November 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 6

Access Issues

Sounds of Science

Museums have not traditionally been friendly, accessible places for people who are blind or have low vision. Exhibits are often behind glass; even when they aren't, they can't be touched; descriptive information is generally not provided in accessible formats; and lighting is not designed with people with visual impairments in mind.

The New York Hall of Science, located in Corona Park, Queens, New York, is different. It is a hands-on science museum that is designed to improve people's understanding of science and technology through exhibits, programs, and various media. Its mission is "to convey the excitement and understanding of science and technology to children, families, teachers, and others by galvanizing their curiosity and offering them creative, participatory ways to learn." It accomplishes this mission by offering 200 exhibits, including these:

  • Marvelous Molecules: The Secret of Life, which explores the shared chemistry of all living things, using over two dozen hands-on exhibits
  • Seeing the Light, which allows visitors to examine and experiment with the properties of color, light, and the mysterious mechanisms of human perception
  • SoundSensations: The Inside Story of Audio, which takes the mystery out of understanding common audio wonders like compact disks and tape recorders
  • Realm of the Atom, which presents an innovative approach to the "quantum theory" of how individual atoms behave
  • Hidden Kingdoms: The World of Microbes, which focuses on the millions of microorganisms, the smallest creatures on earth, and how they affect our health and our environment

I remember visiting the Hall of Science on school trips and having sighted classmates and teachers try to explain exhibits to me. This could be a frustrating experience for all involved. Visitors now have other options.

Figure 1: Photograph of woman with a long cane listening to audio tour phone and reaching into a box under a hands-on display showing a model of molecules and photographs of fruit.

Caption: The hands-on Marvelous Molecules exhibit. A hidden odor molecule inside the box is compared by touch to the molecules on display on the outside.

(Credit: Dominick Totino/New York Hall of Science)

Listening to Sound Science

The Hall of Science first offered an audio tour on tape. About a year ago, it began offering a more flexible audio tour. The audiotaped material was digitized and transferred to a solid-state unit that resembles an elongated cordless phone. Each exhibit is labeled with a number in braille and raised large-print letters. Braille instructions are available to get you started. The phones are available at the museum's information desk. A staff member or volunteer greets every busload of students when they arrive and provides an orientation that includes mention of the audio tours.

When you arrive at an exhibit, you read the label posted there, punch the exhibit number into the phone, and listen to a description of the item being shown. For example, typing in the appropriate number produces a comprehensive, compelling description of an amoeba and its lifestyle, as depicted on a slide under a microscope for sighted visitors to see. The descriptions are clear and easy to understand and provide information that is not included in the exhibit's signage. The current device provides a total of about four hours of content.

The major element that is missing from the current system is navigation; a visitor who is blind still needs assistance to get from one exhibit to another. To alleviate this problem, the Hall of Science is testing a new system, called Ping, which was designed by Touch Graphics of New York City. The Ping system is cell-phone-based, so museum visitors will be able to use their own cell phones, rather than have to learn to use an unfamiliar device. All the audio in the current system will be transferred to the new system, and the museum's staff will be able to change messages easily whenever exhibits change or new exhibits are added.

Once the Ping system is fully operational, museum visitors will will be notified of its existence when they arrive and gain access to it by calling a toll-free number. The system will include a help function, and visitors will be able to dial zero to speak to a live person. Each visitor will select a unique sound to use for navigation. When I tested the system, there were about 10 short sounds to choose from, including a bird chirp and a bell. Wireless speakers or beacons will be installed throughout the museum to play the sounds.

To go from point A to point B, you will dial the toll-free number, receive aural instruction on using the system, select a sound, tell the system where you are and select a destination from a menu. Then, when you press a button on your cell phone, your unique sound will be played by the beacon that is the closest to your starting point on the route to your destination. So, to navigate from the museum entrance [to the Realm of the Atom exhibit, you will press 1 on your cell phone to instruct the system to play your sound through beacon 1, listen for your sound, and walk toward its source. You will be able to press 1 repeatedly. Once you reach the first beacon, you press 2 to play your sound from the second beacon along your route. You will repeat the process until you reach your destination.

Navigating the Noise

The Ping system's navigation method is clever. However, much more testing is needed before the system can be implemented. The museum environment is noisy—on the day I visited, there were 400 enthusiastic, boisterous day campers in attendance. In addition, the museum staff make many announcements over a public address system to draw visitors' attention to various events that are scheduled throughout the day. It can be difficult to locate and follow a particular sound in the cacophony. It is also necessary to navigate among other visitors and around the exhibits. A variety of people with visual impairments should be included in the testing, including people with a range of orientation and mobility skills, people with hearing impairments, and children. A wider range of sounds is definitely needed so that people can choose those with which they are comfortable.

Figure 2: Photograph of two women with long canes, one listening at the open end of a tube that is part of a bank of a number of clear, curved tubes and one watching.

Caption: Listening to the SoundSensations exhibit.

(Credit: Dominick Totino/New York Hall of Science)

Hall of Science director Alan Friedman was gracious with his time and clearly stated his staff's commitment to making the museum exhibits accessible to all visitors. They are already leaders in museum accessibility, and other museum officials should take note of what is happening at the Hall of Science and replicate it elsewhere.

For more information, contact Tina Loncaric, New York Hall of Science; phone: 718-699-0005, ext. 342; e-mail: <>.

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