
Another simple but useful accommodation is Braille and large print signage throughout the museum. This includes bathrooms, elevators and any other signs that are available to the general public. Museums should also take great care in insuring that the signs are formatted correctly and placed in easy to find spots.
Using signs near exhibits with large, easy to see fonts with contrasting colors can be of major help to individuals with low vision. The same applies to electronic signage and visual displays. In addition, exhibit objects, such as sculptures should be placed in areas with high contrast backgrounds. Lighting should also be designed to reduce glare on both exhibits and works of art.
As a blind person, I very much enjoy using my other senses – touch and sound – to learn about exhibits. I think that if more museums made tactile exhibits or – at the very least – provided a tactile replica – patrons with and without visual impairments would have a better understanding of the exhibit. Of course, this should only be done when it is safe to do so. I personally would not be willing to touch a live shark at an aquarium! This article from The New York Times talks about how the Museo del Prado in Spain has made tactile representations of famous works of art for the blind to enjoy http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/arts/design/at-museo-del-prado-blind-visitors-can-touch-masterpieces.html?_r=0.
Perhaps the most important tip is for museum employees to be familiar with all the accessibility features available for people with disabilities. Knowing how to operate electronic audio guides or other devices provided by the museum is also a plus for whenever you have to instruct an individual on its use.
Finally, know how to interact with individuals with visual impairments. You can read more about this at: https://sandysview1.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/how-should-people-interact-with-individuals-who-are-blind-or-visually-impaired/.
This post has only touched the tip of the iceberg in regards to accessibility of museums for people with visual impairments. We hope these suggestions have helped you understand the importance of making cultural institutions more accessible for individuals with vision loss. If you somehow reached this post in your quest to make your museum more accessible, congratulations!! We sincerely hope this information will help you make your institution a place that is enjoyable for all visitors.
The following article from AccessWorld provides more suggestions and helpful resources: http://www.afb.org/afbpress/pub.asp?DocID=aw130206. What have your experiences been as a blind or visually impaired individual in museums? Please comment! Yu can also email any blindness or visual impairment related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!