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Imagining Life Underwater a New Audio Tour Opens The National Aquarium in Baltimore to The Visually Impaired

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Baltimore Sun, July 28, 2004.

The beauty of the underwater world, from the vibrant colour of fish to their swift glide through the water, can now be experienced without seeing a thing.

The first large group of visually impaired children took an audio tour of the National Aquarium in Baltimore yesterday designed specifically for them--an effort to open the popular tourist attraction to those without sight.

"Through accessible programs like this, it really opens up museums to other people," said Dale Otto, president of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind and a blind man who, after nine years in Baltimore, had never visited the aquarium. "This makes [the aquarium] much more available."

The children--middle- and high-school-age from the Columbia group's Lighthouse Technology Camp--chatted with scuba divers, touched whatever they could get their hands on, listened attentively to their audio guides and asked many questions.

"Are the dolphins pretty?" a young boy asked.

"They are beautiful," a sighted volunteer responded, bringing a smile to the face of a boy who had never seen one.

In addition to 11 campers, 10 volunteers and staff members--sighted and blind--wandered through the aquarium, carrying palm-sized audio boxes that detect triggers on the ceiling.

The audio players are designed to automatically activate at each exhibit, continually playing as visitors move along with the flow of aquarium traffic.

However, not all 20 of yesterday's wireless audio guides worked quite right, forcing users to press buttons to activate the next recording.

The hour-long script, written and recorded by Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates, combines descriptive detail with vivid language to transform visual images into mental images.

In addition to aquatic facts, clues to physical orientation and mobility, the audio guide paints a picture for the mind. The Atlantic bottled-nosed dolphins, for instance, are described as graceful creatures that "remind some people of a long and narrow torpedo."

"People who are blind can see if you direct them to some extent," Snyder said.

In making an audio guide, Snyder said he "sees everything" and "truly uses the gift of sight" because people who see oftentimes don't observe.

"The second step is to edit from it what is most critical to an understanding and an appreciation of that visual image because you can't describe everything."

Next he applies imaginative language and vocal expression to conjure an image in the mind's eye.

Mental images were only one part of a multisensory experience. Visitors also inhaled the scent of salt water, heard the sound of the whale's song, and ran their fingers over the bumps of a freeze-dried starfish and the smooth, slimy shell of a horseshoe crab.

At the dolphin viewing area, sighted volunteers explained what was happening. Although the students were unable to see as the large mammals swam up to their noses pressed against the glass, they were excited by the idea.

"If you can't see them at all, you can develop a mental picture," said Mario Bonds, a 16-year-old student intern with no vision. "The idea of the dolphins sounds really cool, even though I can't see them."

The campers said they enjoyed their auditory aquarium experience, which exposed them to exhibits that ordinarily would have excluded them.

Lighthouse staff members said they hope experiences like yesterday's visit will help build confidence among blind and visually impaired youth--a mission of the technology camp. Less than half of children who are blind graduate from high school, and there is a 70 percent unemployment rate among blind and visually impaired adults, Otto said.

The camp is designed to help open doors for blind and visually impaired youth, and Lighthouse staff said they are excited about the aquarium's effort to expand upon cultural opportunities for their youth.

"People who are blind are not generally accustomed to being made welcome at museums," said Snyder. "The Baltimore aquarium has taken a large step toward changing that."

Copyright 2004, the Baltimore Sun.