A Diverse Take on Common Touch: How Adapted Tours Help Visitors with Disabilities Access the Exhibition
Angela Wang, Program Coordinator, Art-Reach

Common Touch is an unusual exhibition because it was designed to be touched. Touch is often neglected when vision is so dominant in our culture. Needless to say, the exhibition derives much of its touch concept  from the history of the blind. Here, something is shared regardless of sight — the experience of touch, the contact with physical objects dominates.

For thirty years, Art-Reach has served as a connector between the cultural sector and the disability and low-income community. Art-Reach is honored to partner with the Library Company to bring a diverse audience to experience this unique exhibition.  As someone who works closely with the disability community, I adapted the tour to draw parallels between it and the exhibition. The goal is to have the audiences walk away with an appreciation and fascination with touch sans sight. There are two versions of the adapted tour. One is designed for visitors who are blind or low vision and the other for visitors on the spectrum of other disabilities.

Touch/verbal description tours are for visitors who are blind and low vision. During these tours, I verbally describe the objects that cannot be touched. These include the artifacts in the glass display cases and colors and shapes in pictures. The verbal description acts more as an augmentation for things that are unable to be touched in this exhibition, which are mostly the notes from artist Teresa Jaynes’s research. For example, while interacting with Gift #2, I will point out and describe the wooden writing frame from across the piece that lends its physicality to the art work.

On August 18th, a group from Salvation Army Developmental Disabilities program in New Castle, Delaware came to the Library Company for a tour that combines tactile experience from the exhibition with interactive activities. During our hour-long interactive tour, the group learned about the history of the blind and how touch and other senses are heightened to fill the gap of the loss of vision. We used our ears to listen, hands to touch, and noses to smell.  I made flashcards that have raised alphabets on them using hot glue. Participants closed their eyes to guess which letter was on their card. We would stand in front of Gift #2 for this exercise, as we drew parallels from the abstract letters of Jennie Partridge, the woman whose writing inspired the piece. As we moved on to Gift #5, Teresa’s interpretation of the life and adventure of English surveyor John Metcalf, we used a tactile “map” and had the participants close their eyes to guess the objects glued on the paper.  These activities helped visitors who have intellectual disabilities better understand Common Touch on a more basic level while not straying away from the concept of the exhibition.

As Art-Reach celebrates its 30th birthday this year, we hope to expand on opportunities like these to bring the full spectrum of society to share the rich cultural experience the city has to offer.