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accessibility exhibits publications

Redefine/ABLE exhibition catalog

I begin this post by quoting from an announcement for a new book that contains essays that I co-authored with my excellent colleagues and one piece that I wrote as a sole author.

“Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility aims to inform audiences about disability issues, to share the challenges and success stories of those with disabilities, and to identify ways we can create more accessible, inclusive spaces.”

This book includes content from the Redefine/ABLE exhibition hosted by the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture as well as essays contributed by project collaborators. Instructions to get a copy are at the end of this post.

The Redefine/ABLE exhibition was a collaboration between University of Maryland graphic design students and members of the disability community in Maryland. It was scheduled to open in two physical spaces, the University of Maryland, College Park, and in downtown Baltimore, in mid-March 2020. Like so many events, the physical exhibitions were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Redefine/ABLE was also scheduled as an online exhibition to open in March 2020, but the pandemic delayed the website launch to July 2020. Between March and July 2020, many of the contributors wrote, or re-wrote their essays in response to the pandemic.

Two essays describe the online exhibition and associated programs that were held in July and August of 2020.

•            An Exhibition Redefined by a Pandemic by Audra Buck-Coleman

•            Redefining Redefine/ABLE: From Access to Inclusion at the Peale by Nancy Proctor

Content Written Before the Pandemic

The exhibition panels designed by University of Maryland Students present what they learned about accessibility for people with disabilities in a pre-pandemic world (fall 2019 semester through March 2020). The panel titles are:

•            Discover/ABLE: What does it mean to be disabled?

•            Deny/ABLE: What isn’t accessible?

•            Access/ABLE: How are objects and spaces inclusive?

•            Confront/ABLE: What does it mean to be ableist?

•            Relate/ABLE: What do we have in common?

One essay does not mention the pandemic. It is “Listen Very Carefully” by Ruth Lozner

Content Written During the Pandemic

As we prepared for the website launch in July 2020, we wrote two essays that expanded on the exhibition themes.

“The interconnected-ness of Covid-19 to discrimination against the disabled” gives examples of pandemic responses that had negative effects on people with disabilities. Both Audra Buck-Coleman and I have undergraduate degrees in journalism. Writing this piece on current events drew on that training.

“Bearing witness to the ableism embedded within the pandemic” is a Q&A between Audra, me, and a third colleague, Robin Marquis, offering our personal reflections on this topic.

Contributors discussed how access to museum exhibits changed during the pandemic. I wrote a first draft of my essay “Please Do Touch the Art!” in February 2020. Later, I expanded the essay to incorporate my thoughts about ways museums could continue to display touch objects during the pandemic.

I also recommend the essay by Kevin Bacon and Lara Perry “Technology, Covid-19, and accessibility: Challenges and opportunities for museums”.

Finally, Audra Buck-Coleman, NALIYAH KAYA, and I described “Five Accessibility and Inclusion Insights from Producing an Exhibition During Covid-19”.

How to Get This Book

This book is available as a free download from The Peale Center’s website  A pay-for-print version via Blurb.com will be available soon. Check the same link for an order form.

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exhibits

Paintings in Sight and Smell

A recent exhibition “Smell the Art: Fleeting – Scents in Colour” at the Mauritshuis in Amsterdam, was advertised as engaging the sense of smell to enhance the visual aspects of viewing the art. Although I did not travel to Europe to experience the show first-hand, I found it mentioned in various museum-related newsletters.

The idea of adding scent to an exhibit is intriguing, but I wonder how much more enriching the show would have been if it had also included tactile and audio elements. This post explores my questions about the choice of smell as the highlighted sensory output. My knowledge of the show is limited to the information on the museum’s website, and I do not know all the design considerations that shaped its’ creation.

Museum guests were encouraged to experience smells by using different “scent dispensers”. The smells included “a clean linen cupboard, bleaching fields, ambergris, myrrh and … the foul-smelling canals.”.

The exhibition included 50 paintings and drawings. The scents invoked by these artworks were grouped into different categories including:

•            “health and hygiene”

•            “scent in religion” (incense)

•            “scents inside and outdoors” (aromas of newly-discovered spices)

I imagine that If I attended this exhibition, I would have been left with very fleeting impressions of the artwork. The scent, by itself, would not have provided enough information for me to understand the artwork. I would not have known who, or what, was pictured in each painting.

If I were designing a similar exhibit, I would have included visual descriptions of them (accessed in some form of audio tour or mobile guide). Then, I would have included touch objects like a model canal boat, or a church bell, etc. Maybe I would have added audio effects triggered by motion sensors in front of the paintings.

My comments are not intended as a critique of the exhibit. I am just brainstorming hypothetical design elements.

As it was conceived, the exhibition made art approachable from two of the five human senses. In my opinion, adding tactile and audio components would have made the show much more immersive.

In summary, I commend the designers for adding a second sensory output to the experience of art. I hope that “Smell the Art: Fleeting – Scents in Colour” will be the first of many multi-sensory art exhibitions displayed at large, well-known museums. I hope that its’ successors will incorporate tactile and audio outputs that engage visitors in a more truly multi-sensory experience.

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accessibility exhibits

Braille on the FDR Memorial

Dr. Cheryl Fogle-Hatch touches the Braille letter F in Franklin in the prologue room, FDR Memorial

Recently, I evaluated the accessibility of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial located on the National Mall in Washington D.C. My observations describe the experience of people who are blind or have low vision.

I describe my observations, and recommendations for improvements, in a report commissioned by the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee.

The Braille Carved into the Walls of the FDR Memorial

The Braille ranges from somewhat readable to completely unrecognizable. My assessment is based on two facts:

differences in horizontal and vertical spacing, and contrasts in raised versus indented dots.

I know that the Braille is not an accurate representation of my first and primary writing system—the pattern of dots that I learned as a child. Yet, I am impressed by the inventive and abstract nature of the artwork. The lack of interpretation about size and spacing of the Braille carvings means that sighted visitors cannot know the contradictions expressed by the abstract artwork that invites tactile experience. They think that the Braille is accurate, but it is distorted when read by touch.

Signs created in print, and Braille at the correct scale, would explain this fact.

My evaluation of the oversized and abstract Braille depicted on the FDR Memorial has been left out of previous accessibility reviews conducted by the National Park Service, the federal agency that manages memorials on the National Mall. These issues of representation are important, and I believe that aspect of the artwork deserves a place in any newly-created signs or interpretive media. I would welcome the chance to discuss such issues with park staff and consultants.

I think the inaccurate representation of Braille is comparable to the large statue of FDR where a desk chair with wheels was substituted for his actual wheelchair.

An acknowledgement of this parallel between inaccurate Braille and the desk chair with wheels enriches the experience of everyone because it shows the extent of misconceptions about crucial tools that people with disabilities use to perform so many essential daily tasks.

I wrote this post about the archives of the campaign for the wheelchair statue.

I made other recommendations in my report including:

•            Create tactile models of the oversized statues and the memorial itself

•            Add Text-based directions and wayfinding to the brochures and website

•            Build barriers around the broken fountains

My review of documentation provided by the National Park Service indicates that park staff have proposed solutions for creating tactile models, wayfinding, and mitigating safety concerns. In those cases, my recommendations are offered to strengthen future projects. Unfortunately, these documents do not include an acknowledgement of the oversized and abstract Braille carved on the walls of the FDR Memorial.

Press coverage

FDR memorial braille not easily readable – The Washington Post

A disabled president’s memorial still isn’t fully accessible to disabled visitors, a new report finds.

By

Theresa Vargas

Columnist

May 19, 2021 at 7:07 p.m. EDT

Event recording

I presented highlights from my report in a webinar “Accessibility is NOT Optional” on May 20, 2021. Here are the recording and transcript of that event.

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exhibits tactile

Revisiting Touch in Pandemic Year Two

As I write this post, we are in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and maybe we are through the worst of it. People are getting vaccinated. The number of corona infections is falling, and public places, including museums, are re-opening.

As of April 2021, advice from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that fully-vaccinated people can “go to an uncrowded, indoor shopping center or museum”.

Now is a good time to revisit considerations about tactile experiences in museums. In this post, I will comment on the scientific understanding of viral transmission of Covid-19 as primarily airborne, and not from particles on surfaces. Then I will summarize recommendations about touch objects and make some observations for best practices in the present and near future.

An article published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases described a study in which the authors sampled surfaces in hospital rooms to see if they could detect Covid-19 particles. They could not find virus particles on most surfaces. This suggests that “environmental contamination leading to SARS-CoV-2 (Corona virus) transmission is unlikely to occur in real-life conditions, provided that standard cleaning procedures and precautions are enforced.”

Guidance issued by the Centers for Disease control continues to recommend cleaning and other preventative measures for reducing viral transmission. This includes the now-familiar advice to wear a mask, maintain at least six feet of physical distance from others, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and practice good hand hygiene.

Another standard piece of advice for public places is to clean high-touch surfaces at least once a day. Some examples of high-touch surfaces include pens, counters, shopping carts, tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, stair rails, elevator buttons, desks, keyboards, and phones. The precautions that museums adopt for high touch surfaces can be applied to touch objects in exhibits.

Last year, I had conversations with tactile artists about ways to adapt to new norms in the Covid-19 era. Collectively, we came up with several solutions that might allow people to safely handle objects in an exhibit:

– Proper hand hygiene can be encouraged by providing hand sanitizer or wipes in a standard location within the physical exhibit space.

– Materials that are easily clean can be chosen as touchable objects.

– Museum visitors could be provided with tactile handouts that they can touch and then take them when they leave the exhibit.

Here is a summary of our presentation on accessible touch objects. This article explains how to make tactile handouts.

I think these recommendations continue to be useful for allowing tactile explorations at museums that follow common preventative measures like avoiding crowding, requiring mask wearing, supporting good hand hygiene, and cleaning high touch surfaces. I hope that we can move beyond a fear of touching objects, follow best practices, and regain opportunities to have tactile and multi-sensory experiences.

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exhibits

A Presidential Project

On this inauguration day, January 20, 2021, I am highlighting an important project documenting a historical president. Franklin D. Roosevelt (known by his initials FDR, was the 32nd President of the United States from 1933-1945. He was the architect of the New Deal and the Commander-in-Chief during World War II.

FDR also had a physical disability. In 1921, he contracted polio at age 39 and he became a wheelchair user.

FDR visited wounded veterans while remaining in his wheelchair, but he wore steel leg braces that allowed him to stand at public events.

The FDR Memorial commemorates his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. However, when it opened in 1997, it did not accurately represent his physical disability.

More than 50 disability organizations from across the country supported the FDR Wheelchair Statue Campaign. Sixteen Roosevelt grandchildren agreed that FDR should be shown as a person with a disability. The FDR Wheelchair Statue was dedicated in 2001.

The FDR Memorial Legacy Committee is a project of the National Council on Independent Living that documents this campaign through an archive of oral histories and media clips.

The announcement of this archive states that:

“The FDR Memorial Legacy Committee (FDR Committee), as part of the DC Community Heritage Project (DCCHP), proudly unveiled the initial archives chronicling the history of the fight for disability representation” that “was led by people with disabilities from 1995-2001.”

Please visit the archive to learn about this important campaign for disability representation.

“During the unveiling event, disability rights advocates Judy Heumann and Dr. I King Jordan reflected on the impact of the campaign to represent FDR as a disabled president and the collective work that still needs to be accomplished to ensure equitable disability representation. Dr. I King Jordan exclaimed, “Disability is not talked about. People talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and disability needs to be included in those conversations. This archive is a visual way to do that.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Jordan’s statement. It was my honor to evaluate the archives for their accessibility, and my privilege to learn about this overlooked aspect of presidential history.

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about exhibits publications tactile

2020 in review

In December 2020, as I reflect on the year, I am struck by how completely the closure of physical spaces pushed activity online. My work was no exception. Meetings became conference calls, physical exhibits moved to websites, and in-person conferences were transformed into online presentations.

collaboration was another theme for this year. I am thankful for the contributions of my smart and talented colleagues who contributed to the work that I produced in 2020.

The Unintended Consequences of Current Events

I found myself reflecting on how responses to the coronavirus pandemic affected people with disabilities. Here are essays that I wrote with colleagues for an online exhibit called

Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility

The Interconnectedness of Covid-19 to Discrimination Against The Disabled

Bearing Witness to The Ableism Embedded Within The Pandemic

Covid-19 and Museums

A major theme of 2020 as finding ways to safeguard access to touch objects.

In this post written for the American Alliance of Museums, colleagues and I strongly recommend that museums produce re-usable tactile handouts so that individuals can borrow their own touch objects.

Staying In Touch Addressing Concerns to Allow Tactile Exploration at Museums

This post summarizes a presentation about accessible touch objects.

MCN-2020 Presentation Accessible Touch Objects

Here is another essay that I wrote for the Redefine/ABLE exhibit about tactile art before and during a pandemic.

Please Do Touch The Art

Documenting the Museum Experiences of people who are blind

Early in 2020, I presented work about museum exhibits before the pandemic. As far off as that seems now, there are still valuable data for making improvements when physical museums re-open.

Assessing Attitudes of Blind Adults About Museums

Bring Your Own Device BYOD Programming Facilitates Accessibility For People Who Are Blind Or Have Low Vision

Here is an article that Jo Morrison wrote summarizing the papers included in our MuseWeb 2020 conference panel.

Voice User Interfaces And Multi-modal Accessibility

Finally, 2020 saw the release of one of our papers that was delayed in the publication process.

Designing a portable museum display of Native American stone projectile points (arrowheads) to ensure accessibility and tactile quality.

Categories
3D-printing accessibility exhibits research tactile

MCN 2020 Presentation, Accessible Touch Objects

Last week, I gave a presentation on accessible touch objects in partnership with my colleague Lauren Race from the NYU Ability Project. Our talk was part of the MCN2020 virtual conference. Here are the highlights and links for further reading.

Defining the problem

Most information at museums and historic sites is presented visually, but some people learn through tactile exploration. For accessibility, we need to be considering all senses when presenting information at museums.

Yet, tactile access has faced looming threats, notably the lack of expertise and funding, before Covid-19, and the current pandemic is accelerated these issues.

Some museums have responded to Covid-19 by closing hands-on exhibits with tactile components. For example, the Please Touch Museum extended its closure into 2021.

Knowing that touch objects are threatened, it is important to determine which are worth saving in the future.

Summarizing the research

Lauren described interviews that she conducted with 15 museum access specialists from art museums and historic sites across the United States. Then she considered common themes from their responses in conversations with 6 accessibility experts who are blind or have lo vision.

There are 4 findings.

•            1. Tactile experiences must be preserved

•            2. They should be consistently created

•            3. They read as infantile when poorly-crafted

•            4. They cannot be replaced by audio (verbal description) or digital-only solutions. People who are blind receive touchless experiences secondhand, filtered through the observations of a sighted person.

Recommendations

We made the following recommendations.

•Tactile experiences must be preserved

•Digital fabrication over poorly-designed techniques

•Provide tactually accurate reproductions

•Choose materials that can withstand frequent cleaning

•Establish tactile design guidelines

For my section of the presentation, I discussed ways to preserve tactile access despite Covid-19. I described my other projects that complimented Lauren’s interview findings.

People are problem solving in the moment. When the pandemic began, I had ongoing conversations with tactile artists about ways to safeguard tactile access.

Two colleagues, Ann Cunningham, and Matt Gesualdi and I identified specific examples drawn from our work that we proposed as models for safe practices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We described this work in a blog post for the American Alliance of Museums.

Staying in touch: addressing concerns to allow tactile exploration at museums

 I will summarize with this quote.

“We imagine a scenario where visitors could borrow tactile handouts, use them for reference as they tour an exhibit, and then return them to the museum for treatment and later re-use.”

That blog post included photos of small- and large-scale examples of tactile handouts. At small scale, the 3D-printed replica of a stone spear point can be manipulated with one hand. The attached wooden coin is a QR code that when scanned directs a smartphone to read more information about it such as might be found on an exhibit label.

At larger scale, people can be encouraged to maintain physical distance as they explore separate tactile panels. This idea is loosely based on an interactive art installation titled “Mission to Nocterra,” created by Matt Gesualdi. He incorporated use of antibacterial wipes into the exhibit with a story line that the puzzles were alien artifacts that must be protected from human germs.

Highly-skilled tactile artists can create accurate tactile reproductions using hand-crafted techniques. These individuals plan and construct their work very carefully and they account for scale and accuracy. With questions of high-fidelity in mind, we ranked different techniques by their cost in the same blog post.

Returning to Lauren’s interview findings, we recommend digital fabrication methods such as 3D printing over poorly-designed, hand-crafted techniques. In our opinion, digital fabrications are preferred for the accuracy of tactile reproductions. This is contrasted with the analog nature of most poorly-designed tactile objects that her interview findings indicated were produced by interns or volunteers with no training in tactile design.

Due to Covid-19 and safety concerns, we recommend fabricating touch objects from materials that can withstand frequent cleaning. This would favor plastic or acrylic resin commonly used to fabricate 3D-printed replicas.

We mentioned other work that supports accessible touch objects. Fortunately, we are not the only people seeking ways to safely conduct tactile exploration. Here is an international example.

Tactile Studio posted their proposed solutions including the development of a tactile sanitation station for touch objects.

I am encouraged by these proposed solutions because the work to preserve access to tactile objects in museum exhibits is ongoing and it will require sustained efforts in the Covid-19 era and beyond.

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3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications research tactile

Designing an Exhibit of 3D-Printed Replicas

I’m pleased to announce the publication of Designing a portable museum display of Native American stone projectile points (arrowheads) to ensure accessibility and tactile quality written with Joe Nicoli and Donald Winiecki  in the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research.

We describe making 3D-printed replicas of artifacts found in the collections of the Maryland Archaeological and Conservation Laboratory. Then we prototyped a design that attached QR codes to the replicas by a lanyard.

Scanning these QR codes with a smartphone prompted the user to access a webpage with more information about each artifact. Participants at a Tactile graphics conference were successful in scanning the QR code with their smartphones and following the link to the associated webpage.

I also included this project in another paper about using smartphones to access information about exhibits. Start by reading this blog post from April 2020 to learn more.

13 3D-printed replica stone points, with3D-printed replicas of projectile points attached by lanyard to QR codes. QR code coins.

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accessibility exhibits publications tactile

Please Do Touch The Art

My second essay written for the Redefine/ABLE exhibit is titled Please Do Touch the Art

The essay is a discussion of tactile art. When I wrote the first draft in February 2020, it was about the need for more tactile objects in museums.

Then the coronavirus pandemic started, touching objects became taboo, and that essay required significant revisions. Now, it includes recommendations about safely touching objects in museum exhibits, and it links to a few resources. I offer this essay as a conversation-starter because I plan to revisit this topic in the near future.

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accessibility exhibits publications

Redefine/ABLE

Redefine/ABLE

During the 2019-2020 academic year, I consulted with the 2020 University of Maryland, College Park graphic design cohort that researched and created an exhibit about disability, ableism, and the benefits of universal design. Ableism is the discrimination against those with disabilities. Universal design counteracts ableism. Universal design is an approach to creating systems, spaces and objects that meet the needs of all people.

Originally designed as a multi-site, cross-platform exhibition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility is now an online experience that addresses diversity, inclusion and ableism. It seeks to engage audiences about the successes and challenges of persons with disabilities in Maryland and beyond.

The Covid-19 pandemic became a discussion topic for this exhibit. The project director and I wrote this essay examining the effects of post-pandemic responses on people with disabilities.

We also submitted this Q&A to another University of Maryland blog.

Additional content will be added to the Redefine/ABLE project website during July and August 2020. It will remain online after that date. I would like to thank the project team for their dedication to this project and their determination to display it virtually.