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Creativity and Innovation at Work: Tours for People with Disabilities

by Cate O’Hara

Museums and historic sites are repositories of history, culture, and educational opportunity for all visitors, including those with disabilities. This truth, together with the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), led the Tatt Museum stalt and volunteers on a path that resulted in the development of “sensory tours” for people with disabilities, and eventually the publication of a workbook on developing these tours for use by our own docents and those at other museums and sites.

With the passage of the ADA in 1990, the Taft Museum decided to reevaluate its services for visitors with disabilities. Although the museum is housed in a National Historic Landmark mansion built in 1820, the basic requirements for physical accessibility (ramps, parking, elevators, and restrooms) were in place. The very nature of the historic facility would allow for few if any further renovations or improvements in that area. The museum also already offered a large-print guide to the collections in response to the many senior citizens who visit.

However, we recognized that it was possible to go further in creating a spirit of accessibility and a respect for the abilities and learning styles of all people in the way we present information on docent-led tours.

A steering committee was organized to grapple with the challenge. It is led by Madeleine Lame, a long-time Taft Museum docent who has visual and hearing impairments, and includes a journalist who is blind and writes a weekly column on people with disabilities, a teacher of children with developmental disabilities, a teacher and signer from a school for the deaf, and the museum’s volunteer and scheduling coordinator. Their mission was to develop specialized tours for visitors with various disabilities.

The first challenge facing the members of the advisory committee was to dispel a number of misconceptions about working with people with disabilities: What is there for a blind person to “see” at a museum primarily devoted to the visual arts? Must our docents learn sign language to communicate with deaf people? What useful information would a person with developmental disabilities come away with from a tour? A better place to start, we learned, was with why we ourselves are drawn to the museum: the art, stories, emotions, history, sense of place, connection, and beauty that are different or have different meanings for each of us and for each visitor.

The insights of the committee and staff were augmented by research that included The Accessible Museum published by the American Association of Museums, articles published in The Docent Educator, and discussions with senior citizens’ advocacy groups and organizations supporting the rights and needs of people with mobility, visual, hearing, and developmental and learning disabilities. It became evident that different groups had both different and intersecting needs. For instance, many senior citizens have some hearing, vision, or mobility impairment. Descriptive techniques useful for interpreting art for the visually impaired also paint a brilliant picture for visitors with developmental disabilities. All benefit from small group tours (often one-on-one) that permit plenty of interaction and the ability to tailor the tour specifically to the needs of the individual. Touring techniques grew from defining these needs, and guidelines were developed for creating four primary categories of tours: tours for the blind and visually impaired, tours for the hearing impaired and the deaf, tours for senior citizens, and tours for the learning disabled.

After the tours were formatted, docents conducted pilots for members of the steering committee, who in turn critiqued and edited the tours. Their insights provided valuable information about length of tours, usefulness of props, and methods for presenting information to different audiences.

Tours for visitors with visual impairment draw on a range of props and descriptive techniques that create a tactile and mental picture of the art and environment. For example, a scale model of the building permits a literal hands-on tour of the perimeter, the number of rooms, and shape and size of important architectural features in relation to the building as a whole. Other types of props include fabrics and items of clothing or jewelry that reflect those pictured in paintings, reproductions of vases and sculpture, a painted canvas to illustrate various types of brush strokes, and plaster casts of ceiling ornamentation. Cotton gloves are provided when furnishings; works of art, such as sculpture and frames; and architectural detail, such as moldings and mantels, can be safely touched.

Perhaps the most important and most difficult technique for docents leading tours for visitors with visual impairment is that of pictorial description — that is, evoking the mood, emotional content, climate, texture, and meaning embedded in a visual image for someone who may have no visual point of reference. Thus, docents are challenged to describe a picture in new ways.

For instance, a landscape by the Barbizon artist Camille Corot may be described as misty, damp, shadowy, and cool. The docent can evoke the smells of the forest, the sounds of the livestock, and the rippling water of the pond; describe the rough clothing of the peasant in the foreground; and discuss the intent of the artist to abandon the restrictions and structures of earlier painting styles to “get back to nature” and accurately describe a place and a way of life without idealizing it. Each of these points can be related to a contemporary experience: the smells in your yard on a wet, overcast day; the feel of soggy earth beneath your feet; contemporary authors or artists who also seek to present a realistic view of life.

Docent Madeleine Lame, who developed the museum’s touring techniques and contributed to the resulting workbook, had as her model the keeper of the Hermitage in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the 900-days siege of World War II. “At the outset of the siege, the paintings were removed from their frames and taken to a secret, safe location. During the ensuing Nazi shelling, the windows of the Hermitage were shattered and snow blew into the galleries. The soldiers who were sent to clean up were rewarded by the keeper with a tour of the empty frames. Using only the power of his words and his love of the art, he left soldiers with powerful mental images of the absent masterpieces. That is what we must accomplish for visitors who are blind.”

Tours for the hearing impaired and the deaf require less specialized techniques and more of an awareness of how to present information. Tour guides need to learn not to stand in front of a light or window that would render their faces difficult to see for lip readers, to project without exaggeration or shouting, to face the group at all times when speaking, to pause so that visitors can redirect their gaze from the speaker or signer to the work of art under discussion, and to avoid foreign terms and jargon that are difficult to sign and lip read.

Tours for senior citizens incorporate some techniques from both of the above, while adding a sensitivity to possible disabilities. For some older visitors, additional seating helps those who tire easily, while using techniques ot projection and clear speaking aid those with some hearing loss.

Lame points out that perhaps the most important aspect of tours for senior citizens is respect tor their life experience: “By presenting a tour that includes opportunities for interaction, tour guides can often learn as much as they impart from this valuable resource. Senior citizens are repositories of untold accumulated knowledge.”

Tours for people with developmental and learning disabilities can be the most challenging. Most docents, after all, are not trained special education professionals. Also, the range of development and learning disabilities is much greater than that of other disabilities. As Lame points out, “There are as many degrees of learning disabilities as there are people. Creating a tour for these guests is challenging, because you must assess and reassess their interests and abilities at the moment of greeting and throughout the tour. Most importantly, you must not patronize anyone. You do not know what thoughts or feelings are there but cannot be expressed.”

Although the most challenging, these tours also offer the most room for creativity, which can in itself be a challenge for docents who may be accustomed to working from a standard script. Props of all sorts, including dolls and toys, music, fragrance, poetry, and stories are all ways to bring alive a work of art or historical fact for a visitor with learning disabilities.

Games are also useful for encouraging interaction and imparting relevance to art works and artifacts. Try asking open-ended questions. How would you feel if you were inside that painting? Would you want to live there? Why or why not? How do the colors in the painting make you feel? A game in which a visitor tries to guess which object a docent is describing may also be effective for honing the skill of looking and thinking about works of art.

Not surprising, the techniques used for developing tours for people with disabilities have had an impact on how the museum’s docents present information to all visitors, just as existing touring techniques informed the sensory tours. School groups, for instance, make use of the various props that lend immediacy and dimensionality to flat paintings. All visitors benefit from additional seating put in place with senior citizens in mind.

As Lame points out, “A successful tour for any visitor starts with creativity and imagination. The particular challenges of creating a tour for visitors with disabilities can free us from rote learning and propel us to see anew the wealth of beauty, art, and history that first brought us to our museum or historic site.”

To share our successes with the larger museum field, the Taft Museum has adapted its own tours and published the manual Please Touch: Sensory Tours for People with Disabilities, a Workbook. This publication combines information in a practical outline form with worksheets that can be adapted to any public site that offers tours for visitors with disabilities. It is available from:

The Taft Museum, 316 Pike Street, Cincinnati, OH, 45202, 513/241-0343, extension #17, for $5 plus $2 shipping and handling. Ohio residents must add 6% sales tax.

Cate O’Hara is Public Affairs Manager for the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. She contributed to the manual Please Touch: Sensory Tours for People with Disabilities, a Workbook as a writer and editor and is a frequent writer on contemporary art. She has a B.A. in English and French from Illinois State University and an M.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley.

O’Hara, Cate. “Creativity and Innovation at Work: Tours for People with Disabilities,” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 12-14.


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