A creative arts consultant and a disability rights advocate share their experiences of art programs for blind and visually impaired Canadians.

It's a warm September 2011 afternoon in Kelowna, and the Okanagan sky is clear and blue, accented only by the rolling mountainous surround. A small group of people have gathered in front of City Hall. From the white canes many of the group members carry, an onlooker might surmise that this is a gathering of blind people. What is less obvious, potentially surprising, is the reason for the gathering: the Lake Country Art Walk. The event's key organizer, Sharon McCoubrey, had asked Ruth Bieber to assist with the organizing of a group of people, who are sight impaired to attend that year's Lake Country Art Walk. Perhaps this gathering helped set the Art For Change theme for 2012 by introducing a new audience to the visual arts and a new perspective on art appreciation.

The 2011 Lake Country Art Walk was held during a quiet point in the day, which allowed for a more personal experience of a select portion of the art exhibits, including a collection of sculptures described to the group by local artist Lynden Beesley and artist Mel Hunt. Among the sculptures was Beesley's "Medusa," a wonderful piece to explore by touch. Several pieces of fabric art were also amazing to touch. McCoubrey quizzed the group on their tactile abilities, as many of the pieces were representational works of nature scenes, while many others were deliciously abstract.

So, who says people who are sight impaired can't enjoy art? Conventional wisdom dictates that none can, but as so often is the case, conventional wisdom is limited. In addition to the Lake Country Art Walk, several tours for blind art enthusiasts have been organized by the Kelowna Art Gallery (KAG). Not that all vision impaired tour attendees started as enthusiasts, but at least they were open to experiencing art. Jeffrey Gartrell, a regular attendee of KAG tours, says, "I didn't used to care about art, but now I really enjoy these tours!" Like many people who are legally blind, Gartrell had simply picked up on the general consensus, that if you can't see, you can't enjoy the visual arts.

So, what does it mean to enjoy art? In the end, it's not so very different for blind people, than it is for the sighted. Think about it, once a sighted person takes a quick look, and we do mean "quick" (the bane of every artist, who spends hours on a single painting), what comes next? The viewer looks for the wall label that is supposed to tell us what the painting is all about.

Bieber, who previously lived in New York City, attended her first tours for the blind at some of the city's well-known museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Brooklyn Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim. Her favorite guide and art educator Georgia Krantz used to say her blind patrons always had the most interesting comments regarding the meaning of any art piece. That takes brains, not just sight. What's next? If we haven't already done so, we research the type of art; abstract, representational, impressionistic and so on. Then we become interested in the political and economic culture of the time of the production of the work; again, here the mind supersedes sight. Knowing the context of a piece of work is essential to really appreciating its meaning, yet those who take visual appreciation for granted often don't stop to consider a work's context.

Considering these factors, we realize that enjoying art is less about seeing, and more about thinking. In fact, Gartrell states, "My favorite part about the gallery tours is the gatherings afterward, when we share our perspectives and ideas about the exhibit we just experienced."

Howard Gardner, author and scholar of the multiple intelligence theory, reminds us that art is cognitive in nature, and it would be erroneous if we were to exclude a multi-sensory experience when considering art and blind people. Rather than seeing, the focus often turns first to hearing. It does take a certain amount of skill to be able to describe a piece of art to someone who can't see. There's a fine balance between giving too much detail, so as to lose the listener, and not giving enough highlights in order for someone who cannot see to gain a good mental impression.

The staff at the KAG receives ongoing training in "the art of talking about art," which not only includes verbally describing artworks, but also involves training in sighted guide technique, as well as responding to requests, such as enlarging titles of paintings when possible. This was Gartrell's special request, and he was thrilled when the gallery responded favourably by the very next tour for the blind.

We mustn't forget that many legally blind people have some useful vision. It is very useful if a partially sighted person is allowed to stand close to a painting and take a good, long, hard look. It would be entirely remiss if we didn't refer to the haptic sense. The truth is even sighted people are tempted to touch the paintings, but know they aren't supposed to. Sometimes people who are blind are given special permission to gently brush their fingers over an art piece under supervision, but most often this is not possible. Here the KAG staff shines with their imaginative responses, such as creating sample canvases for the touch, and bringing forth touchable items, such as a plate used for making prints and some sculptures. Also meaningful is being able to speak with the creator of contemporary artworks, which was a highlight of the first tour for the blind in Kelowna.

Lake Country Art Walk 2011 helped shape a vibrant and growing movement that is changing the relationship in Canada between the sight impaired and the visual arts. Canadian gallery and museum staff in general are keen and ready to receive training in supporting blind people to enjoy art exhibits. The greatest amount of work, however, comes with the blind community itself. As Jeffrey Gartrell confirms, many people who are blind or low vision do not believe they have the right to enjoy gallery and museum exhibits. If New York City is reflective of an American attitude, there is a contrast here. The legally blind people Bieber met at the gallery and museum tours in NYC were quite comfortable with the whole experience, and possessed a wealth of knowledge and perspective about art. The vision impaired people on Canadian museum tours tend to be more interested in learning about art and the artistic process from a tactile perspective. This is not to say the New Yorkers didn't also appreciate opportunities to touch the art, but they were simply less concerned about that possibility.

The movement in Canada is typically diverse in scope, and definitely growing in spite of a rather conservative political climate. Inspiration is primarily coming from volunteer efforts, which does result in cause for concern regarding longevity of the movement. For the time being, however, volunteerism in general is the pride of Canada, with groups such as the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), whose members are actively supporting gallery and museum accessibility. Gartrell and Bieber are both members of the Kelowna Chapter of the AEBC, while John Rae — a keen activist for museum access — represents the Toronto chapter.

Inclusive Programming at the Art Gallery of Ontario

For many persons with a disability — even life-long history and museum lovers — the prospect of a visit to a museum, or art gallery can be a rather intimidating event. To date, many of us assume such facilities will have little to offer us. However, as noted, times are changing. Museums have moved from being storage houses for works of art and archaeological artefacts to publicly available treasure houses of our civilization, repositories of our historical, artistic, scientific, and cultural heritage. They are involved in acquiring, conserving, researching, communicating and presenting exhibits and other activities, for purposes of research, education and entertainment for all members of the community. The key word here, perhaps, is "all", as even today, too often access to these incredible collections is limited for individuals with a disability. Thus, to open doors and welcome all members of our communities, museums and art galleries must adopt a more inclusive concept of accessibility which encompasses much more than just providing physical access to the facility.

While "special tours" designed to give blind patrons an appreciation of what is a largely visual environment, in a largely "do not touch" setting, are increasing, they are not yet a widespread phenomenon. The Art Gallery of Canada (AGO) has gone well beyond tours for blind patrons in an effort to demonstrate its commitment to opening its doors to all visitors.

The AGO offers "Multi Sensory Tours" on the first Thursday and Sunday of each month. These tours typically focus on seven to ten items in a particular area of the Gallery and may include the senses of smell, touch, and even some music to enhance the atmosphere and provide a mood for contemplation and dialogue. There is a description and discussion of each painting or sculpture on the tour that not only describes the artwork, but also puts it into its historic or sociological context. These discussions add much to the visitor's experience.

The AGO also offers "New Perspectives" tours on the last Wednesday of the month for individuals who have a mental disability, "Art in the Moment" tours once a month for visitors who have Alzheimer's or dementia, and sign language tours for Deaf visitors by arrangement.

"When you think about different learning styles, the more entry points you can offer, the more people will appreciate it," says Doris Van Den Brekel, Coordinator, Program Coordinator, Gallery Guides at the AGO.

"When you consider the principles of universal design, then you start thinking of how to approach things differently. Considering what's going to make it more accessible to one group opens your mind up to thinking about the needs of all patrons," adds Van Den Brekel.

Inclusive Programming in Smaller Facilities: A Little Ingenuity Goes a Long Way

Can you imagine a collection of approximately 12,500 shoes in one place … a pair of shoes from ancient Egypt, opulent walking shoes from the Roaring Twenties, moccasins from First Nations communities in Canada … shoes everywhere! That's what you will find at the Bata Shoe Museum (BSM) in Toronto.

"It's an incredible collection. But it's not what you'd expect," says Laura Robb, one of two docents at the museum. "Yes, it's shoes, but it's much more. It's an art collection, it's an ethnographic collection. The museum showcases what's important to various cultures and communities through a single object that nearly everybody uses."

The efforts of Robb and fellow docent Jacquie Reich demonstrate what commitment and a little ingenuity can produce, when it comes to building access into a facility's programming, even in a smaller facility like Bata.

"I had been a docent at the Bata Shoe Museum for about a year, and I was familiar with the education department's huge hands-on collection," said Robb. "I thought we could create a great program for visitors who are blind or have low vision by utilizing these objects in a different way, building tactile diagrams for some artifacts, and tweaking the docent training a bit."

Jacquie Reich is equally excited by their work. "I became interested in the project from a collections management perspective and when Laura let me know about this project at the Bata Shoe Museum, I jumped at the chance to get involved," she says. "I think with the sheer volume of most museum collections, there's really no excuse not to have authentic objects for visitors to handle."

It is important to build access into a facility's ongoing, regular programming, and Robb and Reich feel strongly about having their project continue after they have left the museum. Thus, they created training manuals for the BSM's docents, so that other docents and staff can continue the tours. The manuals include photos of all the hands-on artifacts and tactile diagrams they built. "We've also included directions regarding where these pieces go, and talking points to discuss. We've also included some valuable insight we received from the community," says Reich.

"The Bata Shoe Museum already had a great docent training program in place. We designed our training to complement these sessions, with a few adjustments for interpreting objects for visitors who are blind or have low vision," Reich adds. "Without the museum's strong tour training program, it would have been harder to train volunteers to conduct our multi-sensory tours."

BSM's program shows that with leadership and a little ingenuity, smaller museums and art galleries can also provide greater access to their collections for all visitors, including patrons with disabilities.

Don't Forget the Artists

It is important to speak of accessibility from the perspective of the blind artist, too. Bieber was inspired to pursue her artistic talents after meeting Busser Howell, a successful New York City artist who is blind. Upon returning to Canada, Bieber began painting with a group in Kelowna, British Columbia. The HeArt Fit program she joined promotes a spontaneous art process inspired by art educator Karen Close. The process used is kindred to that of artist and academic, Lisa Lipset. (See links for HeArt Fit and Creative by Nature, below.) The spontaneous process described by Lipset, maintains true creativity results from painting with the non-dominant hand and with eyes closed. Bieber has been exploring her own artistic creativity for more than a year. In 2012, she was invited to curate "Just Imagine," an exhibit of works by artists who are legally blind, which opened at the Kelowna Art Gallery in January 2013. The exhibit included works by Busser Howell and three other artists: Eriko Watanabe from Germany, Bruce Horak from Calgary, Alberta, and representing Kelowna, PJ Hartman. While researching available artists, Bieber says she was surprised to learn just how many excellent blind artists there are. It's a true creative movement!


There are numerous ways of increasing access and appreciation to museum collections; replicas, special tours, raised-line drawings all help, but there is simply no substitute to being able to touch the real thing when it comes to a piece of sculpture. As Maya Jonas observed: "Touch misses nothing, whereas vision can sometimes miss or misinterpret what is there. By touching you can feel the reality of the piece."

If tactile access can be provided at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Ny Karlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, and at other museums and art galleries around the world, it is an opportunity whose time has come for Canada.

Ruth Bieber is a Creative Arts Consultant who currently resides in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. John Rae is a long-time disability rights advocate who lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Return to Top of Page