#EyeOnHealth: ADA: Making Art Accessible

Photo credit: Filip Wolak

by Linda Gerra, EdD

Dr. Linda Gerra, Lighthouse Guild’s Director of Children’s Vision Programs, is an expert in blindness and visual impairment, specifically in the education of children and young adults.

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act gave people with disabilities equal access to employment, transportation, services, public institutions and government programs.
Most people associate the ADA with physical access to buildings and facilities, such as ramps, curb cuts, signage, and accessible parking. However, many museums and cultural institutions went beyond the legal requirements to make their programs inclusive by broadening accessibility to enable visitors with a range of abilities to enjoy what they offered. For example, as early as 1918, The Metropolitan Museum of Art held talks for school children who were blind.

UNIVERSAL DESIGN

The Seven Principles of Universal Design, a set of guidelines that outline the process of creating accessible environments developed by Ronald Mace1 are often incorporated into the planning and design of museum exhibits.

According to Mace, the following elements create Universal Design:

  • Design is useful and marketable to people with a range of abilities.
  • Design accommodates a wide variety of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Use of design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience.
  • Design communicates necessary information effectively to the user regardless of the user’s abilities.
  • Design minimizes possible accidental or unintended errors.
  • Design can be used efficiently and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, and use regardless of user’s body size or mobility.

Although these principles were not primarily created for people with vision loss, they do encompass the global needs and considerations of this population.

Many art and cultural institutions utilize these principles to conceptualize their exhibitions. One good example is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, which provides a multi-sensory application of presenting information. People with disabilities were involved in all of the planning phases to ensure an inclusive and meaningful experience for all. Their guided tours include the following examples of Universal Design: large-print versions of related materials, Braille labels, objects to touch, and the use of descriptive language. The museum also provides multiple ways for visitors to access and explore the exhibit spaces and enjoy its content.

INDIVIDUALS WITH BLINDNESS AND VISION LOSS

Specific attention should be paid to people who are blind or have significant vision loss. A visitor should call the venue to obtain information on the cultural offerings for individuals with vision loss, especially children. Many museums have tactile or large-print maps. Audio guides and audio descriptions may also be available.

Many cultural institutions also offer touch tours for groups or individuals. These tours can provide a multi-sensory experience including items and artifacts to touch, verbal descriptions, scents and other tactile enhancements.

The goal of cultural organizations is to create an open environment for a dialogue between the art form and the visitor, including people with disabilities. Resources and training opportunities on ways to adapt the exhibits and experiences for people with blindness or vision loss are available to institutions and museums.

However, staff must further tailor their programs to children of all ages who have vision loss. Since children learn through active engagement and interaction, it is important to consider the following examples:

  • Describe the environment, (not just the art form)
  • Use age-appropriate language
  • Explain how to handle and explore small artifacts (Pointing out the important aspects of the item)
  • Use descriptions which include comparisons and analogies to commonly known objects
  • Use of other sensory modalities, such as scents or sounds
  • Consider lighting and reducing glare in areas of interest
  • Select a theme for tours which makes it more enjoyable and meaningful
  • Consider digital displays which may use graphics and can be adjusted and controlled for best clarity
  • Provide guided touch and exploration opportunities
  • Add an audio option which may be appropriate for children and may include music or sound effects
  • Provide Braille texts
  • Create art-making activities
  • Offer tactile representations of some paintings/designs.

Some museums have identified galleries for adults that are less crowded, therefore quieter than others. Using less crowded galleries is also good for children, since it decreases the distractions.

Several museums across the country have utilized the New York Museum Access Consortium (MAC) as a model. MAC is a network of museums which help each other to advocate for people with disabilities and best practices for access and inclusion. Art Beyond Sight offers inclusion training for staff as well as a range of other resources for museums and cultural institutions. The Henry Ford Museum has benefited from the museums and institutions on the east coast to develop their own accessibility program.

Since the population of people with disabilities is so diverse, it presents significant challenges for the museums’ accessibility departments. It requires a broad range of creative approaches to engage visitors, especially children. However, by implementing supports and accessible features at exhibits and cultural venues, you ensure a significant impact on the learning experience for a child with disabilities.

#EyeOnHealth

Mace, Ronald, (1991). Definitions: Accessible, Adaptable, and Universal Design. Raleigh, N.C.: Center for Accessible Housing, North Carolina State University.