Abstract

Can a blind person serve as a museum docent? This personal account proves that it is possible and rewarding. The author shares her experience of lost vision due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, and the challenges she meets in order to continue as a docent at a museum that she loves.


As a child, I could never see the stars. The first symptom of Retinitis Pigmentosa is night blindness. Because I was too young to understand the ramifications of this condition, I just accepted my vision as being normal. So began my journey of creating a coping system in order to continue seeing "the beauty of the world".

Although my parents were aware of my disability and frequently took me to eye doctors, they never told me what the problem was. I was mainstreamed in school never realizing my vision was different from others. In college, I enrolled in a speed-reading class from which I had to withdraw, as my eyes weren't capable of seeing words in groups. After college graduation I taught in the NYC school system, an experience that greatly influenced my future work.

When I was thirty years old, an eye doctor refused to sign my driver's license renewal application because he said I was going blind. This is how I discovered I had R.P.! After consulting with other doctors who informed me that I could continue to drive in full daylight, I had my license renewed.

In 1976 I began working at The Jewish Museum in New York City. After a vigorous two years of study, lectures and paper writing, I was accredited as a Docent. As time went by I noticed a further deterioration in my vision. Museum labels and text panels became unreadable for me, and the art was difficult for me to see. This loss of sight was apparent in my note taking at lectures as my writing progressively grew larger and larger. Eventually I was unable to take notes, and discovered the tape recorder as a solution. This shows that "as many doors close, many others open." This is an example of my ability to reinvent myself to continue seeing 'the beauty of the world.'

As the R.P. progressed and I could no longer drive, I had to rely on my museum colleagues, friends, and the bus to commute into New York City. Having learned to ask for help, my life became much "more accessible." Sometimes in a single day, I have as many as five "handlers" to assist me in getting from place to place. I have created a terrific support system.

With each new exhibit at The Jewish Museum I have to memorize the text panels, labels, and the descriptions by curators and fellow volunteers to familiarize myself about each art object. As I can no longer make my way through the galleries on my own, I ask colleagues to guide me to those art works I want to describe. My visual memory is a great tool that helps me to enrich my tours.

During my career as a docent, I needed to reach out to people like me. A committee for special needs was created to provide services to people who have disabilities. This program includes a tableau vivant for people who are partially sighted and blind, which includes the use of three-dimensional replicas of elements in a painting. These palpable models are used to explain the historical context of the painting, the artistic style and techniques, and the significance of the Jewish rituals so that they come alive for visitors.

For some time I conducted in-depth descriptive tours for partially sighted and blind people. However, as my vision worsened, I had a colleague provide the in-depth descriptions, while I provided the historic background on the exhibition and various artworks. Today, I lead open tours for visitors who come to the museum, so the audience is sighted. Many times, I'll ask the people on my tour for assistance in getting through an exhibition.

I think it is important for museums to train blind and low-vision people like me as docents in order to set role models and to demonstrate that blind people are fully capable of being active participants. I believe that I also serve as a role model for other people who are blind by showing them, as well as the general public, that someone who is partially sighted or blind is perfectly capable of conducting tours through a museum.

It takes me four times longer than other docents to memorize all the aspects of the exhibitions that I cannot see, to keep all of this information in my head. I consider it worthwhile, though, because I love to teach people, I love to share my knowledge, my passion for art, and I think there are many blind people like me who want to share their knowledge with others. One of my goals in life is to demonstrate that people who are blind are perfectly capable individuals. When people see a blind person talking about a work of art, when they see my cane, and realize that I cannot see, they are amazed. I look forward to the day that they are not amazed, when museums are full of people who are blind or low vision, as employees, as docents, and as visitors.

The opportunity of learning and sharing my knowledge with an international audience has been most enriching. I look forward to my future at The Jewish Museum with great thanks, and will continue to innovate new ways of coping with my changing vision in order to see and to share "the beauty in the world."

Judith Kahn Schmeidler, an accessibility advocate, has been an accredited docent at the Jewish Museum in New York City for thirty-six years. For twenty-five of those years she has been legally blind.

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Copyright (c) 2013 Judith Kahn Schmeidler



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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)