Accessible tourism in Toronto

The AGO offers tactile tours, where people may touch selected art pieces.

The AGO offers tactile tours, where people may touch selected art pieces.

It seems not that long ago that John Rae fought for accessible voting machines and for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to call out stops, but Toronto has come a long way to overcome inaccessibility. We now have audible pedestrian signals, tactile floors on subways and tactile and audio books in libraries among other things. Even entertainment is becoming more accessible.

“A gentleman called and asked, ‘Do you have any tactile tours?’ and I said, ‘No, but we should,’” says Doris Van Den Brekel, the AGO’s coordinator gallery guides and special access programs, recalling how the multi-sensory program at the AGO was started.

Accessibility is no longer just about installing a ramp. Some Toronto attractions now offer multi-sensory and tactile tours led by trained tour guides who explain the art piece being viewed, its history, how it’s made and of what materials among other things. Visitors may even touch sculptures, artifacts or tactile reproductions at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) or Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

“These multi-sensory tours are opening up a door,” says Alexandra Korinowsky, communications specialist at the Canadian National Institution for the Blind (CNIB). “To experience art by utilizing different senses and different approaches, it doesn’t all have to be through eye sight to experience art; it’s a tremendous advancement for the city’s cultural scene in terms of being open and putting emphasis on accessibility.”

Korinowsky says the CNIB was not part of developing these programs, but some organizations, such as the AGO, asked for their feedback to see how these programs can be designed so a person who is blind or partially sighted may get the most out of the experience.

The AGO doesn’t have Braille or audio guides because the multi-sensory tours are a more effective way to create a personal connection and relationship, says Van Den Brekel.

The guides spend time with each visitor individually and customize each tour to the visitors’ needs.

“We take our cues based on the reaction and feedback of the visitors and we adapt the tour to their needs and interests,” says Gloria Temkin, a multi-sensory guide at the AGO.

Before going into the European Salon, visitors are given gloves so they may touch the sculptures without damaging them. The tour guide describes the room’s dimensions, its high ceilings, the colour of the walls, the room’s temperature and how the art is hung on the walls.

“You can feel every bone, every muscle. You can feel the pose, it gives you a really good idea of what’s going on,” says Leanne Cornell, independent living specialist at CNIB, describing her experience touching Auguste Rodin’s bronze Adam sculpture.

Visitors are not only given the history of the art and physical descriptions of it, but often the tour guides will narrate a story to contextualize and help imagine the art piece. Visitors are also asked to pose as the people in painting or sculptures to give them a better idea of what they are experiencing.

The tour guides bring props with them to better describe the paintings.

“To supplement some of the scenes, when the Maharaja exhibit was on, they had the fabrics from some of the costumes, some of the buttons, some of the jewellery, the bangles some of the women would have worn,” Cornell says.

Cornell adds that the CNIB clients were the first ones to try out the gallery’s multi-sensory tours and that it’s been a hit every time with clients of all ages.

Multi-sensory tours are offered at the AGO on the first Thursday and Sunday of every month, but tours for other dates can be arranged in advance. The tours are available to the general public as well, and are free with admission.

Another institution that offers tour for the visually impaired is the ROM.

Tactile tours are offered every third Thursday of the month, by registration only. They are one hour long and feature certain exhibits or collections. Visitors may explore objects through touch. The tours are supplemented with tactile booklets that feature Braille and raised-line drawings as well as large print and full colour photographs.

“Sometimes people think, ‘well, it’s accessible by touch so as long as they can touch, they get access,’” says Johanna Contreras, the ROM’s access program manager.

She adds that blindness is a broad spectrum incorporating people with different vision needs, and so the ROM offers not just tactile tours, but many different programs.

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“We create a tour around artifacts that are considered by curators and preservation experts to be robust enough to be touched,” Contreras says, adding that they also give descriptive narrations for visitors.

The ROM works closely with the CNIB to create experiences for people of different ages and to make sure the programs they provide are appropriate for the age group and meets the needs and interests of the visitors, Contreras says.

Also offered are self-guided tours that include tactile reproductions of the museum’s iconic pieces and an audio tour that describes 43 of the most representative artifacts in the museum’s collections. The reproductions are mounted in stands labeled in Braille in English and French and in large print and raised font labels.

“We provide sensory experience not just in touch, but as you explore these artifacts, the audio describes them and also tells the story behind them,” Contreras says.

Contreras adds that the reproductions are carefully crafted by the in house artists at the ROM not only as a representation of the real artifact, but certain select features have been enhanced to better explain the significance of those features for the real artifact.

“For our Luohan Buddha, it’s a smiling Buddha, with really long ears,” she says. “So in the reproductions, the ears are enhanced to be a bit longer so that the person can feel that this is something really important about the artifact,” she explains, adding that the ears distinguish this Buddha sculpture from others.

As for the audio tours, visitors can borrow an iPod from the ROM for free or can go online and download the files with the descriptive narration onto their listening devices from the ROM’s website.

The Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibition offers 12 large scale touchables. In addition, 17 highlighted dinosaurs come with Braille, raised line drawings and large print. To put into perspective the size of the dinosaurs, the raised line drawings of dinosaurs are next to raised line drawings of an adult and a child.

“But these isolated opportunities for touch don’t give you the full background, concept and history of the exhibition,” Contreras says. “So what we did this time, we made accessible not only the systemically highlighted pieces of the exhibition, but also the overview panels that are going to allow you to have enough background information to put pieces together,” she says, adding that in addition to all this, there is also the audio description that goes over the entire exhibition including each highlighted piece and each touchable piece.

Touchable pieces come in all sizes:  small pieces, such as teeth and claws of dinosaurs, and larger pieces, such as full legs and feet, complete with claws of dinosaurs.


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