Museum Visit with C., A Blind Friend
She is blind and uses a cane for navigation. She can see some light and color, and can detect people and some obstacles.
She does not go to museums often because the experience is so bad.
Art galleries are much better, because the selling motive makes staff eager to engage with visitors and discuss the works.
A museum may offer special access days, but these, while well intentioned, emphasize to people with disabilities that their tax dollars are going to facilities that are generally not really open to them.
Art history is a major interest for C. Her first college course was in art history, and her success in that course persuaded her that she could succeed in college. Now she is a doctoral student doing research on wayfinding.
She attributes her success in that first course to the fact that her professor had a daughter who was blind. The professor helped her find a good notetaker and a sketch artist. The artist made sketches of the most important features of the art works studied in the class, and the notetaker described the features in the sketches to her as she studied.
For her, the major interest in art is its cultural and historical context: when was it created, where, what were the cultural concerns of the time, what are other works by this artist and by other artists in the same context, and so on.
Exterior access to buildings is a problem. Often plaza-like surfaces around museums are textured in ways that make the use of a cane difficult, because the tip catches on irregularities, and there can be small changes of level that make it easy to trip.
Inside the museum, designers often create changes in light level that may build visual interest, but create problems for people with residual vision.
Lack of access to visual cues, and lack of provision of audio cues on the other, makes blind people feel "like you are living in a glass house with the lights on... everyone can see you, but you can't see them. They know everything that is going on around you and them, and you don't."
As a corollary, audio signage would be very valuable for blind visitors for all kinds of purposes. As things are, it is hard for them to locate important facilities like emergency exits and rest rooms, because there are only visual markers for these.
Restroom gender markings are often difficult to discriminate. California has adopted a standard in which men's rooms are marked with a triangular sign in high relief, and women's with a circular sign. This makes it easy to discriminate without having to feel for small braille markings or nonstandard pictures, which can be hard to interpret even when executed in relief. It is common for a blind person to go into the wrong gender restroom. When a woman goes into the men's room it's just embarrassing, but when a man goes into the women's room there is often screaming because the man is assumed to be a pervert.
Museums could do much more with tactile presentation of information, like tactile gallery maps. Often even when these are available they are not useful, because they lack orienting markings. This is a symptom of lack of participatory design and user testing.
Museums should include tactile art works. Including more art created by people with disabilities would help build relationships with visitors with disabilities.
Some people with impaired vision would like to get very close to art works, which is commonly forbidden.
Rich audio descriptions of works on display, of the kind envisioned in Fluid Engage, would be a huge benefit. All of the content features that have been mentioned, including information about the historical and cultural background of the work, information about the artist, links to related works, and so on, would be exactly what C values.
Making material available online post visit is a good idea, but accessibility of the online presentation will be crucial. Most sites today are very difficult to use.