Ask the average museum visitor what kind of accommodations might be available for people who are blind and visually impaired and that person is likely to draw a blank. With the advent of legal mandates like the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States and similar legislation around the world, art museums and other cultural institutions have undertaken to make their facilities and collections more accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities, including those related to sight. Indeed, educators of the blind have advocated for access to fine art and natural history museums since the nineteenth century, arguing that this kind of knowledge is necessary to advance blind people's cultural inclusion. Even today however, museum access programs tend to occur behind the scenes and under the radar of nondisabled visitors. This is true even though the average museum visitor is likely to be on the older side of middle age, may have experienced some degree of vision loss, and might well avail herself of these services if only she knew of their existence.
Access programs for the blind and visually impaired fall roughly into two categories: verbal description tours and touch tours. Verbal description of museum objects may be included as an additional track on an audio guide, or downloaded on a smart phone. But most often it is a trained docent or an educator who describes art to people who cannot see it. Such educator-led verbal descriptions are often enriched with tactile elements, movement, reenactment, and music of the period. Touch tours may offer participants the opportunity to touch original works of art, or else models and facsimiles, or handling objects somehow related to the visual material, as well as raised-line diagrams and drawings. The wall text and labels in the galleries can be made accessible through Braille, large-print versions of labels and texts, pamphlets, as well as magnification software on iPads. More often than not docent-led touch and verbal description tours are only available by appointment or scheduled at certain times.
As these programs and services proliferate, it is necessary to ask how well they achieve their intended goals. When a museum designs verbal description of visual art what kind of assumptions do they make about what a blind person knows or can understand? What kind of program design will attract not only people with low vision or blindness who stopped going to museums, but also develop new audiences among those who have previously felt unwelcome or have never been to a museum? How might universal access to these services actually enhance the museum experience of all visitors, including those without impaired vision?
It is the goal of this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly to raise these questions through a sampling of current practices at museums around the world, and a collection of responses by blind and visually impaired people who use them. Articles explore the role that museums can play in social inclusion, as well as the role that blind and visually impaired museum patrons and professionals can play in expanding our understanding of the museum experience, enriching museums content, rethinking interpretation approaches and teaching methods. Although the topic refers to a subset of the disabled community (people who are blind or have low vision) and examines one type of cultural site (museums) we expect that readers of DSQ will readily perceive parallels to other groups and other institutions and practices. Here, as elsewhere, the slogan, "Nothing about us without us," applies. The best access programs, now and in the future, are those that actively seek input from blind and visually impaired patrons, artists, scholars and activists, who will press for a wider range of inclusive practices that will enrich the culture at large.
We have divided the issue into three overlapping sections. The first section outlines the social history of arts education and other forms of cultural participation by blind people, and surveys best practices in the United States and international museums. Simon Hayhoe examines the political and philosophical theories that underpin twentieth-century British museums' tactile exhibits. Nina Levent and Joan Muyskens Pursley share findings from their on-going multi-site museum research study that speak to the important role that museum patrons and advocates can play in creating cultural access. Then five museum professionals from around the world describe programs that feature creative solutions to a range of issues: Street Thoma, the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Georgia Krantz, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Bridget O'Brien Hoyt, the Museum of Fine Art, Houston; Barry Ginley, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom; and Kojiro Hirose, the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan.
The second section takes up the issue of curatorial practices, suggesting that exhibits with disability-related content both raise awareness of the growing international disability arts movement while simultaneously innovating new modes of access. Douglas McCulloh describes an exhibit of blind photographers called Sight Unseen that he curated in 2010. This important traveling exhibit showcases contemporary photographers with vision loss with an in-depth look at their craft, their use of a camera, and their subject matter. Amanda Cachia describes two exhibits: Blind at the Museum at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2005, and What Can a Body Do? at the Canter Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College in 2012. She argues for inclusive design in the exhibits themselves, as well as for what she calls the exhibit's discursive elements — catalogues, docent tours, symposia, and websites — that not only extend the life of such exhibits but also expand access for attendees and others. Carmen Papalia, a blind social practice artist, describes his own work — and play — in and around museums, and volunteers his services as access coordinator to any museum willing to rise to the challenge of his provocations.
The final section assembles personal accounts of museum experiences from blind art aficionados, artists, writers, and museum professionals: Craig Werner, Stephen Kuusisto, Georgina Kleege, Chris Downey, Ruth Bieber, John Rae, Donnelly Wilburn, Judith Kahn Schmeidler and Joseph Wapner. These accounts describe specific museum visits, critique current practices and offer valuable suggestions for improvement. This section also includes a short piece by Elisabeth Axel about her blind grandmother, who inspired the founding Art Beyond Sight (originally named Art Education for the Blind), a twenty-five-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to making art and visual culture accessible for children and adults who are blind. We hope that this special issue will inspire new conversations and outreach. Readers who do not define themselves as disability studies scholars are invited to enlarge their understanding of our field. And we hope that regular readers of DSQ, especially those who have tried museum access programs in the past and found them disappointing or patronizing, will be encouraged to try again. We hope you will support the online effort to bring transparency into access to our museums and other cultural institutions by visiting Project Access, a database of accessible museums and cultural institutions: www.projectaccessforall.org. You can find an accessible cultural venue near you; if those institutions are not yet listed, we hope you will encourage them to register.
The editors of this special issue would like to thank our contributors, and to express our gratitude to the peer reviewers who gave generously of their time to read the submissions and give valuable editing advice. We would also like to thank the editors of the DSQ, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, who held the post when we first proposed the issue, and Bruce Henderson and Noam Ostrander, who have shepherded the issue through the production process.
Joan Muyskens Pursley