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This happens all of the time. I get all set to send in a column for Legacy and then my new issue arrives and something in it sets me off in another direction. The trigger this time is Roger Riolo's excellent article on using a multisensory approach in interpretation. Roger's article, and its focus on visual processing, reminded me of something I am dealing with today as both a university faculty member and a museum curator. I am fully sighted with no visual limitations and one of my greatest challenges professionally was learning to consider and accommodate those who are not. What happens when vision is compromised?

The first time I ever had to deal with someone else's vision issues was way back in another one of my lives, as a flight instructor. For new pilots, the most difficult aspect of flying an airplane is landing it. Everything else is, as they say, easy peasy, at least by comparison that is. Landing a plane is a multisensory operation. It is part kinesthesia, or as pilots call it, "the seat of the pants" feeling. Gravity and other forces tugging on our bodies, the feel of the controls, and our balance systems, in concert with vision, tell a pilot what is going on with the airplane at all times. It is called flight by visual reference but it is so much more than that. And landing is the biggie. In executing a landing, vision becomes even more important. A pilot uses both kinesthesia and binocular vision-depth perception--to guide control inputs in those last few feet when the craft transitions from air to ground.

My awakening came one day when I got a new student pilot. He had sight in only one eye. No binocular vision. I had no clue how to land an airplane by visual reference without depth perception. A fellow instructor spent some time with me in one of our airplanes while I made several landings wearing an eye patch. I figured it out, and that student did solo, but it was a revelation, and a lesson I never forgot. It was when I realized that educators will have students who cannot avail themselves of all learning modes and it is up to the educator, teacher, interpreter to find ways to accommodate for that. Landing a plane is more skill based than cognitive but I believe the point is still valid--we do not all carry the same tool bag.

Over the years, as both a formal and nonformal educator, I have run into other challenges in making things accessible to people with visual, or other, impairments, not the least of which is complete blindness. The list includes other physical challenges as well as learning disabilities. And that brings me to my point here. It seems to me that despite all of our advances in making the world more accessible for our fellow humans who may have one or more special needs, it is not uncommon to find that in the planning of interpretive or other educational experiences they are poorly accommodated or not at all. And that brings me back to today.

The museum where I am curator is a museum of education history. Consequently, the bulk of our holdings consist of books and other printed materials. We also have an educational technology collection, which includes prototype and early production Braille writers, and a reconstructed one-room school. Last spring we embarked on a major renovation with a redecorated space, new library shelving, new exhibit cases, and new exhibits. All well and good, but until recently, all of the physical layout and the exhibit planning have been centered on accommodating mobility issues and nothing else. Recently, a graduate student working for the museum suggested that we create some displays for the visually impaired. It was what is usually referred to as a "duh" moment. Why? Perhaps because the college in which I teach, and in which the museum is housed, is also home to one of the preeminent vision programs in the country. For decades that program has been preparing educators who are able to meet the needs of learners, from children to adults, with all sorts of visual impairments and yet there has been absolutely no representation of that in a museum dedicated to educational innovations. Not only has the museum been ignoring part of its audience, it has been failing to tap into a superb resource.

It is necessary to talk about using a multisensory approach in designing interpretation; it makes great educational sense, but what do you do when some of your audience may not be able to avail themselves of one or more of those input modes? I am beginning to work on some new exhibits. What are you doing?

Bob Carter teaches outdoor and environmental education, interpretation, and museum studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. He has been an NAI member since 1989, is a Certified Interpretive Trainer, and is NAI Region 5 director. Contact him at
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVE
Author:Carter, Bob
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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