Getting it Right for Access Communities: Going to the Experts

To make sure our productions are appropriate for our audiences, it’s of the utmost importance to do multiple rounds of user testing. When we write our tours for access audiences (visitors who are blind or deaf), it’s even more important to get the experience right, according to their needs. To get it right,  we develop our access content collaboratively, engaging representative end-users every step of the way, from initial focus groups to reviewing scripts-in-development, to testing our apps on site in the galleries.  Since we believe that knowledge is best shared, and that our co-creators should get a bit of recognition, we asked them to speak a bit to their experiences in museums.

Our deaf co-creators tell us that many hearing people operate on the misconception that English is a suitable written equivalent to ASL. “This could not be further from the truth. ASL is its' own language….. In a museum, it is absolutely vital to connect the Deaf/HoH community to the museum’s artifacts with a means of expression that relies heavily on visuals,” explains Jonathan Sondergeld, museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago who is deaf and leads the ASL tours.

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Thomas Holcomb (quoted) brought along his young grandson to test the ASL tour. We love this photo and have used it in a few advertisements, as seen above.

Having guides in ASL keeps Deaf and Hard of Hearing visitors engaged, Jonathan explains. “The unique challenge with having Deaf/HoH visitors is to keep them engaged - as a culture, we are storytellers. ASL as a visual medium allows us to explain stories in complex detail while explaining the processes behind the works being presented.”

Visitors who are blind also present a unique set of needs in a cultural attraction. For this, we go to our expert, Annie Leist, artist, museum educator, Special Projects Lead at Art Beyond Sight, who has low vision. While it can be surprising to learn that people who are blind visit art museums, Annie explains that she is no different than anyone else, “People who are blind or have low vision want to come to museums for the same reasons everyone else does - to learn, to relax, to socialize, to feed their passion, to experience something extraordinary or unusual.”

She also says that many people feel like they are not welcome or will miss out on the core part of the museum experience, “Having both inclusive and targeted programming, as well as resources (such as large print labels or description on multimedia guides) for those who prefer a self-guided experience ensures that this audience IS truly welcome.”

Focus group participants listen to producer Sofie Andersen read visual descriptions. Annie Leist can be seen second from left.

Co-creators who are blind/have low-vision listen to producer Sofie Andersen read visual descriptions. Annie Leist is second from left.

When we ask our representatives of the blind and deaf communities to test a project – it’s because we want an honest assessment about the production in order to know what is and isn’t working. And in these more unique cases, we know that going to outside sources will make the most authentic experiences. Annie explains, “Though I can only see through my own eyes, I try to extrapolate from the experiences of other people who are blind or have low vision, to give as complete and thoughtful a review as I can.”  Quality Control Consultant visual description tours, Frank Welte, of Lighthouse for the Blind, adds, “It is important for me to effectively communicate the sensory experience of a blind museum visitor… so they can then understand how to adapt their exhibits in a way that reveals the content and meaning of the exhibits in a non-visual medium."

Thomas Holcomb, one of our co-creators for the ASL Alcatraz tour, recently sent us a note saying, “The process of translating, directing, and presenting the content in a deaf-friendly deaf-centered manner made the final product a valuable resource for the Deaf community,” and knowing that we have created something valuable for the community is the most rewarding of all.

If you're interested in learning more about our work for Access audiences, you can learn more on our website.

*The descriptions (deaf, person who is blind, etc.,) of the interviewees reflect their requests.

** This post is part of our series for #Museumweek, specifically #PeopleMW.


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