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Museum Accessibility Helping Patrons Who Are Blind to See Your Exhibitions

Category: On-Demand Programs: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion

This is a recorded session from the 2021 AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.

Audio description (AD), a relatively inexpensive and readily available technology, broadens the museum experience for all people and particularly for patrons who cannot see or have low vision. Experience the verbal and aural techniques that make the visual elements of museum exhibitions accessible via audio recordings, augmentation of existing recorded programs, or tours led by docents trained in this technology.


Michele Hartley, Media Accessibility Coordinator, National Park Service-Harpers Ferry Center

Gabriel Lopez Kafati, President, Blind Pride International

Joel Snyder, President-Director, Audio Description Associates, LLC-Audio Description Project, American Council of the Blind

Sheila Young, President, Florida Council of the Blind


Joel Snyder: Well, I think we’re ready to go. My name is Dr. Joel Snyder, and it is a pleasure to be with the American Alliance of Museums for this session on museum accessibility and audio description in particular, which is about making images accessible to folks who are blind or have low vision. And indeed, I have a screen up here beginning our presentation. How do you describe a text on a screen? You read it, so that’s what I’m going to do. At the very top, American Alliance of Museum’s Annual Meeting and Museum Expo 2021 May 24, June 7th through 9 Virtual, and then underneath Audio Description Associates, LLC, the visual made verbal, and the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project presents a flash session, Museum Accessibility: Helping Patrons Who Are Blind See Your Exhibitions with Joel Snyder, PhD, President Audio Description Associates, LLC, founder and senior consultant, Audio Description Project, ACB, American council of the blind.

And we have with us Michele Hartley, media accessibility coordinator at the NPS, National Park service. Sheila Young, the president of the Florida Council of the Blind. And I am delighted to say, we’ve got a special guest with us too, Gabriel Lopez Kafati, who is the president of Blind Pride. He’s based in Florida too, and he’ll be chatting with us and giving us some ideas about accessibility in museums from his perspective. At the bottom of the screen, it says American Audio Description Symbol, and there’s a logo there, a white square within which are two letters in bold black type, and A and a D. The left side of that side is tilted just a bit to the right and to the right of the curve in the D three curved lines, period.

I say that because I like to make the point that sometimesbeginning describers will go on, and they’ll say something like, “Oh, they represent sound waves.” Well, I think at best that’s not necessary. At worst, it could seem patronizing or condescending as though a blind person wouldn’t understand what curved lines might mean. There’s nothing on the screen that says that for sight people. Why add that for people who are blind? You might use a simile perhaps and say “like sound waves” or whatever, but my point is that we need to know our audience, and our audience are people with brains and sharpness and cleverness far more than mine, and I’m an old sighted guy. There’s no need to explain. We describe, we don’t explain. We show, we don’t tell.

So, by way of introduction, I will mention I am oftentimes referred to as one of the world’s first audio describers. Dating back to 1981, I pioneered the use of audio description here in the Washington, D.C. area. And AD of course is a translation of visual images to vivid language for the benefit primarily of people who are blind. Since that time, I’ve been able to been quite honored to introduce description in over 40 states and 60 some countries, thousands of live events I’ve described in media projects and museums. And speaking of museums, let me introduce our stellar panel.

First is Michele Hartley. I worked for the National Endowment for the Arts for 19 years for the United States government, and I used to wear a button that said, “Trust me, I work for the government.” Well, Michele Hartley is a government employee who the public really can trust to bring greater accessibility to our national parks. She’s been doing it for over 20 years at the Park Service at its Harper’s Ferry center and is now the center’s media accessibility coordinator. She does technical assistance, outreach training, all kinds of resources on accessibility to the national parks. Many have included written recommendations for description and assisted listening, open captions, all part of the programmatic accessibility guidelines for the National Park Service interpretive media. And today, she’s going to share some valuable information about tax tile or haptic experiences, being able to touch, and that can be so helpful for your visitors who are blind.

Sheila Young is one of those audio description consumers. She currently serves as the chair of the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project performing arts, museums, and parks subcommittee. She’s the president of the Florida Council of the Blind and a strong advocate for access to museums for folks who are blind. I’ve talked to her. She knows. She believes that audio description allows people who are blind to have the same experience as sighted visitors when participating in the museum experience, and she acts on what she believes. For instance, she has been a consumer consultant on the development of audio described tours for the Holocaust Museum of Houston and the Wright Brothers National Memorial Park in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. She’s going to talk a bit about that.

And then as I say, Gabriel Lopez Kafati is with us as well. He’s the president of Blind Pride and just a tremendous … Well, he is also associated with the Florida Council of the Blind, chairs one of their committees, a tremendous advocate for accessibility. I work with him every year when Blind Pride screens a movie with audio description, and I’m always pleased to help Gabriel set that up and get it working because everybody loves being able to access feature films with audio description, especially when you’re blind or have low vision. So, we’ll hear from Gabriel as well.

But first before I turn things over to Michele, I want to say a few words. I have a true story for you. There was a blind fellow visiting a museum with some friends, and he was approached by a sighted woman who had the tare to come up to him and say, “Excuse me, but what are you doing in a museum? You can’t see any of the exhibits.” Yeah. His response? “Well, I’m here for the same reason anyone goes to a museum. I want to learn. I want to know. I want to be a part of our culture.” Well, his inability to see shouldn’t deny him access to culture. I think it’s the responsibility of all arts institutions, all public institutions, all museums to be as inclusive as possible. Comes down to there’s simply no good reason why a person with a physical disability must also be culture really disadvantaged. No. Well, audio description helps towards that kind of inclusivity. It uses words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative to convey the visual image that’s inaccessible or maybe just partially accessible to a significant segment of the population.

In fact, I’ve got on the screen here over 30 million Americans are blind or have trouble seeing, even with correction. That’s from the American Foundation for the Blind in a report released just last year or 2019. That’s 8% of the population. That’s huge, and that’s their family, their friends. And of course the visual image is often not fully realized by people who see, but they don’t observe. Sighted folks, we miss a lot. And of course this was developed for primarily for folks who are blind, but many others benefit from descriptions, concise and objective translation of the key visual components of art genres in social settings. People with learning disabilities, people on the autism spectrum, speakers of other languages, really anyone who wants to appreciate a more full perspective on the visual elements of a museum.

Museums use description to translate the visual to that sense form that is accessible using techniques museum docents … If they study audio description, if they learn about audio description, museum docents find that they develop far better use of language and more expressive, more vivid, more imaginative museum tours greatly appreciated by all visitors. And of course, some museums will have a recorded audio description tour that, combined with directional information, it allows visitors who are blind to completely independently use their own smartphone or a small handheld audio tour player to experience the museum. Oftentimes, those tours are actually universally designed so that they can be used by any visitor. One size fits all.

I want to mention that there is an excellent video that American Alliance of Museums put out. Check it out. It’s called Universal Design – Museum Accessibility, if you don’t know about it all already, another important resource Art Beyond Sight, formally Art Education for the Blind. More information there is at, and of course I have to encourage you to be certain to visit the Audio Description Project’s website of the American Council of the Blind. If I do say so myself, a great initiative. I found it some 11 years ago. We provide all kinds of information, and indeed we list all museums who offer audio description, so be sure your facility is accessible and we’ll add you to our list.

Finally, I think it’s critical to the development of a quality audio described tour or training program to have experienced users of description participate, maybe as a consultant testing a draft of the description features before the program is finalized. And this is a person who’s blind, has low vision, but even more importantly someone who’s experienced in the use and development of audio description. It’s so valuable. And by the way, when you have a locally based consultant of that nature, that’s extremely valuable in promoting your museum among a wide range of potential audio description consumers in the area or nationwide. I think Sheila will certainly speak to this point and Gabriel can too as well, of course, but first let’s hear from Michele Hartley and learn about the accessible features at National Parks Service sites.

Michele Hartley: Thank you so much, Joel. It’s a pleasure to be here with you and Sheila and Gabriel, and also presenting at AAM. I’m here to talk to you today about Maps, Models, Mechanicals, and Memory. Next slide, please.

Joel Snyder: There it is.

Michele Hartley: Going to start with the importance of touch, maybe a little bit of an elephant in the room. From the Psychological Science Journal, findings that they published were “exploring through touch can generate detailed, durable memories for those objects, even when we don’t intend to memorize the objects details.” I think this is imp an important reminder because during the pandemic, people were really tempted in organizations to remove tactile experiences is to keep everyone safe, and I like to remind people that it is a choice of our visitors to touch. We need to create tactile experiences because sometimes tactile experiences are the most effective way to connect people to the resource and provide communication. So we can certainly provide SOPs of how we clean and maintain our tactiles, but we want to give and maintain that choice for the visitor. Next slide, please.

I’m going to be talking about some examples of how we provide tactile experiences, and on the next three examples, I’m going to read an excerpt from the audio description recordings that go along with these tactiles. And the first is of a tactile map at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. The description reads: “At the left end of the graphic panel is a touchable map of the memorial site with raised lettering and braille labels. In the lower left is a legend. As shown on the map just to the right of this panel is an asphalt pathway that leads straight ahead to the memorial statue itself. It is surrounded by a circular pathway lined with a ring of trees. Grassy lawns stretch out on either side. Behind you are pathways leading to the carillon.”

When I, as a sighted person, look at a map, I usually try to locate the you are here star, and then I’m looking above that star, below it to the left and the right as I’m trying to figure out the resource where I am and where I want to go. It’s not a linear experience. Audio description alone is by nature linear. We have to marry the two so that we could provide an effective experience for our people who or blind or have low vision, so they could explore the resource in a nonlinear way, while also have the audio description guide them through that process and let them know what they’re touching and where they are. Next slide, please.

We also provide tact experiences that are models at the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park. An audio description excerpt from one of our models is: “The model of Plains High School on top of this table is 22 inches wide and 14 inches deep. In the center of the front is the main entrance with steps going up in four columns across. The central two story square is taller than the rest of the building, which is single story. Wings extend out to either side and end at additional sections that go from front to back. One additional wing extends straight back from the central square.” So this model, which was just produced, plain white. It sits on top of a table. There is a drawer that is pulled out, which is tactile map of the exhibit floor plan.

We are now requiring that all of our national parks have tactile maps of the exhibit so that people can know where they are within the exhibit, what’s available in the exhibit, and how to explore it. The building is of an important part of this resource. It’s not only where the exhibition is located, but it’s part of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park. It’s the high school where he attended, so we want to make sure people understand the size of the building, the shape of the building, and where they’re in the building. Next slide, please.

Lastly, I have mechanical interactives, and we have a mechanical interactive component at the White House Visitor Center, and I’ll read to you the audio description excerpt. “President’s Park is home to 12 statues and memorials,” and then there’s an invitation to explore the models. “Across the top of the slanted display surface are four pairs of photos and four inch by four inch dark cast brass plaques, which provide three-dimensional representations of four statues in president’s park. Below each pair is a flip up panel with a question and the answer underneath. At the left side, a photo and tactile representation of the First Division Monument, a tall column top by a gold colored statue. A top a sphere stands, a helmeted winged female figure.”

Mechanical interactives are in exhibitions not because the tactile experience. You have to touch a panel to flip it open or press a button to make something happen. It’s not that tactile experience is communicating information. That tactical experience is providing you with a physical way to engage in the exhibition. It’s a way to hopefully energize people to not only use their brain, but use their body to interact. When this exhibit was first conceived, it did not have any tactile component. It just had a flip up panel with a question on the front, you flipped up the panel, and there was the photo and the answer on the back. For someone who’s blind or has low vision, there’s no reason for them to go up to this exhibition and interact with them because flipping up the panel gives them nothing, so this was an opportunity to explore how do we create, which is our obligation and our aim, how do we create the opportunity for all people, including people with this disability to benefit from and participate in our programs, activities, and our experiences. Next slide, please.

So I’m going to circle all the way back to the US Marine Corps Memorial and also the importance of touch. I have a quote from Scientific America and their article, A Touch to Remember. “The sense of touch generates memories that are far more complex and long lasting than previously thought. Pictured on the screen in the background on a grassy lawn is the actual US Marine Corps Memorial with a flag sticking up. You can see it in the background of the sky. In the front are two outdoor panels, exhibit panels. The panel on the left has a table that’s suspended and hanging off of it. From that table is a model of the US Marine Corps Memorial.

Again, if this exhibit audio description, this outdoor exhibit audio description was made available, anyone could listen to it in their living room. There would be no reason for someone to go to the resource, but we want people to go to the resource. We want everyone to connect to that resource. We have no idea when people touch things what kind of memories tactile experiences will generate, but we know that we are, through this model of the Marine Corps, generating memories and experiences for everyone, including people who are blind or have low vision who not only can generate memories but can more fully and effectively understand and connect to the resource. Thank you. I’m going to pass it over to Sheila.

Sheila Young: Well, thank you, Michele, and thank you everyone for being here this afternoon. It is an honor to be here with this esteemed panel of presenters. My name is Sheila Young, as Joel said. I am blind, I’m president of the Florida Council of the Blind, and I’m chair of the American Council of the Blind’s, ADP performing arts museums and parks subcommittee. Our committee focuses on providing information and advocacy so that all museums, parks and theaters and arts are made accessible with audio description. We’ve been working very hard on several different museums. We’ve worked on the US Holocaust museum. We’ve worked on the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo. We’ve been working with the 9/11 museum in New York, trying to make it accessible, and we’ve been working on the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences Museum, so we’ve been very busy.

We also train docents in how ad is done and how they can use it to assist patrons that are in a museum. A blind person deserves to be a patron of any museum, any theater, any park, anywhere, just like a sighted person does. We deserve the right to see what sighted people see and enjoy that education and entertainment. And just because we can’t see doesn’t mean we don’t want to get educated and entertained. It’s just delightful for us to go to a museum and take part in what everybody else is able to take part in. As Joel said, we also feel it is important that museums, parks and theaters take into consideration that using a blind consultant will enhance your outcome and what the end results will be.

I have worked on the Wright Brothers Museum in Kitty Hawk, and we started from when they were remodeling from the ground up, and it was less expensive for them to start before it was finished than to come in after the fact, so that’s something that I think all museums should take into consideration. And The Holocaust of Houston Museum, I’ve worked on that project. It was absolutely a joy to do that museum. As Joel said, my email is there. I would be happy to entertain anyone’s questions or give about any suggestions from Florida, so if anyone would like to contact me, please feel free to do so, and I do know that we do have a clip from the Holocaust museum, but I’m not sure if Gabriel’s going to go first.

Joel Snyder: Well, let’s hear the clip because you worked on this. Michele, can you hit the button on that?

Michele Hartley: I sure can.

Speaker 4: Nazism in power, orientation and overview. As you enter the gallery turn to the right, the rectangular space is about 12 feet wide, 30 feet long with exhibit panels on either wall and directly ahead. Near the entrance door, a panel reads in part, “The Holocaust was Nazi Germany’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people in Europe and defame Judaism. From 1933 to 1945, Nazis murdered six million Jews, destroying much of the vibrant Jewish society and culture that had flourished throughout Europe. Other groups who did not fit the Nazi racial ideal, such as Roma and Sinti, known as gypsies, homosexuals, and people with disabilities were also persecuted. This area includes three tour stops, the first, Nazism in Power; stop two, November Pogrom and Torah; and three, Attempts to Escape. Please select audio tour stop one, Nazism in Power to begin the tour.

Sheila Young: And that is an absolutely amazing museum. So now we will turn it over to Gabriel Lopez Kafati.

Joel Snyder: And I will say I like that, Sheila. I hope people understand how it sets up, gives you the dimensions of where you are in space and then makes text accessible as well that otherwise would not be available to you as well as images later on.

Sheila Young: Correct.

Joel Snyder: And Gabriel Lopez Kafati, again President of Blind Pride. He’s in Florida. He’s a gay man, he’s a blind man, Hispanic, and I think he can add a few minutes just to tell us from that perspective how important description is and accessibility to museums can be.

Speaker 7: Thank you, Joel. Thanks, Sheila. Thanks, Michele. Thanks to AMM for having us. Yeah, so many intersectionalities, right? So just to give an example for those of you who don’t know, June is LGBT Pride Month, and there is so much history that coming up to Stonewall in New York City marked a lot of the civil rights that we have earned as part of the American society being LGBTQ, the right to have non-discrimination laws, the rights to marry the person we love to. So all that history is just contained. It’s held in many places that are physical locations that have now become museums, and there’s a lot of art around it. There’s sculptures commemorating Stonewall and other movement, so all of that, we as gay or LGBTQ persons who are blind or visually impaired would love to have access, would love to know where that history comes from, where our rights started as equal Americans, so that’s the importance of audio description.

I do want to add that, like Joel wisely said at the beginning of presentation, description is precisely that. It’s a description. It’s not an explanation. Recently, our organization, Blind Pride International, has collaborated within the extended family of the American Council of the Blind in a pronoun conversation and inclusive language, so this is important for audio describers, because you want to describe what visually you are seeing. You don’t want to go into explanations, as Joel mentioned, because you don’t want the interpretation of that describer, so that’s another area in which we are collaborating as that intersectionality of persons who are blind or low vision and part of the LGBTQ community in providing that feedback on how much information we want or how much information we need. And then, we can ourselves, like Joel explained at the beginning, we can infer our own, use our own reflections, our own brain connections to form the picture.

So, in a nutshell, that’s what the LGBTQ community has, and we are, like I said, big proponents of audio description. Last thing that I’m going to say, here in South Florida, we started off in the Arts Center for the Performing Arts. Myself and Paul Edwards were pioneers started off when there was no audio description for live performances, and now Joel can tell you that the Art Center for the Performing Arts has won national and state awards for their strides in audio description, and they’re going into other languages, French and Spanish. That is something to commended. So thank you for having me. Thanks for allowing me to give my two cents and talk about this intersectionality.

Joel Snyder: It’s all about inclusivity, inclusivity of people, no matter how they identify gender-wise, no matter what language they speak, nationality, their front, or no matter their disability. On the last slide here, we’ve got our email addresses: Michele is at That’s Michele with one L. And Sheila is at And Gabrielle is at Not sure if we have time for any questions from the chat. Joseph, maybe you can advise me. I think we’re we’re at the end of our session. Thank you so much to AAM for having us with you and hope to see you in a museum with audio description sometime soon.

Michele Hartley: Good [inaudible 00:30:35].

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