What Visitors with Vision Loss Want Museums and Parks to Know About Effective Communication

Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness:

What Visitors with Vision Loss Want Museums and Parks to Know about Effective Communication

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This paper has been supported by the National Center on Accessibility, the National Park Service and the U.S. Access Board through Task Agreement J2420070133 under Cooperative Agreement H0500000011.

By  Beth Ziebarth, Director
Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program


“ . . . our appreciation of our surroundings is multisensory, and . . . touch makes an important contribution to our well-being as well as our ability to understand and relate to the material world” (Pye 2007).

In July 2008, the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, the National Center on Accessibility, and the National Park Service collaborated on a daylong focus group study to learn about effective means of communication for museum and park visitors who are blind or have low vision.

Study Goals 

  • To understand the usability of alternative formats; 
  • To identify characteristics of effective tactile graphics, maps, models, and wayfinding; 
  • To determine user preferences for exhibition audio description; and 
  • To understand characteristics of enjoyable museum or park visits.

During the course of the discussion, other topical threads were followed including participant reactions to making arrangements in advance of a visit, scheduled programming, technology, and preferred sources for information.

Study Method

Eight participants with varying degrees of vision loss met at the National Air and Space Museum to individually review three exhibition components and then two additional exhibition components at the National Building Museum. Interviewers recorded the participant’s comments as they examined the exhibits.

After the field visits, the participants convened to review a number of museum and park publications. The group discussion was guided by one of the interviewers. Observers from the Smithsonian, National Park Service, National Center on Accessibility, and the National Building Museum joined the group. A transcriber recorded the proceedings.

The demographics of the study participants exemplify the diversity of experience necessary for a good discussion. Onset of vision loss varied from congenital to adventitious within the last ten years. The group was evenly divided by gender. Ages ranged from early twenties to mid-sixties. Most of the participants had completed their formal education, with a mix of high school to graduate level degrees. One participant is working on an undergraduate degree and one on a graduate degree. All participants visit museums and parks albeit reluctantly for some. Participants have a range of experience with Braille, from one person who is an international leader in Braille literacy to several others who are just learning it.

The study method yields results that cannot be generalized to the whole population of museum and park visitors who are blind or have low vision. Rather, the results are the in-depth reflections of the eight participants on their museum and park experiences. Analysis of the discussion provides museum and park staff with themes for further research on effective communication.

Braille documents and audio format of publications

Alternative formats of standard print publications are one means of providing the effective communication required by federal accessibility laws. When asked about their format preferences, participants agreed both Braille and audio formats should be provided so a visitor has flexibility in use. For example, a Braille literate visitor may consider a Braille version to be easier and faster for obtaining information. It was clear from the discussion that people who are blind or have low vision tend to use exhibition brochures during their museum or park visit. Generally visitors without vision loss take exhibition brochures home as a souvenir rather than reading them during their visit. The difference in behavior may be attributable to easier access to exhibition text and the main exhibition messages for many visitors without vision loss.

Participants cautioned not all visitors with vision loss are Braille literate and alternative formats are necessary to meet the range of needs. The group felt strongly that visitors with vision loss ought to be able to keep publications offered to them just as visitors without vision loss are able to do. Museums and parks commonly require the return of Braille or audio publications as they deem them too expensive or available in such limited quantity that they do not feel they can be given away.

Furthermore, if Braille publications are being offered by a museum or park, the Braille should be of high quality. Quality is defined as meeting the national or international Braille standards. Participants reviewed Braille publications from various museums and parks. Documents produced in-house with Braille translation software and embossers often contained format errors. Documents prepared by contractors also had quality problems. Some of the group was more forgiving of the errors as it is a common issue. Others reiterated people who are blind or have low vision should receive publications with equivalent quality to the standard print version. Someone who is Braille literate should proofread Braille publications before distribution.

Providing pre- or post-visit materials in audio format is considered equivalent to offering the publications in Braille. The preferred format for audio content is DAISY (the Digital Accessible Information System) as it is highly navigable. A DAISY publication can be explained as a set of digital files that includes: 

  • One or more digital audio files containing a human narration of part or all of the source text;
  • A marked-up file containing some or all of the text . . . ; 
  • A synchronization file to relate markings in the text file with time points in the audio file; and 
  • A navigation control file which enables the user to move smoothly between files while synchronization between text and audio is maintained (DAISY Consortium 2010).

Assistive technologies developed for people who are blind or have low vision are DAISY compatible. DAISY files can be downloadable from a website or available on a memory card or USB device. The group discussed the viability of distributing MP3 players in museums or parks to visitors who are blind or have low vision but in 2008 when the study took place there were no accessible MP3 players on the market.

Tactile graphics

Participants were interviewed while experiencing a bronze tactile graphic in the National Air and Space Museum’s “Wright Brothers” exhibition. The graphic shows the journey of the Wright Brothers from Dayton, Ohio to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Analysis of the interviews revealed patterns or categories used to create a list of design features that should be taken into account when making an exhibition tactile graphic or model:


Objects need a connection and a context to the story being told by the map. Shapes of landscape features such as mountains were easily identifiable but unexpected elements such as a sailboat were not. The fact that there was train tracks on the map helped make the train an understandable object. The tracks provided context for the train but a steamboat floating in a gap between the railroad tracks didn’t adequately convey the change in transportation modes.


Objects were shown in profile and a number of participants had difficulty recognizing the object. Feeling two wheels made participants think they were examining a two wheeled object. It wasn't clear this was an object that actually had four wheels. Likewise everybody could tell there was an animal depicted on the map although it wasn’t clear if it was a horse, dog or cat.


At six feet in length, the size of the map made it possible to show detail in the objects. When graphic objects such as the horse lacked detail, it caused confusion. Some graphic objects did not stand out sufficiently from their backgrounds. The train had depth to its details, making it a successful object. This observation is notable as it contrasts with a general principle in raised line graphic production of keeping graphics simple and free of extraneous detail.


The participants recognized that most of the map objects were kept in relative scale to one another. When scale was violated by some of the objects, it was confusing.


There was significant criticism of the map Braille, primarily due to its shape. Some of the phrases people used were “dull, puffy, not sharp enough, and slippery.” The Braille lacked clarity, as it was difficult to distinguish individual dots. The fact that it was cast in bronze may have been a factor. A participant noted one way to improve the legibility is to leave space in the bronze cast for Braille inserts. An interviewer noted if a reader uses the pads of their fingers instead of their tips they needed a certain amount of space below the Braille in order to accommodate the angle of their finger. Landscape features of the map sometimes interfered with reading the Braille.

Tactile letters

The map used a mixture of both serif and sans serif fonts for tactile letters. The font choice did not appear to be coordinated with different map features. Participants noted the serif font was not as legible as the sans serif font. They also noted the quality of the raised letters was better for some words than others.

Title and label placement

Everyone expected the title to be at the top and center of the map. However, it was at the bottom of the map and most people either missed it or didn’t find it until the end of their exploration. The interviewer noted participants tended to start in the center of the map and once oriented they read it from left to right starting at the top. Place labels did not appear in a consistent position. The labels were to the left, or above, or below the place it identified.

Enlarged areas of the map

The use of raised rectangles to set off enlarged portions of the map was confusing. Participants thought the rectangles were landscape features. Their use is common with maps in a visual context but it was an unfamiliar technique for a number of participants. They did not understand why there were two Kitty Hawks on the map. Treating the enlarged area as a separate map rather than trying to connect it to the primary map would be more effective.


People with low vision wanted colors to help distinguish between different landscape features.


Participants had experience with audio in other tactile exhibits. They felt audio would be useful in relaying the story behind the map. Sound effects were also suggested to enhance the experience, especially for children.


Even though participants were critical of certain aspects of the graphic, they also had fun exploring it. They liked the topography and they thought children and adults could enjoy it equally.

Models with audio

In the National Air and Space Museum’s “America by Air” exhibition, participants explored three model airplanes with touch-activated audio. The models are smooth metal but a sample piece of the exterior “skin” of each airplane is adjacent to the models. In effect, the participants were working with a prototype of the exhibit, as it was not yet complete. The interviews conducted with each participant brought up the following design issues:


It was challenging for some people to determine the relative size of each airplane compared to the others through touch alone. A positive aspect of the audio was that it worked in tandem with tactile exploration of the models. Participants were hearing about the differences of the planes as well as feeling it. The audio also helped explain why there were differences.

Accidental cueing of the audio

A bump could activate the audio and at other times direct pressure to the model didn’t turn it on. A few participants suggested that a physical barrier of some nature between each model would be helpful so you wouldn’t accidently cue the audio of the adjacent model while examining a plane.

Multiple audio tracks playing at the same time

It was easy for some participants to differentiate between audio tracks and focus on the one that they were listening to while ignoring the others. Other people found it distracting. Participants felt a barrier, possibly of Plexiglas, would help isolate the audio tracks and make it possible for more than one person to use the display at a time. They also suggested a headset option or a pause button. The pause button would allow a visitor to finish their tactile examination of the model without triggering a repeat of the audio information.

Delayed start and forewarning for the audio

A participant expressed a desire to initially touch a model without any audio. A few people commented it would be disconcerting to touch a model and have audio come on without warning. A possible solution would be to have an audio attract which says, “please touch the plane for audio” in addition to signage.

Absence of standard print or Braille

Participants wanted label text for the exhibit and Braille identifier labels for the models.

Audio description and sound effects

The description was praised for being clear and informative. One participant said “I thought the audio description was excellent because at each point they mention, you can very easily associate it with something on the plane and the comparison factor was cool.” Some people would have liked more in-depth information. Participants thought the sound of the plane would be a good addition to the audio track.


A participant said it would be desirable to include color in the audio description, especially for kids who are blind or have low vision to further their development of associations for colors.


Participants were much less critical of the models than the Wright Brothers tactile graphics and map. They said it was a fun exhibit.

Audio description

Participants reviewed audio description activated by a push button at the introductory text and section panels of the “America by Air” exhibition. The text of the panel is narrated and exhibits in the surrounding area are described. Participant comments can be summarized as follows:

Activation button

The audio buttons are located in the center of the panels and under the text. Participants expressed concern over the difficulty of finding it. They suggested it should have a label, be larger, have better color contrast from the panel background so it is more visible, and be mounted higher although one person thought the height was appropriate for universal design purposes. Another person suggested creating a tactile design for the button to make it more identifiable when used consistently throughout the exhibitions.

Volume level

Most people thought the volume level was fine. The participants were in the exhibition before public hours so some noted the level might not work when the space was more crowded. Everyone thought the ability to control the volume would be beneficial.


Half of the participants thought the duration of the description track was fine while the other half thought it was too long. People commented the narration pace was slow and the style dramatic. They also said many people who have vision loss normally speed up audio tracks when they can control the way they receive audio information.


Including both label text and description was appreciated. The content really interested most participants and sparked questions for some. They wanted to learn more about the material discussed in the text. It was noted that the descriptions lacked color information.


The descriptions gave directions to reach for tactile graphics on the panel. Participants had difficulty matching the directions to the location of the tactile element. Some suggested using the raised letter title as an anchor point as the title was easy to find.

Knowing audio description is present in the exhibition

Participants discussed how unlikely it is they would wander in an exhibition by themselves. It is likely they would wander within an exhibition with family and friends who don’t always notice or recognize accessibility features. A difference in floor texture could be used to cue visitors with vision loss where the panels with description buttons are located.


In general the participants thought audio description in exhibitions is a good idea and providing direction to tactile items is useful. They said they would enjoy going to museums where audio description is present in exhibitions.

Architectural models

The focus group members also visited the National Building Museum’s “Washington: Symbol and City” exhibition where they examined tactile architectural models of the memorials and monuments. Interview responses can be categorized as follows:


The models are in scale with one another. The scale worked very well for everyone except for the Capitol Building, which is very large. Participants were disappointed they could not reach the top of the Capitol dome to feel the statue of Columbia.


Participants sensed detail that went beyond the structure of the buildings. They found features like letters in the names of the states and lion heads on the Lincoln Memorial. They were able to differentiate between friezes and wreath decorations and identify types of columns. Key features were obvious and well expressed to everyone. In some cases the shape of a building wasn’t exactly how someone had imagined it and they welcomed the discovery of the building’s actual shape. Participants wanted to experience all sides of the buildings. The models aren’t full rounds.


The models weren’t just the exteriors of buildings. The design allowed one to reach inside through the columns to some degree.


The mounting height of the models worked well for the participants. The models were installed at 39 inches above finished floor to the base.


Everyone wished there had been labels, whether audio or Braille. As one participant said “I just feel lost looking at this. If only there had been a label on it, it would have been a better experience.”

Relative positions of the buildings on the National Mall

Several people suggested ways to communicate how the monuments are positioned in relation to one another. A map or another tactile in conjunction with a model would help in understanding the location of the monuments. One person said she would like to experience a smaller scale tactile map with three-dimensional buildings plus the large scale, detailed architectural models in the exhibition.


As a whole, participants were very positive about the architectural models. One participant, however, preferred the earlier version of the exhibition as its design better facilitated independent access to visitors with vision loss.

Tactile map of Washington

A tactile map of the National Mall displayed in the “Washington: Symbol and City” exhibition was examined and discussed:

Position and Hand physiology

The map is mounted at a slight angle from the wall that forces your hand into an awkward position. Several people actually crouched down in order to read it because it is so low. The map position issues led to an interesting discussion of the physiology of hands. One participant gave an example from an earlier exhibit where the Braille labels took into consideration hand physiology and ergonomics. The labels were mounted at a 45-degree angle away from the visitor with the Braille oriented so one read from the bottom of the label up. An additional issue relative to position was that the frame around the map interfered with reading the Braille.

Portable Braille

The quality of the Braille on the map met standards. To improve readability of Braille text, participants suggested a Braille brochure keyed to the map, perhaps by number. No one wanted to carry around large volumes but they preferred portable Braille to the pain from trying to read Braille on a vertically mounted map.


People noted that if the map were larger, content would be less cluttered. Small features like the Reflecting Pool were difficult to identify despite the map key. The small size was disappointing for some because it was like reading a map in a book; for an exhibit, they wanted larger scale.


Some participants felt they did not receive equivalent information available to sighted people when words on the map were abbreviated.


Participants disliked dirtying their fingers while reading the maps, which were dusty.


Fine details like streets felt like “wire mesh.” You could not distinguish one street from another given the scale.


Participants disliked this exhibit because the tactile map was too small and awkwardly positioned. However, they did offer suggestions to improve the experience.

Experiences at museums and parks

Several themes emerged from a discussion of participant’s best and worst museum and park visits:


For one of the participants, her best museum experience was with the original exhibition of “Washington: Symbol and City”: “Because it was an opportunity to be absolutely and completely independent. I could do all of it myself - - the wayfinding, the audio information, the reading, the examining of the objects and going on to the next thing. And it was just fun to not have anybody between me and the museum experience.”

Independence in thought was also mentioned. Participants value succinct information to which they can assign meaning based on their own frame of reference.

International experiences

Several people relayed stories about visits to museums in other countries where all visitors could touch what is on display:


Having something tactile is considered essential. Participants noted replicas are important to a broader audience than only people with vision loss. Most participants like replicas and prefer them to real objects that must be touched only with gloved hands. People commented they couldn’t feel anything with gloves on, especially if their vision loss was recent.

Staff training

Negative museum experiences are often due to lack of staff training on program access for visitors who are blind or have low vision. A participant spoke about a museum visit where his group was reprimanded for being noisy because they were verbally describing objects to him.


An enthusiastic museum docent or staff member can make a visit memorable: “ . . . I met the guide, and he was a naturalist and he was enthusiastic about everything. He kept going behind the cabinets, opening up drawers, this is a fossil from such and such and putting things in my hands and explaining it. It was the best experience I ever had.”

Museums as sources of information

One of the interviewers asked about good information experiences in museums where you learn in detail information you didn’t know before. A participant said he wants a different type of learning from reading a book. He feels the whole purpose of a museum is experiential learning.

Emotional impact

Some museum or park experiences have emotional impact. A participant described her visit to the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor where one of the veterans accompanied her on a tour: “ . . . he was describing it to me, and then he started sharing his personal experience. And so for me, that entire experience was amazing because he was talking about the ship but really describing it in a way I don't think anybody else could have described it to me. And then he took me to the marble wall that had the names carved in it. And he was like here, touch the names. These are the names.”

Websites for exhibition information

Participants described using museum websites in advance of a visit to read about the exhibits, anticipating the museum will have limited access for people with vision loss.

Tactile wayfinding

Some of the participants brought up experiences with tactile wayfinding systems in park settings. A Braille trail has a rope at waist height for a person with vision loss to follow and Braille labels for information. An alternative method for paved trails is to use texture, similar to speed bumps on a street, to convey wayfinding information.

Participants also discussed the tactile wayfinding method used in the original “Washington: Symbol and City” exhibition. A visitor followed a ridge along the floor and when there were objects that were freestanding in the middle of the room, the texture changed to three intersecting ridges to indicate you should turn off the main path. The system included audio description and a reader rail at waist height that guided you by hand along the walls.

Making arrangements in advance of a visit and scheduled programming

Everyone had experience with making advance arrangements to visit a museum. Participants said they call a museum at least two weeks in advance of their visit. When asked if this was convenient, they admitted it would be preferable to be able to call just a few days in advance. Participants acknowledged it depends upon what you are asking the museum or park to provide. They would like to have options to choose from for their visit. If it’s a Braille publication, it should be readily available. If you are asking for a personal docent-led tour that includes tactile experiences, they didn’t think it was unreasonable for the museum to require time to organize it. They did think a museum should be able to provide a staff member or volunteer to provide audio description only with less lead-time, perhaps a week’s notice. One participant thought local visitors could more easily schedule accessibility services in advance but non-local visitors may not know about the museum’s requirements. She suggested having volunteers available who are ready to provide audio description and facilitate tactile experiences and advertising their availability both through signage at the museum and on the website.

For most participants, a visit to a museum occurs when family and friends are visiting. For the young, single participants, the idea of scheduled programming seemed more appealing than it did for the others. They did worry programs would be discontinued because enough people weren’t using them on a consistent basis.

Technology and preferred sources of information

Participants like the availability of downloadable information on websites like podcasts. They acknowledged that not all people with vision loss have access to technology and museums and parks should be prepared to loan devices to play audio information. For the people who do have assistive technology, being able to download files to their personal devices is optimal. In addition to audio tours, they would like wayfinding information they can use on their own devices, perhaps utilizing GPS.

In general, the participants found they could navigate museum websites fairly easily with their assistive technologies and find basic information. What the websites don’t usually have is specific information on what is accessible for visitors who are blind or have low vision. Most participants look for a contact so they inquire about accessibility. Having an accessibility page that describes a visitor’s options would be welcomed.

Participants were clear on their preferred sources of information. “If I want to know about anything blindness related, I will talk to other blind people. Network. I won't even necessarily go to one of the blindness organizations. I will talk to my blind friends.”

Some participants find accommodations information available through disability organizations valuable. Everyone uses the Internet and websites specific to vision loss for information.


“ . . . it's believing that you can have a quality experience by yourself . . . But I guess I don't believe that there's [sic] very many exhibits where that can happen.” For museums and parks, the challenge in that statement is clearly what we need to address if we are to provide effective communication and a meaningful experience to visitors who are blind or have low vision.

The focus group met the study goals. The participants shared a wealth of information so museum and park professionals can understand the usability of alternative formats; identify characteristics of effective tactile graphics, maps, models, and wayfinding; determine user preferences for exhibition audio description; and understand characteristics of enjoyable museum or park visits. Other discussion topics provided additional guidance on key aspects of effective communication.

Visitors who are blind or have low vision want Braille and audio versions of publications that meet established standards. They like having information available on museum websites that is downloadable to their own assistive technology devices. Although there are no standards yet for museum exhibition tactile models or graphics, the participants’ comments on the exhibit components they reviewed are useful for conceptualizing what should be included in any future standards. Audio is a powerful addition to tactile exhibits but the visitor should be able to control the audio delivery. Prototype testing with people who are blind or have low vision is one of the only ways to know if you have created an effective tactile or audio experience.

Positive museum and park experiences have some commonalities: visitor independence in movement and thought; tactile opportunities with real objects if one doesn’t have to wear gloves; the availability of replicas; emotional impact of the visit experience; experiential learning opportunities; and museum and park staff who are trained on accessibility and are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. What the focus group participants shared about effective communication and meaningful experiences seems achievable by museum and park staff.


Pye, E. (ed.). 2007. The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

The DAISY Consortium. 2010. (http://www.daisy.org/) (Accessed 05.11.10)


Beth Ziebarth, Director
Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program 
PO Box 37012
NMAH, Room 1050, MRC 607
Washington, DC 20013-7012
202.633.2946 (Voice)


The citation for this article is:

Ziebarth, B. (2010). What visitors with vision loss want museums and parks to know about effective communication (White paper). Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.