Written by Ann Lalik, Gallery Director at Penn State Lehigh Valley, as a reflection on her experience in opening their exhibit, Sacred Sisters, A Collaborative: Holly Trostle Brigham and Marilyn Nelson, to people with visual impairment. Ann participated in Audio Description training to develop the skills needed, and touchable relics were created specifically for tactile reference.
The experience of making this exhibition accessible for the visually impaired was priceless for our campus community on so many levels.
First of all, the funding we received through Lehigh Valley Arts Council’s Greater Inclusion Grant allowed us to hire Mimi Smith to come to the campus and offer a day of audio description training, not only for Penn State faculty, staff, and students, but also to other organization in the community who were interested in learning more about describing. The group ended up being approximately 20 people from Penn State, Lehigh Valley Arts Council, Allentown Art Museum, Banana Factory and Lehigh University. It was educational and a wonderful bonding experience.
The training workshop also gave me the opportunity to recruit various people to describe different works. Each work in the exhibit was described by a different person which consisted of Penn State, Allentown Art Museum and Banana Factory participants. Each of us wrote the descriptions and then read them to each other to help make them as purposeful as possible (after all this was our first time).
This project also gave us the opportunity to work with the campus recording studio. All the work was read and professionally edited. The recordings were available on iPad minis that were affixed to the wall next to the painting.
In addition to the describing I added a touchable element to the accessible menu. Since Holly Brigham includes a “relic” with each painting, I offered the same (or very similar) object on a shelf next to the iPad so that visitors could touch it as it was being described. We found that the sighted visitors enjoyed listening to the recordings and experiencing the tactile experience as well.
As a campus we were pleased with the impact the accessibility made on our students and community members. The Philosophy class, PHIL 003: Persons, Moral Values and the Good Life, used the exhibit theme, but also recognized the accessibility consideration in talking about philosophical topics in life.
My truest joy was when the Lehigh Valley Council for the Blind held their monthly meeting at the campus and then visited the gallery. I attended their meeting, and I was impressed and inspired by their discussion about fundraising and advocating for the blind. They all made me feel so very welcome and included.
When we went to the gallery for their tour of the exhibit, I got the feeling they really appreciated the exhibit and it was thrilling to me that they listened intently to every word of the description and passed around the relics. The guide dog excitedly watched a relic being passed around thinking it was a biscuit for him! One description elicited an applause! One young man spoke about how impressed he was with the quality of the recordings and there were a number of thoughtful questions and comments.