Hi everyone! Just to give you some tidbits about this newcomer: I’m Tan Jia-Li, a permanently disheveled Education and Community Programs intern from Carleton College who’s working extensively with tours and accessibility this summer. I’m currently majoring in art and like to talk about food far too much.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to spend this post extolling the virtues of a good steak. Instead, let me just tell you about two fantastic things that the Walker Art Center has planned. First of all, the English and Spanish scripts to the Art-On-Call audio tours will be made available for the Guillermo Kuitca: Everything exhibition! If you would like one, just head over to the Bazinet lobby desk and ask. Secondly, we will be offering at least one ASL-interpreted public tour per month.
Why these endeavors? Because the world of the Walker is brimming with priceless learning opportunities, and they should be accessible to all.
But good intentions executed ignorantly can seriously backfire. Something hits the fan – it’s usually not a fly. Since the Walker has every intention of making sure this doesn’t happen, we held a workshop recently teaching our tour guides how to work with ASL interpreters and Deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons on the 16th of June. The invited speakers were Teika Pakalns, an art lover who is Deaf and also serves on the Walker’s Accessibility Advisory group, and Darlene Snelson, a professional ASL interpreter who has work experience with numerous art museums. Interpreting for Teika was Cori Giles.
As I silently swore at my malfunctioning laptop just a few minutes before 6 p.m., I realized I wasn’t too sure of what to expect of the event. Would the presentation strike a good compromise between illustrating the needs of Deaf patrons and addressing the concerns of the tour guides themselves? Would the speakers provide insights on Deaf culture in ways that summarize without overly homogenizing? And most importantly, would the Twins’ game create enough traffic problems to completely decimate our attendance?
What ensued was truly impressive. For one thing, many people showed up (and in surprisingly good moods). Better still; the speakers allayed all my initial doubts. The concerns of the interpreter, tour guide and patrons were each given sufficient attention, and questions from the floor were both welcomed and answered clearly. Teika’s overview of Deaf culture was concise but extremely pertinent. She dispelled commonly-held assumptions about ASL, stating that it is native to the United States and possesses its own grammatical structure and vocabulary that is unique from those belonging to English. Additionally, there are many different kinds of sign language and some Deaf people prefer to use their voices instead. Not forgetting to emphasize the sheer diversity of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, Teika took care to discourage guides from changing the content and presentation of the tour based on preconceived notions of their abilities.
“Don’t infantilize. Talk to them as you would to those possessing normal hearing abilities. There are deaf people who’re very knowledgeable about art.” Teika said, stressing that being Deaf has nothing to do with one’s capability of appreciating art in a sophisticated manner. She added that guides should address Deaf patrons directly instead of asking the interpreter to pass on information, since the interpreter serves more as a verbal conduit than an active messenger.
Shifting attention to more specific details of the tours’ execution, Darlene talked about the ways guides should cater to Deaf patrons’ heavy reliance on visual information while keeping the interpreter’s personal constraints in mind. Maintaining clear sight lines is highly recommended; walking while talking is not so. The workshop also explored the idea of introducing interpreted lectures, discussions and art lab sessions, heavily aided by Teika’s outline of group interaction etiquette. Darlene underlined the importance of cooperation between tour guide and interpreter, suggesting that the two meet for a brief discussion prior to each tour.
In one of the Q&A sessions, a guide mentioned that some of the Walker exhibits contain musical elements. How would an interpreter translate any related information? Should they even be included in the tour? Teika’s response was thought-provoking and beautiful. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to note it down verbatim, but hopefully my paraphrase does justice to what she said:
Some Deaf people will participate in music in unique ways and there are Deaf people who can still appreciate music. In fact, sign language is quite well-suited to describing music in certain ways. You have the combination of the visual and the audio, which makes for an entirely new art form. So yes, go ahead and include them.
Now, a confession: my attention span isn’t too good with evenings. At around 6:30 pm, it resignedly throws its hands in the air and goes out for a drink. But everything about this event gripped me to the core. During the workshop I recalled how most of my home city Kuala Lumpur’s museum and gallery tours aren’t ASL-interpreted, leaving the Deaf or hard-of-hearing to rely on what little information the brochures and gallery label descriptions have to offer. It is a sad and frustrating thought: this particular audience has been and still is being excluded from a world that should rightfully be open to all. So you can probably imagine why this workshop not only gives me a better idea of the Walker’s accessibility-related efforts but also valuable inspiration which, in more ways than one, hits rather close to home.