Making Museums Accessible and Inclusive

Person with VI Feeling an Art Sculpture

At first glance, it looks like a piece of the paper mache’ and mirror sculpture, “Os Saltimbancos” (“The Acrobats”), by Portuguese artist Jose’ de Guimaraes, has broken off. The brightly colored fragment lies on the floor next to the sculpture (see image below). Yet, an inquiry with the gallery’s security guard assures concerned museum goers that no, the sculpture isn’t broken. Instead, the fragment is placed purposely next to the sculpture so that blind and visually impaired visitors can explore the work of art by touching it. The same is true for another sculpture in the same gallery, “Marcelino Vespeira’s “O Menino Imperativo” (Imperative Boy”) which is exhibited with a replica right next to it. Visitors are free to touch the much smaller replica.  Some original works can also be touched if the individual wears gloves.

In the past decade or so, museums in the United States and around the world have boosted efforts to make their institutions more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

Museum educators at Lisbon, Portugal’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum recently established a new tour especially for visually impaired and blind visitors to help them to experience the museum’s visual art. Special needs educator Margarida Rodrigues says the program for the blind is just one of the programs the museum offers for people with special needs. “We started by offering programs for people with mental illness,” says Rodrigues. Nowadays, the museum also offers programming for people who are blind, deaf, have cerebral palsy, autism and intellectual disabilities.

A partner of the Tandem Project, The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is one of seven institutions representing seven countries that “meet to test, develop and share tools and new approaches for people with disabilities to explore museums. The project aims to support better understanding of inclusivity in education and ability to creatively deal with diverse groups of learners with and without disabilities,” according to Tandem’s website.

Rodrigues says the activities that she and Margarida Vieira, who oversees the activities program for the public with disabilities, offer for museum visitors “always kick off with a work of art.” Depending on the nature of visitors’ disabilities, activities may include a mix of drawing, movement, auditory and tactile experiences. Rodrigues says that the museum educators often use sound with visitors with cerebral palsy. “We ask ‘can sound have color? Can we grab sound?’ Feeling vibration is wonderful for people with CP. They relax, can control and mix sound, create an orchestra tech sound.”

The museum’s disability program helps visitors with disabilities “gain comfort in the museum… express themselves… and explore issues of identity and body image,” says Rodrigues. Perhaps most importantly, the program provides visitors with disabilities an opportunity to have fun!

 

Five Ways to Create a Sensory Garden for the Visually Impaired

Little Girl Smelling a Peony

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;          
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush          
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring          
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; — Gerard Manley Hopkins
 
Written in May 1877, but unpublished until 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “Spring” captures the season of rebirth as perfectly today as it did then. Indeed, spring has a way of bringing us joy and enlivening our senses. Those who are blind or visually impaired may not be able to fully appreciate colors and landscape design, but sensory gardens offer them a unique and enchanting way to experience nature and engage their other four senses.

According to Jackie Carroll of Gardening Know How.com, “A garden for the blind, or for those with diminished sight, is one that appeals to all the senses without overwhelming them. In fact, garden plants for visually impaired individuals include those that can be touched, smelled, tasted, or even heard.” Here are some important considerations when designing a sensory garden for blind or VI people:

Safety
Safety and easy navigation are critical when designing a garden for blind or VI individuals. Carroll recommends garden design include “straight pathways and landmarks…[changes] in walkway texture… Railings, says Carroll, “should accompany any change in topography and begin a few feet before inclines or declines.” When selecting plants for the garden avoid prickly or thorny bushes and flowers. Poisonous plants should also be avoided since they could be accidentally ingested, or could cause reactions such as poison ivy and poison oak.

Smell
It goes without saying that fragrance is a critically important aspect of sensory gardens. But it’s important to choose scents carefully. Over-powering fragrances may be unpleasant for a blind or VI person with a heightened sensitivity to odors. Used selectively, fragrance helps visually impaired individuals find their way around the garden and of course — provides a pleasurable olfactory experience. Planet Natural suggests “a combination of scents that range from subtle to more intense… to produce the greatest variety and interest. Plants to consider for their scent include honeysuckle, lavender, violets, mint, and chocolate cosmos, which release a chocolate-like scent.”

Sound
Incorporate auditory elements to the sensory garden with wind chimes and water features such as trickling fountains and birdbaths that attract the lovely sound of chirping birds. Master gardener Susan Patterson suggests choosing “plant flora that makes noise when the wind passes through them, such as bamboo stems. Many seedpods make interesting sounds as well, and the end of season leaves provide a fun crunching sound under feet,” adds Patterson. “You can also include plants that encourage wildlife in the garden. The buzzing of a bee, the chirping of a cricket or the whizzing of a hummingbird all stimulates the sense of hearing.”

Touch
Sensory gardens offer a wonderful opportunity for tactile exploration. Plants and flowers with interesting textures include pussy willow, wooly thyme, chenille and hyacinth. Some plants such as scented geranium, release their scents when they are touched. For example, geraniums, lemon balm and mint.

Taste
Edible flowers add another sensory dimension to the garden. Examples from Planet Natural include “nasturtiums, evening primrose, hibiscus, and pansy.” Berries, fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and spices are another great addition. When planting edible flowers, fruits, herbs and spices, take care to place them in an area that’s distinct from the rest of the garden. This is particularly important for VI or blind people who may not be able to distinguish between edible and inedible plants.

 

Low Vision Affects Growing Number of Americans

Man with Visual Impairment

Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, Americans are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Nevertheless, aging is associated with the increased likelihood of acquired diseases and disabilities such as low vision. Though this condition can occur at any age, low vision disproportionately affects individuals over age 65. As Low Vision Awareness Month (February) comes to a close, Enabling Devices has compiled the following information and resources  pertaining to low vision. We’ve also highlighted some of the products we sell that are especially designed for individuals with low vision.

What is low vision?
According to the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, “Low vision is a visual impairment that cannot be corrected with standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery.” Low vision can make many activities of daily life more challenging.

What are the causes of low vision?
There are many causes. Some of these include age-related macular degeneration, diabetes, glaucoma and cataracts. In younger people with low vision, injuries to the eye or certain birth defects or syndromes may be the cause of low vision.

What are the symptoms of low vision?
When glasses or contact lenses aren’t sufficient to help individuals to see their surroundings, recognize faces, do chores in their homes, etc. it may be a sign that vision loss is in progress. It is critical to diagnose vision loss as soon as possible, since early diagnosis is key to helping individuals maintain the vision they still have.

What resources are available to help people with low vision?
These days, there are many resources for people with low vision. These include technological advances such as screen readers and screen magnifiers; audio books; smartphone apps; tactile devices and smart glasses. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Low Vision Center at lowvisioninfo.org. You can also find resources at the Foundation Fighting Blindness’ Low Vision Resource Guide.

What products are available through Enabling Devices?
For individuals with low vision who require a switch, Enabling Devices’ Tail Light Switch Say It Play It (#464) is a communicator with a large target area and bright yellow color that is easy to locate. Our Auditory Communicator for the Visually Impaired (#4399) is a great tool for those who have low vision and communication challenges. Alternatively our Talkable 2 for the Visually Impaired (#6056) is designed with bright yellow and red switches that are easy to see and activate. Our Musical Lightbox (#200) creates a bright backlight that makes any activity more visible. Younger users with low vision will appreciate our VI Shapes Puzzle (#9041). This puzzle teaches shape recognition. Or treat your whole class with our Kit for the Visually Impaired (#2047N). This kit includes everything a teacher needs to keep students with low vision engaged and learning.

February is Low Vision Awareness Month

Low Vision Awareness Month is an ideal time to learn about the causes and symptoms of low vision and about the many resources and technological advances that make living with this condition more manageable. Low vision isn’t the same as needing glasses or laser surgery. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, it’s “a permanent loss of vision that won’t improve with eyeglasses, medicine or surgery.”

In many cases, low vision is the result of conditions and diseases found more commonly in older adults. Conditions such as macular regeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma can all cause vision loss. Yet, seniors aren’t the only people affected by low vision. It can also be caused by conditions such as albinism, retinitis pigmentosa, traumatic brain injury or optic nerve damage.

Some conditions that cause low vision have no early symptoms and are hard to detect and diagnose. Therefore, it’s important to have yearly exams. Lee Huffman, editor-in-chief of AccessWorld, a publication of the American Foundation for the Blind says a low vision exam is far more comprehensive than the eye exams with which most of us are familiar. “A low vision examination includes a review of your visual and medical history, and places an emphasis on the vision needed to read, cook, work, study, travel and perform and enjoy other common activities,” says Huffman. Its goals “include assessing the functional needs, capabilities and limitations of your vision, assessing ocular and systemic diseases, and evaluating and prescribing low vision therapies.”

Follow-up from a low vision exam may include “education and counseling of family and other care providers; providing an understanding of your visual functioning to aid educators, vocational counselors, employers and care givers; directing further evaluations and treatments by other vision rehabilitation professionals; and making appropriate referrals for medical intervention are all a part of a low vision evaluation,” Huffman explains.

If you or someone you love is diagnosed with a disease or condition that causes low vision there are tools — some low-tech and some high-tech — that can help. Vision rehabilitation enables individuals with low vision to learn new ways to do the tasks they need and want to do. Sometimes a team of medical professionals will provide rehabilitation services. These services may include a home assessment to provide recommendations such as improving the lighting in your home, reducing glare and creating more contrast so it is easier to distinguish between objects. Your ophthalmologist or rehabilitation team will also teach you about tools that can make everyday tasks easier such as magnifying glasses, video magnifiers, audio books, smartphones and tablets, talking gadgets such as Alexa, and toys and devices with easily distinguishable textures and color-coding.

Enabling Devices offers a range of items for children and adults that can educate and improve quality of life for individuals with low vision. For a complete list of items, check out our online catalogue. For more information about getting involved in Low Vision Awareness Month, visit the National Eye Institute’s website.

What are your favorite tips and products for individuals with low vision? Share them with us on Facebook and Twitter.

7 Tips for Getting in Shape if You’re Visually Impaired

It’s January and the gyms are full. After all, there’s no more popular New Year’s resolution than getting in shape. Exercise is just as important for people with disabilities as it is for their non-disabled peers. Yet, creating an exercise routine when one has a disability can be complicated.

For example, people with blindness or visual impairment have unique challenges when it comes to maintaining their physical fitness.

Perhaps that’s why a new study by Dr. Keziah Latham, from Anglia Ruskin University in the UK found that visually impaired individuals are twice as likely to be inactive as sighted individuals. But that’s not the whole story.

The U.S. Association of Blind Athletes estimates that it has helped more than 100,000 men and women with vision loss become top athletes in the last 30 years. This figure is just for elite athletes. Millions more individuals with vision loss lead health-conscious, active lives, and they are participating in exercise programs, fitness groups, and activity clubs on a regular basis.”

With the right tools, and techniques, plus a healthy dose of motivation, the benefits of exercise are well within reach for most people with visual impairment and blindness. Here are some tips to help yourself or your loved one get into shape:

1. Discuss exercise options with your doctor
Prior to beginning an exercise routine, be sure to speak with your doctor. This is especially important for people with low vision says Vision Aware.org “since some medical and eye conditions can be affected by bending, lifting, straining, or rapid movement.”

2. Consider logistical issues
Transportation challenges, inaccessible fitness centers, safety concerns and financial constraints are among the obstacles people with visual impairment and blindness face when designing exercise regimens. Researching transportation options, accessible fitness centers, home-exercise programs and apps will help you determine what makes the most sense for you.

3. Consider personal preferences
Not everyone enjoys the same types of exercise. Investigate fitness options to find the activities you will enjoy. When fitness is fun, you are more apt to continue exercising.

4. Find a partner or coach
“When first learning fitness techniques, work with a trainer,” Vision Aware recommends. “Do not exercise alone, especially when beginning a program, using new equipment, learning new movements, or an unfamiliar environment. A sighted fitness professional or exercise partner ensures safety while providing motivation and boosting confidence.” Though trainers with expertise in training people with disabilities aren’t easy to find, it’s worth checking out the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability’s (NCHPAD) database of personal trainers who have such expertise. Perhaps there’s someone who works in your area.

5. Find fitness programs especially created for blind and visually impaired
Programs like Blind Alive, offer cardio exercise, weight lifting, body sculpting, yoga, pilates, and more. “BlindAlive also offers an Entry Level Bundle for those who have little to no experience with exercise, or want to finally get back into the flow.” Each activity is presented with multiple challenge levels. Other programs such as Eyes Free Yoga and the United States Association of Blind Athletes’ video on adapting judo for the blind also enable people with visual impairment to exercise independently in their own homes.

6. Investigate the availability of accessible equipment
Scifit creates fitness equipment for people with disabilities. Those with vision impairment or blindness will benefit from Scifit’s consoles which feature “high-contrast, non-reflective display that’s easy to read, tactile markings and tactile buttons and audible beeps to confirm selections.” If equipment at your fitness center isn’t accessible, you consider asking center employees to attach braille labels.

7. Set goals
Setting attainable, realistic goals is helpful to anyone seeking to become physically fit. Consult with a trainer or with online or print literature to create appropriate goals and objectives.

 

Visionary Inclusion Campaign

Inclusion graphic

In April, the Perkins School for the Blind launched a brand new social media and public relations campaign to promote the inclusion of those who are blind and have low vision. The campaign, Blind New World follows a nation-wide survey conducted by the school that “revealed the four barriers to blind inclusion: discomfort, pity, fear and stigma.” The study also found that 80 percent of respondents feel sorry for those who are blind, 74 percent believe they could not be happy if they lost their sight and more than half don’t feel comfortable when in the presence of someone who is blind.

Ironically, campaign advocates insist that thanks to educational opportunities and technological advances, “there has never been a better time to be blind.” According to Blind New World, “The biggest obstacle isn’t blindness. It’s a world that can’t see beyond it.”

Inspired by Corinne Grousbeck, chair of the Perkins School’s board and the mother of a student at the school, the campaign aims to “break the barriers to inclusion and connection, and to prepare the world to embrace today’s highly capable blind population.”

Enabling Devices offers a wide range of toys, adaptable technologies and other tools to help children and adults with blindness, low vision or complex sensory and communication needs to be fully engaged in the world.  Here are some of our most popular products:

 

#520
#520

1. Visually Impaired Activity Center #520

Specially designed for the visually impaired, this activity center teaches cause and effect, provides tactile stimulation, encourages physical movement, improves auditory memory, teaches sequencing, color and shape recognition and plays music. This learning toy can be used in games such as I Spy, Simon Says, Seek and Find and Memory Game.

2. Shapes Puzzle with Braille #9041

Reach blind or visually impaired learners to recognize, match and name shapes using eight colorful tactile pieces with braille markings. This toy also teaches hand-eye coordination, fine motor and perceptive skills.

3. Tactile Symbol Communicator #4040

Ideal for people who are totally blind or dual sensory impaired. This communicator stores six messages on six levels for a total of 36 six-second messages. The user can touch one of six removable tactile symbols to communicate his needs. Included are tactile symbols that alert caregivers or therapists when the user needs to use the bathroom, is hungry, thirsty, finished or when something is wrong.

 

#2046Y Totally Tactile Communicator
#2046Y

4. Totally Tactile Communicator # 2046Y

This bestselling item helps users to communicate through their recognition of texture. With six levels for a total of 36 seven-second messages, this communicator also has adjustable activation time.

5. Bright Switch for the Visually Impaired #2045

This switch uses bright yellow lights, vibration and music to help those with low vision find it.

6. Braille games kit

Your child will be busy all day long playing games like chess, tic tac toe, UNO Monopoly, Scrabble and more!

7. Kit for the Visually Impaired #2047N

The whole kit and caboodle includes toys, games, learning tools, communicators and switches