Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Gifts For The Disabled: Accessibility To The Arts

The Alliance for the Arts recently announced the creation of a “cultural gift directory” (click on lower right-hand side of their homepage) to allow New Yorkers to give last-minute gifts connected to the arts. The Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, for example, is encouraging people to buy a gift membership, by promising to include with it a “festively-wrapped Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mug set.”

Jean Ryan would love a different gift from the Guggenheim. She would love for the curators of the Russian exhibition to make the wall labels easier to read. “Apparently the curators think the signs have to fit into the color scheme of the exhibit,” says Ryan. So people with poor sight must do without them, and people with average sight have to squint a lot.

“People with disabilities often feel barely tolerated at museums instead of feeling welcomed," Ryan says. "At best, we’re an afterthought.” Ryan is one of the leaders of Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York, an organization that has been fighting for the civil rights of the disabled since 1970.

Like most New Yorkers, she has been focusing on the New York City transit strike this month, though her perspective is different from many: “Have you noticed how none of the articles in the press mention how people with disabilities will -- or will not -- get around?” she said before the strike began. “I guess we’ll be stuck in our houses again.”

For three days in December, New Yorkers of all stripes struggled just to get to work. Many canceled all but essential obligations –- and restaurants, museums and theaters suffered the consequences.

But many disabled New Yorkers must struggle to get through the day every day, not just during a transit strike -- and, say disability rights advocates, they do not understand why they must give up all but the essentials their entire lives. Besides, to many disabled (as to many New Yorkers in general) art and culture are essentials.

In numerous cases, a small shift -- call it a tiny “gift” from cultural institutions and the entertainment industry, often at little or no cost -- is all that the disabled would need to get much-enhanced experiences. And there would be benefits for other New Yorkers as well from these gifts:

1. Make labels in museums accessible for all.

The Guggenheim’s way of designing wall labels is typical. “The signs next to paintings in almost every museum are so tiny,” Jean Ryan says. “Why? We have to go right up to them to read them instead of being able to see them at a distance. It doesn’t take away from the artwork itself to have large print signs with high contrast.”

For wheelchair-users, Ryan says, it would make sense to add labels on display cases rather than just in them. “Often the labels in cases aren’t at the right angle for us to see what they say, or we can’t even see that they are there.”

For the visually-impaired, Ryan suggests a channel in the audio guides that would have the facts that are on the wall labels and also include a simple description of the artwork.

2. Add captions to all movies.

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced earlier this month a deal with eight national theater chains to make it easier for visually and hearing impaired people to enjoy movies. The plan is to have cooperating theaters provide headsets to the visually-impaired that offer descriptions of the visuals of the film as it progresses (in-between the dialogue.) For the hearing-impaired, the theaters will have available assistive listening devices that are compatible with hearing aids, and will also offer “rear-window captioning” for the hearing-impaired – a technology that allows the hearing-impaired to see subtitles that appear to be on the screen, while the rest of the audience does not see them.

But both the headsets and the rear-window captioning devices will reportedly be available in only 38 theaters throughout the entire state; another 140 theaters will offer hearing aid-compatible assistive listening devices – or, in other words, the total number of theaters with this improved accessibility throughout New York State is fewer than half the number of screens in Manhattan alone.

Currently, a total of just five movie theaters in the entire New York City metropolitan area offer captioned or narrated movies.

It seems bizarre, if not insulting, to develop such a Rube_Goldberg device as rear-window captioning, the expense of which is apparently keeping them from more theaters, when movie theaters could simply run all their English-language movies (as they currently do their foreign-language movies) with English subtitles. It is difficult to imagine people complaining about this, at least not for long. Those who do not want to read the captions will get used to ignoring them. Far more than just the hearing-impaired patrons would surely appreciate them.

If commercial movie theaters come up with some excuse not to do this, there is absolutely no excuse for the various "movies in the park" festivals, since they can simply flip on the closed-captioning on their DVD player projectors.

3. Allow wheelchair users more equitable access in theaters.

Federal law requires theaters be accessible to people in wheelchairs. “The Department of Justice made some Broadway theaters improve accessibility last year,” Jean Ryan says. These theaters "have accessible bathrooms on the main floor and they all have some sort of seating for people with mobility disabilities.”

But what the theaters also offer too often, advocates say, is back-of-the-bus attitude. "Most Broadway theaters have wheelchair seating in the back row or on the extreme side and if you have a vision impairment, you can’t see well from there. Even if you don’t have a vision impairment, no one wants to sit in the last row or on the extreme side. I can’t see anyone’s faces from far-away seats.

“In some theaters, the only place for us to go is behind a pillar or a wall.”

4. Make the gift shops accessible too.

“Wheelchair accessibility in museum stores is a big problem,” Ryan says. “There is a lot of merchandise on the floor and the aisles are too narrow or there is no turnaround.” She names names – the gift shops of the Folk Art museum, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Museum and, perhaps most ironically, the Museum of Art and Design.

"If you talk to people from museums, they’ll tell you about the special programs they have for blind people, for example," Ryan says. "But the everyday things -- seating, signage, bathroom access, access to their stores -- are neglected.

"All these things are our rights, not gifts we should have to be grateful for." But they would make nice gifts nonetheless.


Accessibility page of the National Endowment for the Arts
Smithsonian Guidelines For Accessible Exhibition Design  


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