A few weeks ago, while attending an opening of a new fine arts museum which presents some of the sexiest modernist furniture ever crafted (Modernism Museum Mt. Dora), a successful, highly articulate, well-respected art expert and consultant and I were standing around hobnobbing.
(FYI — The photo above is not of me and the consultant but is, rather, a fine photo of Q Media writer/director Peg O’Keef and friend of the show Paul Eisenhauer and, gosh darn it, I wanted to include it.)
As I’m prone to do, at some point during the conversation, I mentioned audio description. The consultant replied, “What’s that?”
A bit surprised, I briefly told her what it was and how it works. In short, audio description provides verbal description of visual media and items so that people with low- or no-vision can get a sense of the things that sighted people can easily see. “Oh,” she replied sincerely, “but why would people who can’t see want to go to a museum?”
A pause occurred here. I think I blinked a few times, then sputtered, “Because they want to… ya know… participate, ya know, just like everyone else.” I regrouped and went on. “Art doesn’t just speak to the senses, it speaks to the soul, to the human experience.” The conversation continued a few more minutes. She seemed genuinely interested and asked for a card; then we both wandered our separate ways to view the next extraordinary piece.
A couple of weeks later, last night in fact, Mike and I had the opportunity to witness such participation in action. While attending an event for VSA Florida, we got to see this:
And those are just two of the moments we were privileged to observe. The event also included a concert by Scott MacIntyre, a finalist on American Idol and fantastic musician, singer, songwriter who happens to be blind. In the front row a beautiful young woman with fierce red hair, who also happens to be on the autism spectrum, gave the artist the most enthusiastic applause after every song. Her joy and excitement radiated all the way to the back row. The little girls pictured above danced in their mother’s lap while a group of teens with cognitive disabilities sang along when Scott invited the audience to join in, to participate, and to share their music with every other man, woman, and child in the theater.
Later that evening, the young man with the assistance-dog pictured above, named Daisy (the dog, not the guy), was the band leader and swinging saxophone player for the outstanding jazz combo who played for the VIP reception. The guy’s name is Matt Weihmuller: a stunning performer, educator, and (close to my heart) fellow FSU grad.
So back to our conversation with the art expert and her honest question: “Why would they want to [fill in the blank here].” It’s because of what the organizations we serve offer ALL their visitors: life; experience; discovery; connection to the past and present; a better, richer understanding of our world and ultimately ourselves.
It isn’t always possible for people to physically touch a work of art. Nor can some people see an historic image or watch documentary film. Hearing an archival recording or well-produced sound track can be difficult or impossible for some. But if “they” want to visit your site; if they want to experience what you are offering; if they are, in fact, your visitors, then making it accessible is by definition part of the organization’s mission.
There’s a wide range of options available to make your collection accessible to visitors with disabilities–visual, auditory, mobility, and cognitive. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to consider an accessibility audit. We’d be happy to recommend several consultants to you. VSAFL offers a resources page which includes an accessibility checklist that you can take to your next staff meeting and start a self-evaluation process.
But please start somewhere. Look again at the faces of the two little girls. Why would they want to visit a museum? The better question is “why wouldn’t they?”