Monday, October 26, 2009

Making Museums More Welcoming to Blind Visitors

A Newsweek article titled "Blind Spot" says museums are finding new ways to improve the arts experience for people with visual impairments.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires museums to make their facilities "accessible" to everyone, but ramps and Braille museum guides only go so far for people who are blind. A 2008 Department of Justice ruling has museums trying to determine what "accessibility" really means -- or should mean -- when it comes to the arts. Nina Levent, executive director of New York's Art Education for the Blind, said "'Accessibility' is not very descriptive. 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?"

In previous posts, I've expressed disappointment that Kareem Dale, the first special assistant to the president for disabilities, was asked to split his time between disability issues and the arts. But this is an example of where his two roles fit together perfectly, especially because he is visually impaired himself. The article talks about his active role with museum administrators to find new ways to open the arts to all patrons. "We are working on all fronts to try to realize the promise of the ADA," he said on a conference call. "It was a bill of rights for people with disabilities, but the original intent has been lost over the last two decades. We will restore the ADA to its original intent, and the Department of Justice has been turned loose to go after people who are violating civil-rights laws. We have a lot of work to do."

Dale is also supporting a website called Project Access that will describe the accessibility of every cultural institution, stadium, theater, national park, and public venue in the country. Paula Terry, of the Office of AccessAbility at the National Endowment for the Arts, said, "This is the first time the White House has taken this very aggressive stance. I'm not sure what to expect, but I welcome it."
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