When Trish Maunder and Katherine Allen of Philly Touch Tours (PTT) give trainings about welcoming people who are blind or have low vision to museums and other institutions, they get one thing out of the way up front.
“When we do our trainings, the biggest revelation is you can say ‘look’ and ‘see’ to a blind person!” Maunder says. She loves busting myths about disability. Don’t be afraid to say, “Nice to see you” to someone who’s blind, Allen agrees. And the whole conversation opens after that.
“Be mindful and polite,” Allen says. “And to use a technical term, just don’t be so weird.”
Maunder, who started her career as an art educator in her native England, was not always a disability advocate.
“I hadn’t thought terribly much about people with vision loss until I had given birth to a child who was blind,” she says. She went on to found two organizations in England to support blind people and their families. Then her husband got a new job in the US, and their family moved here in 1994.
Maunder stepped back from her larger-scale advocacy work for several years as she got her daughter settled in the US school and health system. But she eventually went back to school, earning a master’s from the University of the Arts, and she felt the pull toward working with the blind and low-vision community again. She developed a touch exhibit with UArts colleagues that generated a lot of buzz, and traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 2012, she began working with the Penn Museum as a touch-tour consultant for a totally new program, and that work led to co-founding Philly Touch Tours with Austin Seraphin in 2014. Today, PTT still works with the Penn Museum, and offers a wide range of tours, accessibility training, and assessments.
Allen didn’t start out in the accessibility world, either. The St. Louis native lived in New York City for most of her life, and worked for a major publisher.
Due to a medical condition, “I lost my central vision in 1991,” she says. “I had just gotten this job and didn’t know about the ADA,” she remembers (the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990). She still had peripheral vision, but “I was an art director and I was so freaked out that I was going to lose my job.”
Only a few people know about her vision loss. She always carried a magnifying glass, and using an early Mac helped, since Apple computers were on the cutting edge of accessibility features. She could navigate well in New York. After a layoff at the publisher, Allen began working for Apple in 2009 in the accessibility training realm, and moved to Philly in 2012, where she worked as an art consultant for accessibility.
Maunder and Allen met at an accessibility conference in 2015, when Allen recognized Seraphin, sitting with Maunder, and introduced herself. In a glaring failure of real-world accessibility, the conference didn’t offer any materials for blind attendees.
“You talk a good game, but who’s actually doing something?” Allen thought. It’s a driving force of PTT, with cofounder Maunder as creative director, and Allen as program director.
Especially after the 25th anniversary of the ADA a few years ago, the pair says, we’ve gotten a surge in awareness and action about accessibility (of course the 1990 law, in practice, did not immediately solve the huge gaps in access US residents with disabilities experience). People tend to be most aware of disability as it relates to mobility (accommodating wheelchair-users, for instance), though programs that cover everything from PTSD to autism are becoming common, too. However, accessibility for folks who are blind or have low vision has been slower to arrive.
Both Allen and Maunder call blindness one of the most “isolating” disabilities, especially for suburban dwellers who rely on inconsistent transport services to leave their homes.
And people look on blindness with a high degree of fear, Maunder adds. For able-bodied sighted people, if you ask, “What’s your worst fear in a disability?” they’ll usually answer “going blind.”
“And yet people go blind and lose their vision and navigate the world every day and it’s not the worst thing for them,” Maunder says. They’re worried about the same things anyone else is: friends, career, love.
Navigating people’s fears was hard for Maunder when her daughter was young. Strangers would notice her child’s physical differences and “flinch.” But her philosophy is “if something doesn’t feel right, you just explain it.” When people stared, she and her daughter would often invite them over, shake their hands, and “break the barrier.” Maunder wouldn’t do it every time, “but we’ve done it hundreds of times.”
“It’s hard work when you’re disabled or the parent of a disabled person, because you have to become an advocate,” Maunder goes on. “You don’t have to, but it’s better if you do, because then you don’t feel the pain; you feel the power.”
And it’s a power anyone could need at any time—as Maunder and Allen both point out, folks with disabilities belong to the only marginalized group that anyone can join at any time, due to an accident, illness, or injury.
Besides offering immersive touch tours including the Penn Museum and the Italian Market specially geared to people who are blind or have low vision, PTT conducts a wide range of accessibility trainings and site assessments for arts and culture institutions and businesses.
“Nothing about us without us,” Allen says, which is why people of various visual acuities always participate in PTT site assessments.
Institutions tend to think of programming when they think of accessibility, but PTT starts at the very beginning. Does your entrance allow everyone to orient themselves, including getting to the visitor desk, the bathrooms, a map, or the gift shop? Are the staff properly prepared to assist—and not just on entrance, but on exiting the building safely as well? Features like a tactile map or a 3D print of the building at the entrance can make a big difference.
Touch tours at the Penn Museum offer a wide range of experiences both in the classroom and the galleries, with a mix of hands-on experiences of real artifacts and artist-rendered replicas of objects like mummies and scaled-down statues. Tours of the Italian Market are an immersive experience anyone could enjoy, but that is specially geared to blind people. Vendors welcome tour-goers with the history of the shops and visual descriptions, and guests smell, taste, and feel their surroundings, including the heft of a giant cheese wheel or a slab of fresh pasta.
And that’s part of the power of accessibility, Maunder and Allen say. It’s not a niche. Multi-sensory, interdisciplinary, hands-on learning enhances everyone’s experience, regardless of ability: think of looking at a giant battlefield painting, versus actually walking its length.
And even folks with vision loss need to remember how to learn through touch, Allen points out, demonstrating by touching a tabletop with the tip of her finger, and then her whole hand.
“Touch itself is the mother sense,” Maunder says. It sustains us in infancy and childhood, but “as we get older, we get pushed away from it. Even in the store, we go, ‘don’t touch! Don’t touch!’ And it’s reinforced again in museums.” Getting reconnected to learning through touch is a rewarding process for anyone. Habits like that can let sighted people “relearn the world around you,” Maunder explains. “Seeing is believing, but when you touch, you know, because it’s your body that knows.”
The bottom line in accessibility—for everyone—is not to make assumptions.
“People make assumptions about me being English all the time,” Maunder laughs. “Do you know how many people have asked if I’ve met the Queen? It’s unbelievable.”
Don’t assume blindness is a negative experience. Don’t assume you know other people’s abilities and needs. Don’t be afraid to engage in an affirmative way.
As Allen puts it, “the correct thing still is to say, how can I best help you?”
For more info on Philly Touch Tours, visit on Facebook or call (609) 760-8223.
Lead photo: Ten people gather around the long wooden counter at 9th Street Coffee & Tea. Jake, behind the counter in a white shirt, tells the group about his company.