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Reaching All of Your Audiences

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, thousands of adults with special needs participate in educational programs through tours and full-day, hands-on workshops. These visitors come from rehabilitation hospitals and mental health settings, group homes, halfway houses, drug recovery centers, and more recently, community service centers for those who have AIDS. They have found their trips to the museum to be not only a social outing but a place where personal discovery, healing, spiritual renewal, and learning can happen.

All docents at the Philadelphia Museum receive training that prepares them to assist the individual disabled child or adult who arrives unannounced on a tour, or the group that participates in specialized programming. Over time, a group of docents who focus their energies on working with the Office of Special Audiences has evolved. The twenty-five energetic and dedicated men and women, about 15% of the total docent program, enjoy the challenge of working with the disabled communities. They say these special tours challenge their perceptions and offer opportunities to sharpen their abilities to create new approaches to standard tour material.

The following suggestions are gleaned from their experiences and from my own years as a social worker and museum educator. Though this article focuses on adult visitors, most of the suggestions are also applicable to children.

General Guidelines

Because language tends to reflect our perceptions of other people it is helpful to become familiar with the acceptable terminology for people with disabilities. No matter what the current preferred definition is, it is important not to lump people into categories such as “the disabled,” “the blind,” or “the deaf,” which confuses individual people with their disability. “People with disabilities,” “blind people,” or “people who are deaf are reminders that you are dealing with the people, not with the disabilities.

Being only human, we sometimes make unconscious assumptions about people with disabilities. The most common assumption is thinking that if one thing is wrong with an individual then other things must be wrong as well. Remember that if a person is in a wheelchair this does not mean he can’t communicate. The person who is visually impaired will often notice that people are speaking loudly to them, although they are not deaf! This tendency to assume is called the theory of negative spread. Being sensitive to it will help you avoid it. Offer assistance to push a wheelchair or assist a blind person as you would to anyone else, and respect the person’s decision should he choose to decline your help. It is considerate, however, to warn someone of a danger such as a steep ramp, a protruding object, or an approaching vehicle or push cart!

Tour Guidelines

Groups of visitors with special needs, no matter what their disability, are not always able to arrive or leave exactly at the appointed time, for a variety of reasons such as transportation, illness, or mobility problems. Allow extra time in your tour schedule. Plan time to greet your visitors in a relaxed manner, and, if possible, have everyone wear a name tag (we all enjoy being addressed by name). Shaking hands and having lots of eye contact is always a plus. If possible, groups should be arranged into small, manageable numbers with a docent assigned to each group in order to further facilitate personal interaction.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, our seasoned docents plan the first stop in the museum to ask questions that help them “size-up” their group. By asking

questions that require more than a yes or no answer, and that solicit personal views or general information, the docent is able to make some quick decisions about the audience’s level of art exposure and understanding, as well as the extent and manifestations of their disabilities. This “warm-up” phase also allows docents to dispel any fears they may have about dealing with the unknown. Addressing first the person who presents the most discomfort to you is one way to abate this fear! Most people find this technique melts all apprehensions.

Many docents note that body language plays an important part in communicating with people who have special needs. Pantomime and gesturing help to keep the attention of those who have difficulty concentrating or have short attention spans, such as people with certain mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. Those with hearing impairments or deafness also benefit from emphatic gestures as well as by watching the lips of the speaker.

Sign-Language Interpreted Tours

Tours interpreted in American Sign Language for deaf visitors should not run longer than an hour. Because it is not possible for the hearing impaired person to watch an interpreter and look at the object at the same time, you must build extra time into your tour for the visitor to look after you are finished speaking. It is important, therefore, to shorten the tour by covering less material. The interpreter should stand so that the painting, animal, or object you are looking at is between you and the interpreter. While most professional interpreters are able to interpret at a fairly quick pace, it is helpful to them if you speak in a regular cadence. It is most important to never address the interpreter–always speak directly with the hearing impaired person!

Mobility Impaired Visitors

When a person in a wheelchair is part of a group of able bodied people it is important to allow this individual to stay in front of the group. Often it will be difficult for them to keep up with the tour so be sure to remember to invite them to the front of the group at each stop. If you are touring a group of people in wheelchairs, it is helpful to bring a portable stool for you to sit on so that you will be on eye level with your audience. It is really tiring for a person to look up for a long period of time.

Always plan a barrier-free route in advance of touring, using elevators and avoiding rough floor terrain or thick carpeting whenever possible. Also, remember that the wheelchair is part of a person’s body-space. Do not hold onto a person’s wheelchair or move it without warning. It is also an invasion to move or take away a walker or crutches without asking.

Visually Impaired Visitors

Due to a commitment on the part of the Philadelphia in the gallery. Museum of Art to serve Kelly & Massa members of its community, there are extensive programs for visually limited and blind people that include “touch tours,” studio workshops, and internships. Touch tours of objects in our permanent collection happen on a regular basis. Guides have expressed enthusiasm for offering tours that focus heavily on the materials and methods of the artist, offering lots of comparisons about surfaces of objects and getting into discussions about form, texture, and temperature that normally do not arise with the sighted public.

As people may have varying degrees of visual impairment it can be useful to provide assistive devices such as flashlights, magnifying glasses, or large black and white photographs of objects to assist those visitors who are partially sighted. And, by the way, it is okay to mention colors or use the words “see” and “look” when speaking with blind or visually impaired people.



Using touchable objects is also helpful for teaching children and adults who have learning or developmental disabilities. If circumstances do not permit touching, a less precious, but related, object can be introduced, such as samples of structural materials like stone, wood, or other samples, painting materials, canvas, and so forth. During a recent special exhibition of the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, a local chiropractor lent the museum a life-sized model of the spine to pass around for visitors to touch so they could better understand the forms in the drawings.


Repetition of questions, key ideas, or phrases is important reinforcement for people with learning and developmental disabilities. This technique is also helpful sometimes for those who have communication disorders.

People with aphasia due to strokes have difficulty responding to questions not because they do not understand the information but because they have a speech disorder that interferes with relaying their thoughts. Tours offer opportunities for eliciting simple answers but require a great deal of time and patience. People who come from rehabilitation hospitals generally come with an escort or therapist who is skilled in assisting with communication. One therapist explained that “they don’t need language skills to appreciate a painting – – because of their diminished verbal skills, stroke patients respond with deep pleasure to nonverbal expression.”

Visitors from Mental Health Centers

Clients of mental health centers who may be depressed, schizophrenic, or have other psychiatric problems present unique challenges for docents. These clients are sometimes harder to reach than most other special audiences because they may be withdrawn, cautious, or distanced as a symptom of their illness or as a result of medication. Docents who tour these groups regularly strive to establish rapport, use a lot of reinforcement and encouragement, and find it worth the extra effort.

People with AIDS

Groups of people with AIDS who come to our museum usually contain extremes in abilities. Physically, some require wheelchairs in order to conserve their energy, or need to leave the group early because of fatigue. It is important to plan several rest stops in your tour or use portable stools. Mentally, some are understandably depressed, but most have been in a supportive system and respond quickly to encouragement from their peers. Docents have notice that, in general, they are quite in touch with their emotions, respond to art with intensity, and are eager to express how they feel. One person with AIDS who had never been to the museum before has now returned on several occasions because, she says, the art is giving her answers.

It is my hope that all docents will be able to give tours that accommodate people with special needs, and that these audiences will enjoy increased access to museums and other community resources. Kudos to all docents who provide tours for people with special needs!

Carol Wisker. M.A.. has been the Coordinator of Audiences with Special Needs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1987. Prior to joining the museum world she was an administrative social worker and therapist in a variety of medical and mental health settings. In addition, she is also a professional artist. Ms. Wisker has presented numerous lectures on accessibility and educational programming for special audiences at museum and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) conferences.

Wisker, Carol. “Reaching All of Your Audiences,” The Docent Educator 2.4 (Summer 1993): 4-6.

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