Respect Accessibility

How to see a museum exhibit if you’re blind

Photo of the entrance to the National Museum of Natural History in DC.
The National Museum of Natural History in DC is the second most visited museum in the world. iStock

Story at a glance

  • The Smithsonian Institute has begun working with an app called Aida, which pairs vision-impaired visitors with live agents.
  • “Now I have a different idea of why it’s important to come to a museum,” one user said.
  • Next, the Smithsonian Access program plans to offer programming in underserved

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian Institution started working with the smartphone app Aira to make museums more accessible to visually impaired visitors.

Smithsonian Museums (including the zoo) saw more than 28 million visitors in 2018, and improvements to museum accessibility are ongoing. Beth Ziebarth, who has run Access Smithsonian since 2001, recently spoke with Washingtonian Magazine about Aira and how the museums plan to increase access in the future. 

“I think that, when we look at museums, we should look beyond the facilities part, which is where we started,” Ziebarth told Washingtonian, saying that the first challenge was ensuring people could literally get into the building. Ziebarth herself uses a wheelchair. “Now we need to really be aware of the content access. So, somebody who’s blind or has low-vision and goes to the new dinosaur exhibition in Deep Time at Natural History, they should be able to get the main messages of that exhibition just like anybody else who doesn’t have a disability.”

The Aira app achieves this by pairing a blind or low-vision museumgoer with an agent through their smartphone. A live video feed, either from the smartphone or a pair of smart glasses, allows the agent to describe what the visitor is looking at.

“Last week, someone I’ve known for a number of years went through [a museum] with an Aira agent. She had the biggest smile on her face. She’s like, ‘Now I have a different idea of why it’s important to come to a museum,’” Ziebarth told Washingtonian.

Smithsonian’s exhibit accessibility guidelines have been translated into Vietnamese, Greek, Russian, Portuguese and other languages. The institution’s consideration of accessibility makes it a leader. Next, Ziebarth hopes to do more to reach underserved audiences by taking programming into other communities that can’t normally reach the museums, and by providing transportation.

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