Friday, October 23, 2009

U.S. museums work to make exhibits more blind-friendly

From Newsweek:

During a recent conference call among museum educators, one participant made an obvious point. "Art museums are essentially visual institutions," he said. He wasn't laughed off the phone. And given that those on the call were there to discuss how to make the visual arts accessible to the visually handicapped, his point was actually fairly profound.

Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, museums and other institutions have been required to make their facilities "accessible" to everyone, regardless of their particular type of disability. For decades at many museums, this meant little more than providing ramps for people who use wheelchairs and Braille museum guides for people who are blind. But a landmark 2008 Department of Justice ruling forced museums around the country to grapple with what accessibility actually means.

" 'Accessibility' is not very descriptive," says Nina Levent, executive director of New York's Art Education for the Blind. "The issue is, do people come to museums to ride elevators and use bathrooms, or do they come to have a meaningful social and aesthetic experience?"

Michael Byington, the president of the Kansas Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, was seeking the latter when he filed a complaint in 2004 against Washington, D.C.'s Spy Museum, accusing the museum of being inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Byington, who is legally blind, cited a lack of docents able to provide a tour for blind customers; computer exhibits and terminals with speech outputs; and supplementary materials in Braille, large print, and audio format. The DOJ opened an investigation and, four years later, reached a landmark settlement with the museum, which has since spent more than $400,000 updating its facilities. But the DOJ's willingness to pursue the case, and to make it about more than just ramps and handrails, jolted museum educators across the nation.

"It's historic in that they went quite far and it became quite obvious that there is no sense of where the bar is or where the bar should be in terms of accessibility," Levent says. "I think they knew they were setting a precedent." Still, she says, museums need to change their way of thinking: the DOJ suit is not a legal threat but an educational opportunity. "The museums are very nervous. But them being nervous has not led to excellent programming. It became a legal issue as opposed to an issue of education and outreach," she says.