in glass or roped off at a distance, museum exhibits have long been kept out of reach.But
for the visually impaired, "look but dont touch" is a polite way of saying
"dont bother coming at all."
The Hall of Science is testing a new program to
make the museums exhibits accessible to the visually impaired.
At the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, a hands-on
museum that encourages touching, curators are pioneering new methods of enabling the
visually impaired to fully enjoy the museum experience.
Called the Audio Tour Access Project, the program uses a combination of
sound and touch to allow visitors to make their way through the exhibits without the
benefit of sight.
By using an audio device shaped like a cellular phone with Braille
buttons, the visually impaired are guided through the museums wide array of hands-on
Focus groups have been gathering weekly to try out the program, which
was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NEC Foundation.
In an effort to select the topics of greatest interest to the visually
impaired, the Hall for Science has been asking for input, said Alan Friedman, the
Halls director. Friedman and the museum staff were surprised to hear that the number
one request was "the science of light."
"When we first thought of doing this we werent going to do
the Seeing The Light exhibit," said Friedman. "But when we started
talking to the groups and discovered that it was light that many of them were seeking to
understand, we did it at their request," added Friedman
The idea of an exhibit on light designed for the blind sounds
impossible. It is appropriate that this is pioneered on the grounds of the Worlds
Fair, which in 1939 beckoned visitors with a sign that read, "Hear Light, See
"Most people have thought the light exhibit was wonderful,"
A Trial Run
This week, Friedman invited a group to test the exhibit.
One man came with a close friend. Another woman brought her seeing eye
dog. The rest brought only canes.
What we are trying to do here today is make our museum more
accessible," Friedman said to the group, before explaining the different functions
and buttons on the cellular phone-like gadget.
He then discussed the two exhibits which have audio programs. One is
called "Seeing The Light" and the other "Hidden Kingdoms."
The group then broke up and began wandering through the museum. They
spent much longer most visitors. At the Magic Kingdom exhibit there are enlarged models of
biological organisms and other scientific equipment.
A young and simply dressed woman with her seeing eye dog felt around
for the Braille numbers listed on the exhibit and then punched the number 301 into the
audio device. As she listened to the description, she felt out the contours of an enlarged
paramecia cell model to get an idea of its shape.
The woman said she was fascinated at having the opportunity to learn,
while the audio device told her about the biological intricacies of the organism and how
many times smaller a life size version of the model is in actuality.
After the audio device finished its description, she turned to politely
ask the guide, who stood nearby, even more questions.
At the end of the audio tour the group was laughing and giggling.
Visually impaired groups who have tried out the
tour have been most interested in the exhibit called Seeing the Light.
"One of the women was completely blind and she wanted to try
out the exhibit that mixes bright colors," said Friedman. "Based on what she
heard on the audio tape she was able to predict the results."
To the guides astonishmentshe was correct. Friedman pointed
out that scientists often work with things that are invisible to the human senses, and
many great scientists were and are in fact blind.
"There are terrific science writers, radio astronomers,
theres one guy whos an expert on sea shells," he said.
Another person who has worked extensively on this project is Katherine
Bond. According to Bond, an independent consultant who is blind, there are almost 20
million Americans with low or no vision.
"This is the very first study of this kind for the low vision
people, she said. "Up to now there has been very little research into how
disabled people enjoy their leisure experiences. This helps, because so much is not
Steve Tokar, the audio consultant who wrote the recorded program,
agreed. "This is the first time weve designed one for a hands-on museum,"
he said. "Usually the audio devices tell you about something that cant be
touched. We hope the audio program will give people a deeper scientific understanding of
the exhibits. What we are testing is for universal access. We are trying to design
something for two audiences and thats the tricky part"
According to Lighthouse International, which operates a string of
visual rehabilitation services, less than 45 percent of people who have difficulty seeing
words or letters are employed, and the number drops to 30 percent for the completely
blind. Their Queens office treated over a thousand people last year.
Katherine Bond expressed her frustration with the lax enforcement and
apathy of some people towards the disabled, "Its been law for nine years that
places like restrooms be labeled with Braille, but a lot of places still havent
complied. It would be nice if I knew which one was the right bathroom."
Those who tried out the Hall of Science exhibit agreed that this was a
step in the right direction.
"It would be great if more places would do this," said Myra Schiff. "It
really helps to have an explanation of the exhibits. At other places everything is behind