Assessing attitudes of blind adults about museums
AbstractWe conducted a large-scale online survey that collected data about the museum experiences of adults who are blind or have low vision. This paper documents strategies that survey participants employ to gain information about the content of exhibits despite facing access barriers to their participation. Strategies can be characterized as either in-sourcing (using resources provided by museums, or out-sourcing (gathering information from sources not provided by the museum, for example a sighted companion or third-party accessibility application on a personal device). Survey results emphasize the potential for creative, digital problem-solving that uses BYOD programming to help minimize access barriers in the museum field.
Keywords: accessibility, blind, low vision, survey research, attitudes, museums
Museums routinely collect data on visitor experiences, and there are instances where these visitor surveys address accessibility (Smithsonian 2004). However, there appears to have not been a large-scale study that documents attitudes towards museums held by people who are blind or have low vision. Instead, literature on this topic that addresses the experiences and needs of visitors who are blind or have low vision can be characterized as anecdotal accounts relating the experiences of one or a few individuals either as personal reflections (Lisney et al. 2013, Papalia 2013), or as second-hand observations (Silverberg 2019). The literature also includes reports written by sighted museum staff on the accessibility of specific exhibits or programs, for example, (Braden 2016, Lapszynski 2015, Leist et al. 2015, Partington-Sollinger, and Morgan 2011, and Zibarth 2010). Taken as a whole, the literature shows that while there is interest in improving the experience of museum patrons and the accessibility of museums, the actual experiences of individuals who are blind or have low vision are underrepresented in such efforts.
We conducted a large-scale online survey to gather data on the museum experiences, and opinions of adults who are blind or have low vision. Our questions were modeled after publicly-available visitor survey reports (Smithsonian 2004), and from concerns in the literature cited throughout this paper. The aim of the survey was to ask questions about a range of factors that affected the perceptions of museums generally held by people who are blind or have low vision. We collected data about past visits, and then we asked participants to share their views of museums as a whole. Survey participants described positive aspects of museum visits such as tactile or hands-on experiences, and the availability of materials in alternative formats (braille, large print, and audio). They also reported negative factors using phrases such as “”under glass,” “inaccessible,” “boring,” or “frustrating.” From our survey respondents, it is apparent that the latter experiences are more typical than the former.
In particular, survey responses confirm that people who are blind or have low vision often cannot access the content of exhibits, or the information about them that is printed on signage and labels. Furthermore, wayfinding in museums was often reported to be challenging. This paper documents strategies that people who are blind or have low vision employ to gain information about the content of exhibits despite facing access barriers to their participation. Strategies can be characterized as either in-sourcing (using resources provided by museums), or out-sourcing (gathering information from sources not provided by the museum, for example a sighted companion or third-party accessibility application on a personal device).
In-sourcing strategies are based on programming or accommodations designed by, and delivered by, museum staff and volunteers. For example, some museums offer touch tours that encourage visitors “to explore different objects—either real or replicas—through touch” (Braden 2016). Other examples of in-sourcing include braille or large print labels and maps, audio guides, and audio description. Accessing these accommodations often entails interacting with a museum volunteer or staff member. Making these resources more readily available to patrons would help to improve the experience for individuals who use them.
Out-sourcing strategies include gathering information from a sighted companion, or by using various third-party accessibility apps. When planning our survey, we expected to discover that patrons would often visit a museum with others, but we did not expect to see reports of people using their own devices with third-party accessibility apps at museums. These out-sourcing strategies demonstrate the ingenuity and desire that museum-goers employ to attempt to compensate for accessibility issues. The accessibility features available on personal devices unlocks potential for creative, digital problem-solving that uses BYOD programming to help minimize access barriers in the museum field (Fogle-Hatch 2020).
Participants were primarily recruited via an announcement distributed of listservs of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), dated June 29, 2018. The NFB is a very active organization promoting self-advocacy and independence. Survey research conducted among the NFB membership shows it to be generally well-informed about civic, social, and technical matters, and with a high level of educational attainment (Bell and Silverman 2018, Silverman et al. 2019).
The research itself, and solicitations for participation in the survey were approved by both the NFB and the second author’s university (Boise State University) Internal Review Board (IRB) overseeing research with human participants. Solicitations for participation directed interested individuals to a website running the Qualtrics survey. We also posted the survey link on our personal social media feeds to attract more participants. No data were collected on response rates arising from secondary posting of the solicitation. We received 153 responses to our online survey between June 29, and October 18, 2018. Survey responses came from 37 U.S. states, three from Canada, and one from Australia.
While 153 individuals responded to the survey overall, response rate to individual questions varied. For example, 147 people answered the consent question. 124 people responded to a question asking for self-identification of their disability. The response rate for subsequent questions never exceeded 124. The survey was long, consisting of 31 questions, and the length of the survey may be associated with this response rate. In addition, overall participation rates may have been affected by the lack of funding for this project. Compensation was not offered because grant funds were not available.
Survey questions were designed to collect different kinds of information. The first group of questions concerned demographic information, including self-identified disability. A second group of questions focused on the last visit that a survey participant made to a museum. A third category asked about attitudes towards museums generally. A final question asked: “In your own words, describe your overall impression of museums of any type that you have visited, including specific things you liked and disliked about museums you have visited.” The comments quoted in this paper were given in response to this question.
We asked demographic questions about disability, age, gender, race, education, and home state/province. Most participants (N=84), used the term “blind” though 13 preferred visually-impaired and 26 identified as legally blind. A single individual selected “deaf-blind.” Survey participants were mostly white (N=93), female (N=94), and with college level education. Only four people selected high school as their highest level of education. Survey results were not separated by demographic segments given the exploratory nature of this study. Information about the age range of participants is given below where it is relevant to the particular result being discussed. No other demographic variable was analyzed separately. All results are reported as aggregate data.
We asked a number of questions that prompted participants to reflect on their last museum visit. We asked for the name and location of the museum visited, and how long ago the visit occurred. Seven people indicated that their last visit was to the Newseum between 1 and 6 months prior to completing the survey, a time period that corresponds with the tactile photography exhibit on view from January 26, 2018. This agrees with John Olson’s (2018) statement about increased visitor numbers at the Newseum. However, one participant, a woman in her fifties, noted that there was only one accessible exhibit on one floor of the multi-floor museum. “Nothing else was made accessible to my knowledge so I felt locked out and not valued to fully participate at that museum.”
This response is consistent with literature showing that while museums have an interest in accessibility, this interest often does not lead them to involve patrons who are blind or low vision, and to ensure their experiences are improved. Only one response about the last-visited museum outranked the Newseum; 14 people reported that they did not remember the name of the last museum that they visited.
Additional questions on the survey and responses
Q: The last museum I visited was what type of facility? (this list of museum types comes from the “Museum Universe Data File” maintained by the Institute of Museum and Library Services) (See also figure 1).
- Art Museum, N=28
- Arboretum, Botanical Garden, & Nature Center, N=8
- Children’s Museum, N=2
- Uncategorized or General Museum, N=10
- Historical Society, Historic Preservation, N=12
- History Museum, N=30
- Natural History & Natural Science Museum, N=4
- Science & Technology Museum & Planetarium, N=14
- Zoo, Aquarium, & Wildlife Conservation, n=11
- National, State or other Park, N=4
Figure 1. The last museum I visited was what type of facility?
It is worth noting that the most frequently visited types of museums are those which are justifiably very protective of their holdings on account of rarity (i.e., art museum, science and technology, history museums). This leads a museum to restrict tactile access, but need not limit other forms of accessibility.
Questions about accessibility
In 2018, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), published a report from their working group on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. The report emphasizes “giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience.” The report notes that accessibility is “not just about the physical environment: it’s about access to and representation in content for all.”
Leist, et al. (2015) describe four areas in which people with disabilities face access barriers at museums: communication, environment, collections and social opportunities. These access barriers are not mutually-exclusive. They cite the example of a communication breakdown in which a person with a disability is not informed of a particular museum program or accommodation that might enhance their visit.
The survey results discussed below are described in terms of these four kinds of access barriers. People who are blind or have low vision often have difficulty accessing museum collections, and this can be mitigated through use of tactile, objects, braille, large print, or audio media, or interactive activities. Communications barriers faced by people who are blind or have low vision often center around the training, or lack of, for giving verbal descriptions. Environmental barriers for this group are explored through comments about lighting and wayfinding. Social opportunities ties to group dynamics with sighted companions.
Survey participants reported different types of communication barriers that they encountered before or during their visits. The first type relates to museum procedures, notably the requirements to plan their visit in advance. A second type of problem was sometimes reported concerning interaction with museum personnel during their visit. A third type of barrier relates to use of unfamiliar, often inaccessible, technology to access information about the museum.
Participants expressed a range of opinions about requirements to plan their visit in advance to receive an accommodation. Expressions of this opinion from our survey respondents include:
- A woman in her thirties said: “I always feel like visiting a museum if I have not prepared ahead of time to access it with a docent or tour guide …is a bit of a gamble.”
- A woman between 18-25 years old said: “I dislike it when I need to plan a museum day at least 2 weeks in advance. I wish I could just go and there was already staff who could just show you around and were trained to describe things.”
- Another woman in her 30s: “Going on some last-minute trips, it is unfortunate most museums require at least a 2-week or longer notice to book a described tour.” In fact, several responses indicated that experiences in museums were better when they arranged for a tour in advance.
- A woman in her 60s said: “I have always had better experiences at museums when I phone ahead or go with a group that has informed staff that people who are blind and/or deafblind would attend.”
Previous studies based on interviews with people who are blind or have low vision documented problems that they sometimes encountered when dealing with museum staff and volunteers who were not comfortable interacting with them (Poria et al. 2009, Ziebarth 2010). For these reasons, one survey question addressed the apparent attitudes of museum staff/volunteers towards the presence of visitors who are blind or have low vision. Participants were almost equally split on the question of whether personnel in the last museum that they visited were comfortable interacting with them; 56 (47%) answered “yes,” and 63 (53%) answered “no” for a total of 119 responses.
The following two comments reveal variation in the training of museum volunteers and staff. These comments highlight ways in which a museum can be made to feel more welcoming when it and its personnel are prepared for visitors, and less welcoming otherwise.
- A man in the 18-25 age group said that he “liked being able to touch objects and have someone provide a detailed explanation.”
- One woman in her thirties stated that: “A lot of time staff panic when they see me. I think it’s difficult for them to get good information on how to interact with blind visitors. … I wish there was access to better training for them.”
When material was available in alternative formats, some survey participants indicated that they still needed sighted assistance to access the information. One woman in her forties explained it this way: “I have found that in order to use braille brochures and take-along audio devices, a companion was required to let me know when I should read or listen to a description of an item. Companions are frequently needed in order to find braille signage as well.”
Several participants commented on their inability to operate audio devices independently, either because the technology was inaccessible, or it was not well-maintained. Some examples included audio that was accessed via touch screen, or by entering a printed code on a numeric keypad. Maintenance of museum-provided audio devices can also be a problem, and some participants noted instances in which devices were not working properly. These comments and observations reflect on the still relatively poor level of knowledge and use of accessible design for technology and compliance with basic elements of physical accessibility, as required in the Americans with Disabilities Act (Department of Justice, 2010).
Content delivered on personal devices could be an alternative to addressing problems with inaccessible museum-provided devices. While some participants were frustrated with the visual nature of inaccessible technology deployed in museum exhibits, others indicated that they used their preferred accessibility settings on their smartphones or tablets with screen reading or magnification software to access information about museum content. Our survey highlights the potential to include people who are blind or have low vision in museum efforts when “bring your own device”(BYOD) programming is available to non-disabled visitors (Fogle-Hatch 2020).
Comments also provided evidence that visitors who are blind or have low vision are very ingenious and skillful at making accommodations for themselves using their own tools. For example, four people mentioned using text-to-speech or magnification apps on a smartphone or tablet to read labels and view exhibits. One participant preferred black text on a white background because that combination was easier to scan and recognize with a smartphone, and used features on their personal device to provide that. Two people reported using subscription-based visual interpretive services, such as Aira, and having the agent describe photographs (see also, King 2018).
Navigating the museum has both an environmental component and a social component for visitors who are blind or have low vision. This is because of a high reliance upon others to read signage for directional information. People with low vision reported difficulties navigating museums due to poor lighting that prevented reading of signs or label text, especially if it was printed in smaller fonts. The lack of contrast between floors and displays was another concern. Comments were made about objects being roped off so that a person with low vision cannot stand close enough to see them. Finally, multiple participants reported navigational difficulties caused by crowds and noise.
Access barriers related to museum collections are particularly evident due to the visual nature of most exhibits, especially the common practice of displaying objects in glass cases. A number of participants commented on the inaccessible nature of exhibits using words such as “boring,” “depressing,” and “frustrating.”
One woman in her sixties summed up the problem this way. “Many museums pride themselves on their fancy audio navigation systems and audio descriptions, and train docents to give detailed verbal description. But how many sighted visitors would go to a museum if all of the exhibits were covered with sheets and they were only allowed to read the captions?”
Given these sentiments, it is not surprising that participants enjoyed museum exhibits that included a tactile or hands-on component. In fact, five participants praised children’s and science museums. One man in his fifties stated “They are the most likely to allow or even encourage tactile access.”
Comments were made about group dynamics when participants visited a museum with family or friends partly because gaining information from sighted companions is one out-sourcing strategy. Many survey participants were 50 years or older (N=60). However, none of the survey participants of any age indicated that they attended museums with companions over 50 years old. This indicates that the blind visitor was part of a larger social group. Future research could explore demographics of a visitor’s companions to better understand how to blend in-sourced and out-sourced accessibility aids. Since 73 participants visited with sighted people, and an additional 25 visited in groups containing both blind and sighted people, it is not surprising that participants were concerned about their reliance upon sighted companions to enhance their experience. Some participants said that they asked their companions to read labels and describe objects, while others avoided doing so because they did not want to impose upon them. Likewise, some participants expressed the need to ask for information as a necessary part of a museum visit, however, others indicated that it was frustrating.
The survey responses also describe group dynamics when visiting with intergenerational family groups. Three participants said that they took their sighted children to museums because they valued the educational experience for their children. Future research could focus on the dynamics of family groups that include people who are blind or have low vision.
Overall Rating of Your Experiences
The answers to this question seem to follow a bell-curve with 51 participants indicating a good experience, and smaller numbers for all of the other categories. The fact that the majority of participants rated the museums from good to superior is significant given the accessibility barriers identified in other questions.
Future—general thoughts/comments about museums and accessibility.
Q: Would you choose to visit this museum or another in the future? (see also Figure 2)
- yes, N=115
- no, N=8
- total responses N=123
Figure 2. Would you choose to visit this museum or another in the future?
Q: Would you resist visiting this or another museum even if encouraged by others? (see also figure 3).
- yes, N=9
- no, N=115
Figure 3. Would you resist visiting this or another museum even if encouraged by others?
These questions were intentionally worded to be opposite of each other as a check. Regardless, responses indicate the same sentiment. For both questions, a large majority (N=115) would visit this or another museum.
This shows that blind people value museums despite the consensus that most museums do not provide access to general information and exhibit content. Furthermore, the majority of participants indicated that they disagreed, or strongly disagreed, when asked about their overall enjoyment of their last museum experience.
This comment from a woman in her sixties details positives and negatives of her many museum experiences: “All my life museums have been a source of knowledge, delight, and profound frustration. As a totally blind visitor, I rate museum experiences almost exclusively on the degree to which I am permitted to touch objects on display. … Museums offer a tremendous reservoir of information because they contain a wealth of real objects related to every aspect of the world. They could be deeply enriching for blind visitors, just as they are for visitors who can see through all the glass. … Because so many museum experiences have been fraught with frustration, the truly positive ones stand out in my memory… Dealing with museums as a blind person requires determination and persistence. It is an uphill struggle and the pain of disappointment is very real. Truly positive museum experiences are rare, but they are worth fighting for, and they are to be cherished.”
The comment above shows that museum experiences of people who are blind or have low vision are bittersweet. On the one hand, significant access barriers for this population exist. On the other hand, this population also recognizes the value of museums, just like that comparable to the general public.
Reports from the United States and the United Kingdom state that the general public views museums favorably. “Americans overwhelmingly appreciate and recognize the work of museums as educational and economic assets to their communities”(American Alliance of Museums, and Wilkening Consulting. 2018). Survey data from the United Kingdom also indicates that Visiting museums has a positive impact on happiness and self-reported health (Fujiwara 2013).
In the face of this generally positive perception of museums, the survey responses described here highlight the significant access barriers that people who are blind or have low vision still must overcome to fully participate in the kinds of museum experiences that are common to a general, non-disabled, audience. Notably, 53 percent of survey participants reported that personnel were not comfortable interacting with them. This indicates that training of museum staff and volunteers might significantly improve the museum experiences of this population.
Consistent with views of survey respondents, and with the goal of increasing independence and autonomy, we suggest that a specialized tour should be a choice, not a requirement. In our view, it is reasonable for school or other groups to schedule tactile tours in advance, just as museum educators routinely book school groups in advance. However, individuals should not be subject to such requirements.
Each of the access barriers deserve targeted research, however, there is an interplay among them that also must be addressed. This intersection is apparent in the group dynamics created when people who are blind or have low vision are primarily reliant on their sighted companions to derive any benefit from their museum experiences. The provision of braille and accessible media signage and more descriptive exhibit placards might lessen reliance on sighted companions. Similarly, the availability of information in alternative formats would reduce environmental barriers relating to navigating the museum.
The survey was broad, containing questions on multiple factors that influence the opinions of museums held by people who are blind or have low vision. Our survey indicated the need for more careful study, tailored surveys on specific aspects of the experience of blind and low vision museum visitors. Importantly, the use of personal devices should be studied to align museum content more closely with the ways in which people who are blind or have low vision use their preferred accessibility settings to access information on their own devices. Martiniello and colleagues (2019) describe a range of specific tasks such as object identification, navigation, listening to audiobooks, reading eBooks and optical character recognition (scanning or converting hard copy and electronic image materials to accessible electronic formats). In our opinion, museum content can be designed to take advantage of these access possibilities. With the application of creative digital problem-solving, BYOD programming could minimize access barriers related to wayfinding and gaining information about exhibit content.
Questions requiring further study pertain to the out-sourcing that visitors who are blind or have low vision often resort to get descriptions of the content of visual elements of exhibits (under glass), gain access to information printed on signs and labels, or successfully navigate a museum. A significant component of this research is the potential for BYOD programming to increase access for people who are blind or have low vision (Fogle-Hatch 2020).
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