Many adults who are blind or have low vision are reluctant to visit museums because of disappointing or less-than-welcoming experiences in the past. To attract visually impaired people to your museum, the authors urge you to make outreach and program development a "two-way street," to solicit advice and criticism from a variety of people who are blind or have low vision. In addition, they share issues raised at focus groups they conducted as part of Art Beyond Sight's Multi-Sight Museum Accessibility Study and its Project Access New York program.

There is a strong movement in the United States for museums to become not just repositories and conservators of valuable artworks and artifacts, but also to serve as educational and social centers for their communities. Thus museums are putting more emphasis on audience-driven experiences, audience-generated content, and audience development, including attracting non-traditional museum-goers and developing life-long museum appreciation among young people. Providing access for visitors with disabilities — especially visitors who are blind or low vision — is one of the many important issues faced by audience development staff. In addition to providing physical and intellectual access to the museum and its collection, staff must understand the discomfort that people who have been blind from an early age share with other non-traditional audiences. Many blind visitors are uncomfortable about visiting a museum, assuming it is not a place that welcomes them or having had disappointing experiences. There is a lot that visitors with low vision and museum lovers who are blind can do to bridge the gaps of understanding.

Audience development in museums in a best-case scenario is a two-way street. It takes an honest effort, tolerance and empathy from the museum staff and the audience, in this case visitors who are blind or have low vision. We have learned about the importance of such efforts in our recent research: a dozen focus groups conducted (a) across the country as part of the Art Beyond Sight (ABS) Multi-site Museum Accessibility Study and (b) in New York City as part of our Project Access New York program. All focus group participants were adults, but their visual impairment varied. Some were blind from an early age, others experienced vision loss as adults. Some were legally blind, others low vision. The groups also varied widely on how recently and how often they visited museums. All, however, expressed an interest in art and/or history and thus were potential museum visitors.

Keep an Open Mind

We support the critical principle of the disability rights movement — the "nothing for us without us". Hence when we held focus groups, we barred intermediaries, i.e., rehab specialists, social workers, and staff from service agencies and hospitals, from participating. Julie Charles, Associate Curator of Education at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which hosted one of our museum study focus groups, notes that "it was important that we invited the 'users,' not people who represented the users. It was equally important to have diverse voices of people from the community, including people who do not come to our museum. The latter voices were perhaps most interesting and not often represented in museum conversations."

One of the most important requirements for an open conversation between museum staff and focus group participants is the staff's willingness to have an open mind and to listen to comments, perceptions, observation and misperceptions that might be uncomfortable. "Get comfortable with the fact that you may be uncomfortable" is the gist of Charles's advice to museum educators. Part of the learning curve, she notes, is accepting that there will be opinions in the room that are not complementary or not informed.

Charles and many of her colleagues around the country who participated in our Multi-site Museum Accessibility Study research were surprised by how many focus group participants were willing to share specifics about their needs, relay personal experiences, and share a wealth of specific suggestions. Also surprising was how many of the focus group participants wanted to actively participate in the creation of a new program for blind and visually impaired visitors.

Focus groups provide museum educators with first-person accounts and poignant stories of visitor experiences that become very powerful tools for raising awareness within a museum team about different kinds of visitor experiences. Participants with vision loss often noted how programs that appeal to them would appeal to many audiences. Focus groups help increase the staff's comfort level in working with blind and low-vision visitors. "In many ways you become less intimidated, perhaps, and you realize how beneficial it can be for all people to come to a museum and have these kinds of experiences," notes Victoria Ramirez, former W.T. and Louise J. Moran Education Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, another museum in our study.

Museum Visits Are "Hard" Work

When a retired art collector suggested that maybe he stopped going to museums because he was lazy, a spontaneous conversation unfolded in the San Francisco focus group about how "hard museum experience can be." One woman, who is both visually impaired and of small stature, said, "I make sure I'm in an aggressive mood because people crowd in front of you and I need to be able to stand very close….it would be much better for me if I could be sitting down, use a wheelchair or something because I get tired of standing, but if I'm sitting down I'm definitely not going to see anything because people will stand in front of you constantly." Another San Francisco art lover who goes to an art museum or gallery at least once a week said she "didn't really realize how angry and frustrated I felt about museums and how hard it's been for me [going to museums] until I was here listening to other people [in the focus group].

Participants in many of the focus groups cited the embarrassment of being "yelled at" by museum security staff, generally because they were getting too close to artworks. A number of participants noted feeling unwelcome and wishing that front-of-house staff would ask if they need help and let them know if audio guides, large-print or Braille materials are available. Also cited as making museum visits difficult were poorly marked stairs, dim lighting in galleries, and the size and placement of labels.

At a Seattle focus group, one participant noted that people who are blind don't have the luxury of just showing up at a museum, the "hard work" involved preparation and time. "If we're going get anything out of anything, we can't just say, 'Here we are.' We have to plan, we have to encourage, solicit assistance from people and from whatever to help us do what we need to do. And I don't think people with disabilities often get that."

One Houston focus group participant noted that transportation is a "bigger deal for the blind….You have to get extreme detailed directions to where physically [the museum] is from the transit system, and I don't know how much of the blind population would do that. It takes a certain amount of effort to get here, to find the place, and then get back."

At the end of the San Francisco discussion on how hard it can be to visit a museum, one participant said that in the end, what would make the greatest difference is "courtesy and basic human caring and nothing fancy or extra, just basic human courtesy. I think for me that is bigger than all the accessibility things, the large print, the marker at the top of the stairs, all that stuff is great; I think being able to go and have my dignity as a human being in tact during and after the experience is the most important thing."

Suggestions on ways to make museum visits easier for blind and low-vision visitors included:

  • Provide disability awareness training for visitor service and security staff.
  • Have staff greet visitors who are blind or have low vision at the door and ask if they would like assistance.
  • Provide detailed instructions on museum Websites on how to get from nearby train and bus stops to the museum.
  • Review signage for contrast and type size, and adjust if needed for better legibility for visitors who have low vision. Provide large-print handouts in each gallery of the label information.
  • Offer frequently scheduled verbal description and/or touch tours, or have docents available to conduct such tours if requested by someone who just walks into the museum.
  • Request feedback from visitors who are blind or low vision about areas of the museum that they found difficult to navigate.

Self-advocacy at Museums as a Rewarding Experience

The need for self-advocacy was raised in several of the focus groups. For instance, in a New York City group discussion on Sighted Guide Technique one participant remarked that "most of the time we are training the [staff] people ourselves on how to handle us….If they grab me in the wrong place, then I'll put my hand on their elbow to show them. And then I always tell them, listen if we're getting to a narrow place, just slide your arm behind you a little bit, that will let me know to get behind you. So, you know, I always try, if nothing else, I always try to tell them that little bit of information. And then I say, you know, with the next blind person they'll know to do that."

A San Fracnisco art lover told about educating a museum guard. "I was looking at something apparently too close up — I didn't know about the eighteen-inch rule at that time — I wasn't touching the art," she said, when an older guard approached her and "barked at me 'You're too close! Get back.' I turned to her, I was using my white cane at the time, and I said, 'I'm legally blind. I'm standing close so I can see.' And she said, 'Well, you can't,' and I said, 'Okay, I will not get close to the art, but I want you to know that I can't really see it, but one thing I'd like you to realize, you can't talk to me in that tone of voice, that's not okay.'

The focus group participant said that she had viewed three or four more artworks when the guard approached her, apologized for yelling, and said that she "didn't know very much about blind people" and asked for advice. "She was totally open," the focus group participant said. "She asked me about the cane, she asked me what I could and could not see, she asked me everything she could think of about blind people. Then she told me while I was in the gallery in her part I could get as close as I wanted and if she got in trouble she would deal with her boss, and that she was going to let me look at the art. And that was so nice, she started out yelling at me and she ended up apologizing and learning something."

As these two examples show, self-advocacy can be an empowering experience for audience participants and an educational event for museum staff. In Brooklyn an older woman who is blind and has been going to museums since being a young student at schools for the blind encouraged other frustrated focus group participants to take their concerns straight to museum staff. She felt confident that this would yield a positive change — if the concerns were taken to a manager, "cause some of the people could be volunteers, or not trained, or not have any experience working with blind folks, you know! Don't forget some places do treat us [as if] we're not from the planet of Earth; we must be from Mars or some other place…"

We Want to Be Part of the Museum Crowd

At the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) the focus group yielded divergent perspectives on when it is best to visit the museum. Some members of the group wanted to avoid museum crowds, but others remarked that they did not want to be segregated with other patrons with disabilities and visit museums when they are closed to the general public. As three of the "don't segregate us" group said:

  • "I hate to be isolated; you know, it's nice to come the day the museum is closed to the public, but part of it is you're teaching the public how to interact with us. I hate that isolation."
  • "I have a problem with that isolation and the idea of making, you know, a special day for special people….those kinds of things you put in place for a day like that, why can't they be there all the time? It just does not make sense to me."
  • "I just feel like I'd rather be there with the kids and the grandmas and everybody… part of being at a museum is coming and enjoying the, the hub…."

Participants desire to have an engaging social experience is just one of the things that was learned from blind and visually impaired visitors, but can be applied to many groups at SAM, says Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the museum's Kayla Skinner Deputy Director of Education and Public Programs/Adjunct Curator. As an example, she cites participants' desire to "experience something new and unexpected," and at the same time, have a social experience. "Our research with eighteen- to thirty-five-year-old museum visitors also tells us that people want a balance of intellectual and social stimulus. If we offer something that's just social, with no intellectual rigor, then that's just a party. We have this really important opportunity to recognize that we can't consolidate people anymore. People are multi-faceted and programming should reflect that by providing options. One size does not fit all."

Proving that point is the success of one San Francisco museum that offers free Access Days. Noting that crowds are always a problem, the museum offered two Access Days for a special exhibit. "There were 500 people who came [the first day] and 300 people who came the second day," one focus group participant related, "and it's that lack of crowds, and it gets back to what a lot of people here said about taking your time, not having people stepping in front of you, having enough time to look at a wall plaque and read it in your own time that means a huge amount to people, it does."

Time and Money

Also discussed at focus groups around the country were whether free admission would attract more visitors who are blind or low vision, and when to schedule accessible programs. One San Franciscan noted that "cost is definitely a factor for that segment of the disability community that is low income; there's another segment obviously of the disability community that is not low income and cost is much less of a factor there."

While many museums schedule verbally described tours on weekdays, the focus group participants were insulted to learn that educators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston were thinking of doing the same. "Saturdays or Sundays are good for blind people since people work," one person immediately suggested. Another suggested evenings might be good, but was reminded that some blind people are not comfortable taking public transportation at night. Thus the consensus was weekends. Museum educators generally have the weekends off, but to accommodate blind and low-vision visitors, the museum has added a once-a-month Saturday morning verbal description tour to its schedule, and the tour is very well attended.

You Will Not Always Get It Right, and That's Okay

Many focus group participants pointed out that "we're not all alike," that what one person who is blind or low vision wants, another may not like. "You really need to have a diversity of information sources, different people get information different ways. When they get to a museum some are fine with maps, some people aren't; some people don't have a problem asking a staff person for directions, other people do. And so again it's that diversity, giving people a choice as to how they get information that I think is important," one San Franciscan said.

In an interview with Art Beyond Sight, the late Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, former Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, noted:

"Blind people are as different as sighted individuals. Some people are very interested in the arts and they've studied a lot and they know a lot about art history….Some people are real history buffs….And a lot of folks are going to be like a lot of tourists who go to museums and art galleries and just want to see what's there." What's important, she said, is "not to assume things, because you'll have a wide variety of likes and dislikes. And you won't be able to please everyone. Not everyone is going to like what you do. You just have to do it in the best and most gracious way."

We urge any museum that is creating accessible programs to engage in dialogue with current and future visitors with disabilities. As we know from the dozen of focus groups we conducted over the past years, people who are blind or have low vision can play key roles in shaping the programs that serve them, they can be active and thoughtful participants in the process of designing those programs. It is equally important for blind visitors and future visitors to gain a sense of ownership about the museum's collection, an understanding of the museum's mission, and an appreciation for its content. When blind and low vision patrons become regular visitors to the museum, they become museum advocates and promote this and other museums within their local disability community.

Nina Levent, Executive Director of Art Beyond Sight, received her Ph.D. from the Humboldt Universitaet in Berlin. She co-edited Art Beyond Sight: A Resource Guide to Art, Creativity, and Visual Impairment, and Handbook for Educators and Museums. She trains museums and educators in the United States and abroad, and is a principal investigator of the Multi-site Museum Accessibility Study.

Joan M. Pursley joined ABS as Editor Director in 2004, after a 30-year career as a writer and editor. She has led disability awareness trainings at museums, presented at conferences here and abroad, and coordinated many of ABS's public programs.

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