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Disabled Patrons Get 'touch Tour'

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Associated Press, August 13, 1999

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Dennis Sparacino's fingers glide over the cold bronze toes, curve up and around the muscular torso and dip into the crater at the top of the sculpture. A "touch tour" allows him to experience, in the only way he can, a cast of the "Headless Naked Figure Study for Balzac" that Auguste Rodin crafted in 1896.

Sparacino is not the usual patron of the New York State Museum. He is blind. He once settled for friends' descriptions of museum artworks - "I could hear their oohs and aahs and that helped," he says. Now, he says, "I'm informed and I'm part of the accepted circle as opposed to being a wallflower."

The recent tour that enabled Sparacino to grapple with sculptures - his hands wrapped in protective plastic gloves - is one way arts groups have boosted opportunities for disabled people to experience artifacts and other treasures. The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act raised the expectations of arts organizations and made them look for ways to accommodate disabled arts supporters, says Stanley Eichner, litigation director at the Disability Law Center in Boston. The state museum offers touch tours for its current exhibit, "Figure and Form, Rodin to Matisse: Sculpture and Works on Paper From the Museum of Modern Art." But despite the Albany exhibit, it can be tough finding multimedia arts presentations for adults living outside cultural meccas. Museums though, many of which have suffered declining attendance, are finding that they benefit by attracting this previously ignored audience.

"These places prided themselves on being open to the community at large and they have become more aware," Eichner says. The same touch tours now at the state museum have been available at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1972. Now that some of its pieces are on loan in Albany, the state museum asked MoMA staff to provide training and resources for the specialized tours. The state museum has allowed blind visitors to touch folk art pieces in previous years, but has never had such iconic images available for the visually impaired.

The touch tours begin with a discussion of the works and are supplemented by two-dimensional "tactile diagrams" of the pieces. The diagrams on chemically coated paper have raised black rubbery lines and dots to represent different patterns in the sculpture. They provide a compact impression of the artwork that is helpful when feeling pieces too large to reach around. Tour guides also describe the artwork and, in the case of the Balzac works, encouraged people to assume the pose of the sculptures. "I would never be able to make out what it is without the description," Sparacino says.

MoMA experimented with a variety of cloth and plastic gloves for the tours before settling on the crinkly kind used by sandwich makers. They are best suited for patrons to feel the sculptures while still protecting the works from the oils on human hands, said Francesca Rosenberg, coordinator for programs and services for visitors with disabilities. The touch tour exacts negligible wear and tear on the sculptures, many of which Rodin intended to withstand outdoor weather, she says. MoMA still protects many of its works from gloved hands. Although feeling the texture of Vincent van Gogh's famous "The Starry Night" might add much to a blind person's experience, the 1889 painting is off limits to touch tours. The museum instead offers large tactile diagrams of the work to visually impaired visitors.

While concerns about keeping artwork preserved and intact are understandable, more museums should incorporate multimedia elements like diagrams or corresponding sound recordings, says John Farina, who has been blind since birth. "It can be very disconcerting to walk through a museum and find things behind glass."

Farina, of Albany, has touched historic artifacts in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and has participated in tours at youth museums in Boston and New Jersey, but has largely felt left out at museums. "Obviously, that museum was for children," he says. "(Touching) is not encouraged as much for adults."

Finding out about accessible arts exhibits can be another hurdle. Farina was unaware of the state museum's touch tour until a reporter asked him about it. "Many organizations often do not advertise the fact that they are accessible," says Bonnie Kaplan, cultural access director at VSA, which stands for Very Special Arts. "(Organizations) must work much harder and creatively when marketing their services and facilities. I can't tell you how many bad examples of marketing approaches I've seen utilized or poor publications without the appropriate access symbols."

Kaplan's group, based in Boston, offers a Web site listing accessible arts events in several states. It includes movie theaters showing current films with captions, concerts offering Braille programs and playhouses that have sign language interpreters.

"More museums are much more aware now and want to do the right thing by making their programs accessible for people with disabilities," Kaplan says. "Museums are under pressure from other competitors and potential funders and therefore have to constantly upgrade their programs to be able to meet the needs of others."