Explore Museums at Your Own Pace with Audio Description

An individual wearing glasses appears to hold an object while standing in front of six portraits in a museum.

If you’re blind or have low vision, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to enjoy the visual arts – such as paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts in various museums. Some people go to museums with friends or family who describe the art to them, but some museums offer audio descriptions so you can wander through a museum at your own pace.

Sheila Young, the Chair of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) Audio Description Project (ADP) subcommittee on Performing Arts, Museums and Parks, says they’re working to get more museums to include audio description in their offerings.

“We need museums to understand that our dollar is as good as everyone else’s,” says Sheila, who has low vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is President of the Florida ACB affiliate. “If we want to go into an art gallery and enjoy a description of a beautiful painting, we should be able to do that.”

Ensuring – and advocating for – museum accessibility

Some museums already offer audio description, and the ADP is creating a list of venues. Visit the ADP website for the latest on museum audio description. Sheila says it’s always a good idea to check with a museum first to see if they offer audio description and to confirm how to access the facility and exhibits. Ideally, accessibility information should be on a museum’s website, but sometimes, it takes a phone call.

“Tell the museum you want to come and ask about audio description,” Sheila says. “If they have it, find out where to pick up the handset you’ll use and how easy it is to navigate the museum. If they don’t offer audio description, ask to speak to their accessibility department – which every museum is supposed to have – and tell them you’d like to bring a group of blind people to the museum, but it’s not accessible, and ask what you need to do to make that happen.”

Of course, it’s important to advocate for yourself, but the ADP and other blindness organizations push for greater inclusion, too.

Sheila has been a consultant to help prominent museums create audio descriptions, including the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and the Holocaust Museum Houston. She’s now working with the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

“The Wright Brothers project was really cool, and the Holocaust Museum was wonderful but heart-wrenching,” she says.

Learning how audio description works

According to Sheila, the process of creating a museum’s audio description takes about two months. It requires the expertise of writers who are trained in the process and often involves consultants like Sheila.

The writer goes to the museum and makes notes about the details of the art, then writes the description and goes back to the museum again to get it just right. Sheila points out that good audio description doesn’t include the writer’s opinion about, for example, why someone is smiling – only that a person is smiling in a painting. Just like a sighted person, someone who is blind or low vision should have the pleasure of interpreting the art.

Once the description is edited to an appropriate length, it’s recorded and programmed for use with a handset and headphones, although some museums feed the information right into your smartphone.

When you visit a museum with audio description, it will tell you which direction to walk in and where to turn, using navigational beacons installed near the art. The description will automatically begin when you get close to a piece of art. Once the description is over, your device will direct you to the next piece of art. If you’re not interested in a particular piece, you can move on to the next, and the beacon will follow you, offer directions, and start the appropriate description when you reach another piece of art.

“I wouldn’t go to a museum without audio description, because it frees you to learn what you want to learn and gives the people you’re with the freedom to do their own thing,” Sheila says. “Our committee is working to get more and more museums to offer audio description because everyone should be able to experience art.”

Learn More

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