Visiting the New England Aquarium


My family and I visited Boston for a few days, and decided to go to the New England Aquarium. We had gone many years ago, before my vision deteriorated, and were excited to return, even if I wouldn’t be able to see much. Surprisingly, I was able to see more creatures than I expected, and I even got in for free! Here are my tips for visiting the aquarium with a visual impairment.

Admission

Guests with visual or mobility impairments can get into the aquarium for free, which is an awesome benefit! We purchased our tickets at the information desk, where a staff member was able to see my blindness cane and give us the discount. The rest of my family (three adults) still had to pay for admission, though.

Navigation

The ground is very smooth and the only obstacles around are people- no worries about running into poles here. There are ramps to travel to most exhibits, though there are also elevators and stairs available that are easy to access. Because of the crowds, I would highly recommend using a human guide when navigating.

Little penguins on a rock
Little penguins

Flashing lights

The aquarium does not allow flash photography, as it can hurt the eyes of the animals, though there are still some guests who use flash photography anyway. Only one exhibit featured a flashing/strobing light, and that was the electric eel tank, which had a battery graphic at the top that flickered quickly, to simulate the electric charge of the eel.

Reading information

I found it easy to read a lot of the exhibit descriptions, as they had very large text and clear, high-contrast pictures. I didn’t have to worry about having a large print exhibit guide.

Watching the fish

I could probably see about half of the fish on exhibit, due to my vision impairment. The bright colored fish were easy to see, but more common river fish like trout, salmon, and other dark colored fish were next to impossible, due to the poor contrast. While taking pictures with my phone helped me see some fish, I just accepted that I wouldn’t be able to see every fish.

Fish in the coral reef
Coral reef exhibit

Sounds

There were no loud exhibits on display, or animals making loud noises in general. However, there were lots of crowds, even when we visited at an off-peak time. If noise is a concern, I would recommend bringing a pair of ear plugs.

Tactile exhibits

There were friendly volunteers stationed at many of the popular exhibits, allowing guests to feel different textures and models. There were also exhibits with 3D models of skeletons and other illustrations that guests were able to touch. There are also touch tanks, including one for manta rays- I found the slimy texture very unsettling, but my brother enjoyed petting them.

Two manta rays swimming across the sand
Manta ray touch tank

Penguins

One of my favorite exhibits, there are many species of penguins on display, and the penguin exhibit is the center of the museum. I was able to see penguins clearly on the entrance level, and watch them jump around and swim. It got more difficult to see them clearly on the higher levels.

Penguins on a rock
African penguins

My favorite exhibit

My favorite exhibit of the day was a tie between the penguins and the sea lion. The sea lion was very easy to see, since they were directly in front of me- behind the glass, of course. It was easy to take photos and look at this adorable creature up close.

Sea lion with their eyes closed, sticking out their tongue
The sea lion, my new phone wallpaper

Verdict

I highly recommend visiting the New England Aquarium, as they are amazingly accessible to guests with visual impairments, and I enjoyed getting to learn about all sorts of different animals. Even though I couldn’t see everything on exhibit (and didn’t expect to), I still had a lot of fun and know that I will visit again if I’m in the Boston area.

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum


Living right outside of Washington DC means that I am just a short Metro ride away from visiting one of the coolest places in the United States.  Some of my favorite places to visit are the Smithsonian museums, which have free admission and are amazingly accessible to people with disabilities.  I’ve decided to put together a guide to the many different Smithsonian museums and their accessibility for guests with special needs, with a special emphasis on low vision.  So without further ado, here is my guide to visiting the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum with low vision.

Getting inside

These two museums are in the same building and are a bit farther away than the other Smithsonians.  After getting off at the Gallery Place/Chinatown stop on the Metro, visitors can access the museum through the 9th Street exit.  There are several entrances into the museum, some with low stairs to climb.  The handicap/stairs free entrance can be found facing G street.

Exhibit Guides

Large print and Braille exhibit guides are available for visitors who request them.  For travelling exhibits, the large print guide can often be found hanging on the wall next to the entrance.  These guides have the statements that accompany each of the portraits written out in accessible text.

Navigation

The staircases throughout the museum are winding and spiral shaped, and can be difficult to walk with a cane.  There are also very small cramped staircases to access upper level exhibits in the National Portrait Gallery.  All exhibits can be accessed by elevators found throughout the museum.

In the indoor courtyard area, where the Courtyard Cafe is located, there are fountains on the ground that are very easy to walk into.  They aren’t deep (it’s like someone spilled water on the floor in terms of depth), but I’ve walked into them nearly every time I’ve visited the area.

Flashing lights

The Electronic Superhighway exhibit is a map of the United States that contains flashing videos featuring different characteristics of the United States, as well as red, white, and blue flashing lights.  Some travelling exhibits may also use strobing effects- check with the front desk about specific exhibits.  The last time I went, there was a moving pictures exhibit that featured lots of strobing effects- I had my friend check the exhibit beforehand for flashing lights, and I just waited in another hallway away from the lights.

Sensory friendly

Compared to the other Smithsonian museums, this one is very quiet and has lots of places to sit down and relax.  There are no loud noises or excessive amounts of stimuli in the permanent exhibits- travelling exhibits may vary.

Accessible tours

Audio tours are available for many exhibits.  In addition, America InSight tours are for guests who are blind or have low vision and are offered at least twice a month for visitors.  They do not cover the entire museum, rather go in depth about certain exhibits.  Check out the schedule here.

High-resolution images

High-resolution images of the different pieces in the gallery can be found on their website.  This is only for permanent exhibits, though.  I would recommend viewing these images on a larger device such as an iPad, instead of on a phone.

My favorite exhibits

My favorite exhibits at the museum are the 20th Century Americans and Contemporary Art.  The 20th Century Americans exhibit is awesome, as there are a lot of familiar faces (the photo of Buddy Holly inspired this post here).  The Contemporary Art exhibit is very colorful and has many different mediums of art that go beyond simple oil on canvas.  Just a warning on the Contemporary Art exhibit- it can be very easy to accidentally set off a security alarm with a blindness cane, if the cane crosses any of the lines on the floor.

 

I love visiting this museum, and consider it one of my favorite Smithsonians.  That says a lot about how accessible Smithsonian museums are for people with low vision, because even though there is a high emphasis on visual art, I don’t feel left out at all because of my low vision.  I highly recommend visiting!

 

How Do People with Low Vision… Use the Bus System?


Like a lot of students, I didn’t bring a car with me to college.  Unlike a lot of students, I didn’t bring a car because I have low vision and use a blindness cane to travel around.  Needless to say, I won’t be getting anywhere close to being behind the wheel of a car, so I have learned to master the public transportation available to me through my college and the city bus system.  Here are some techniques and applications that have helped me in learning to travel around my city.  Note that this post does not cover using the Metro, as that is for another day.

Bus fare

All public transportation affiliated with my college is free for students, and the college also has an agreement with the county that allows students to ride for free if they show their student ID.  Some counties also offer free or reduced fare for riders with disabilities.  For example, the MetroBus system in Washington, DC, allows people with disabilities to apply for getting reduced fare, though a doctor’s note is required.

Get on the right bus

The buses I ride on announce their location and the name of the line they are on- for example, blue line to shopping center.  I also check with the driver when I get on the bus to confirm where we are going.

Make friends with the bus drivers

I have gotten to know many of the drivers that work at my college, and they are awesome people!  Often times, they will wait for me if I’m not at the bus stop on time, and help me figure out where I am going if I’m unsure.  I’ve also had many awesome conversations with them about low vision and disability life.

NextBus

Some bus systems use the app NextBus, or something similar.  This app allows the user to track when a bus will be arriving, and adjusts for traffic delays as well.  My college uses this system for tracking their different buses, and the text enlarges well on my Android phone.

Phone numbers for transportation

I keep the following numbers in my phone in case there is an issue with transportation:

  • College transportation office- For checking bus arrival or other issues related to college buses
  • Bus company- in case it is after hours for the office or a bus is not tracking on NextBus
  • City transportation office- for assistance in locating bus or for transportation resources
  • Next stop checker- type in the bus stop number and hear when the bus will be arriving

Google Maps

Google Maps can provide directions to many locations via bus.  One of my favorite features is that once I am sitting on the bus, the app will show the bus moving on a map and let me know exactly when to get off.  In addition, it also shows a countdown to when the bus will be arriving at another stop.

Managing blindness cane

If I am riding on a bus affiliated with my college, I will collapse my cane and rest it in my lap.  If I am riding on any other bus, I will keep my cane upright, holding onto the grip of it.  This is a cue for the other riders and driver that I am visually impaired.

Orientation and Mobility

I did not receive any orientation and mobility (o&m) training for using the bus system, though it is available through the transportation offices or state department for the blind and visually impaired.  It isn’t just for the totally blind, either.  For sighted students who have difficulty using the bus system, some colleges may offer a seminar on how to use the bus system.

Where to go?

I mapped out a lot of the common places I frequent in the community, along with what buses to take.  For example, I wrote on my phone that I take the G bus to Target, the name of the shopping center I get off at, how long it takes to get there, how often the bus stops there, and what times usually work best.  I also write down the first and last time the bus departs from these locations.  The first couple of times I used the bus system, I took a friend with me, but now I am fairly confident navigating on my own for most places.

Places I recommend mapping out

Some of the places I recommend mapping out:

  • Pharmacy
  • Target/Walmart
  • Mall
  • Grocery store
  • Post office
  • Library
  • LensCrafters/other optician
  • Local restaurants (bonus if they have student discounts!)
  • Common student hangouts

 

I’ve been very grateful to live in an area with lots of public transportation options available.  One of the things I looked for when researching colleges was how easy it was to get off campus, and my school makes it very easy for students to travel around (for more on navigating campus, click here).  After all, no one wants to be stuck on campus or trying to figure out how to walk somewhere that’s two miles away.

How Do People With Low Vision…Go To Museums?


Being just a short Metro ride away from the Smithsonian, I have been able to go to many different museums with my friends.  My two favorite Smithsonian museums are the Natural History and the American Art museums.  People who don’t know me well are often surprised that I love those museums so much, because they are so heavy on visuals.  However, I have found many ways to enjoy those and other museums in the area, and learned a lot by volunteering at another museum in my hometown.  Here are some of the things I have learned.

Go with a friend

It’s far more fun to travel with a friend than it is to travel alone.  I tend to use human guides in addition to my blindness cane when traveling because it’s helpful to have an extra pair of eyes with me.  Some things my human guides do include reading signs, letting me know where exhibit boundaries are, and locating items such as elevators and stairs.

Ask for a large print guide

At the Smithsonian, all museums have a book in large print and Braille of all the signs in the museum.  Some museums may have a heavy book with every sign throughout the museum, and others might have smaller guides for that particular exhibit hanging on the wall.  Other museums may have Braille on their signs or high contrast labels- the museum I volunteer at back in my hometown has labels for all exhibits at a font size of 36, so large print is not necessary.

IMG_20170203_160513033 (2).jpg
Example of museum guide for traveling exhibit

Disability-specific museum tours

The National Portrait Gallery offers specific tours for people who are blind or that have low vision at least once a month.  The art is available on high resolution digital images and an interpreter helps guide the visitors around the museum.  Check to see if the museum has specific tours for people with low vision, or can give access to high resolution digital images.

Flashing lights or loud noises?

If this is a concern, ask if there are any exhibits that have a high amount of strobe or flashing lights or loud noises when you arrive.  If the front desk does not know, maintenance would be a good resource as well, since they often spend lots of time in these exhibits. When I volunteered at a sensory-friendly event, I warned parents of guests with sensory integration about some hidden buttons in exhibits that made loud animal noises, another machine that made loud croaking noises, and a light that was temporarily flickering in another exhibit.

IMAX/Museum Shows

Because I have no depth perception, I find IMAX shows to be weird because I can’t wear the 3D glasses.  However, many museums offer descriptive audio devices that can describe what is on screen without obscuring other dialogue.  These devices should be requested when tickets are purchased, and some may require a safety deposit.

Interactive exhibits

When going to exhibits where visitors can touch objects, it helps to specify that a visitor has low vision.  When I went to a museum where staff were throwing around an inflatable Earth, I didn’t realize what direction it was going in, and it hit me in the face.  Staff can help by describing items thoroughly before offering it to a visitor to touch, and also warning them of any sharp sides there might be.  If it is a live animal display, ask before grabbing the person’s hand, and then move their hand in the appropriate area.

Audio tours

Often free, museums offer audio tours that describe items around the museum from a certain perspective- for example, Civil War history.  These can be a great addition to other accessible materials, and often describe the exhibits well enough so that people can close their eyes and imagine what it looks like.

Lost?

I’ve heard friends say that getting lost in a museum is “so romantic,” but as a person with low vision, I find it incredibly terrifying!  In order to help prevent this, get a large print map, if available, from guest services prior to entering the museum.  If all else fails, try and find museum volunteers or staff, and mention that you have low vision.  At the museum I volunteer at, we have had many lost kids and people with disabilities, and as volunteers we are trained to bring them to a central point in the museum, the front desk, and then help them be reunited with their party.

Online tours

Want to go to a museum, but can’t seem to get there?  Or do you want to see high resolution images on your device?  Google Arts and Culture has virtual tours of many famous museums, and high resolution artwork that is easy to enlarge and search for.  Available on iOS and Android, it is an excellent companion when traveling.

With these tips, visitors of all vision levels will be able to enjoy the educational and cultural opportunities that museums provide.