A new way of seeing

How an art historian who went blind has learned to enjoy the city’s museums and galleries — thanks to technology that enhances accessibility for the vision-impaired

  • Kathy Schnapper at the Jim Kempner Fine Art gallery on West 23rd Street. Photo: Ali Pattillo

  • A tour at the Whitney. To facilitate the experience for all visitors, specially-trained docents at museums offer detailed audio depictions of works of art. Photo: Ali Pattillo

  • Kathy Schnapper relies heavily on her iPhone, using screen readers, voice technology and apps like Be My Eyes and Aira. Photo: Ali Pattillo

“The brain fills in what the eye cannot see.”

Art historian Kathy Schnapper

Before you see her, you hear her. Her metal cane, swinging left to right to detect hazards in her path, clicks against the pavement. She pushes open the heavy wooden door and strides confidently onto the gallery patio, where an enormous bronze sculpture, an eight-foot rendering of a portion of Michelangelo’s “David,” lies on a slab of white marble.

“Is that a head?” she asks, bending left to make out the figure.

At 70, Kathy Schnapper is short, with graying shoulder-length hair. She wears tinted pink sunglasses, a black coat and a printed scarf around her neck. Her left eye squints towards the sun while her right droops. Every so often, she giggles when she bumps into something.

New York State has 110,000 legally blind non-institutionalized people like Schnapper, according to estimates from the state Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired; nearly 1 million have vision disabilities.

Losing one’s sight not only makes daily life more difficult, but can also limit access to the arts, performances, sports events and concerts. For three decades, blind art-lovers like Schnapper have lobbied for increased access and more fulfilling arts experiences. In response, museums are harnessing technology to accommodate the blind community’s needs, creating innovative sensory supplements to visual art.

With accommodations, Schnapper and thousands of other blind New Yorkers have found new ways to enjoy art. New York museums and performance centers have led the way in accommodating blind visitors.

“It’s hard for me to explain my love for the arts, because for me it’s like breathing,” Schnapper says, sitting in her rent-controlled Chelsea apartment. “That’s what I did with my friends, although I often went to museums alone,” before losing her sight fully in 2016. “That was the rhythm of my life. If I wasn’t going to go to galleries or museums, well, what am I going to do?”

Schnapper spent her life roaming the great New York City museums. At nine, she rode the subway from Brooklyn to the Natural History Museum or the Metropolitan, marveling at ancient Egyptian artifacts and Old Masters. After school, she took drawing and painting classes in Brooklyn, along with ballet.

She grew up to become a historian and curator of 17th century Italian art. For more than 50 years, she spent most days staring at masterpieces by Picasso or Caravaggio, teaching at The Pratt Institute and Rutgers University, curating exhibits and poring over historical documents.

Art was her life. Then she went blind.

“I was starting to lose it 17 years ago but I lost it very rapidly two years ago,” Schnapper says. “I literally woke up one morning and I couldn’t see anything.”

Difficult Adjustment

Schnapper hypothesizes that Type 1 diabetes-related retinopathy, or even a stroke, may have led to her blindness, but she has gotten few definitive answers from medical providers. She also has cataracts, which grew dense very rapidly, she says. Eye surgery did not improve her condition, as she’d expected; in fact, it further damaged her cornea.

“There’s almost this fantasy that people who go blind suddenly get superpowers — they can hear better and smell better and touch better,” Schnapper says. “On the contrary: all the other senses get confused if you lose your vision.”

At first, she found the adjustment very difficult. “There were three or four days of abject terror when I did not go out of the house,” she recalls. In those first few weeks, she grew disoriented simply walking around her apartment.

“Could I make a meal for myself? What could I do? My mother lived in Florida; was I never going to see my mother again?” Schnapper wondered. “I sat down with myself and said, ‘I’m either going to end up in some kind of nursing home or I’m going to end up having a home attendant sitting in my apartment.’”

She avoided both situations, perhaps because she was inspired by her mother and grandparents. “They were very independent. I knew I had to be independent,” Schnapper says.

Over the past two years, she has regained some vision; she can see some shadows and points of light with her left eye. Now, her sight fluctuates day to day.

Like others with limited vision, Schnapper has had to develop ways to navigate the world, down to the most basic tasks. She took mobility training and learned assistive technology from organizations like the state Commission for the Blind, Heiskell Library for the Blind and Baruch College’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People.

Schnapper relies heavily on her iPhone, using screen readers, voice technology and apps like Be My Eyes and Aira to accommodate challenges like lighting her stove, putting outfits together or orienting herself in unfamiliar neighborhoods.

She has also felt the need to return to museums, even as she wondered, “Why am I feeling this need to stand in front of something I can’t see at all? ... Why do I feel I have to come to this place?”

Museum accessibility staff often hear similar questions.

The answer is that a museum “is inherently a human experience, which is the power of storytelling, the power of creation,” says Ruth Starr, coordinator of accessibility, inclusion, and public programs at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

“Playfulness with the Format”

To facilitate the arts experience for all visitors, including the blind, museums and performance spaces use verbal description, touch objects and assistive technology.

“It’s exhilarating to stay close to the things I love the best, and frustrating that I struggle to piece out each detail,” Schnapper says.

Verbal description entails tours in which specially-trained docents offer detailed audio depictions of works of art. Guides highlight details which the average viewer might zoom over — like the texture of a fabric or the exact color of a painted sky. A study from the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed that museum visitors spend an average of 27.2 seconds on a work of art. Verbal description takes much longer, at least eight to 10 minutes, but provides critical context for the blind.

Touch objects, often derived from material samples or small-scale models of an artwork, can be as basic as puff paint on a sheet of cardstock or as elaborate as the tutus used by New York City Ballet dancers.

“Having a playfulness with the format, where when we’re able to incorporate touch and tactility or smell and other senses with our tours, there is a translation that happens,” Starr says.

Assistive technology, headsets and experiential exhibits also improve the experience for the blind. Artists and curatorial staff have gotten more creative, designing exhibits which involve smell, sound and touch, like 2013’s “Rain Room” at MOMA. The immersive “environment room” featured falling water that paused wherever a person was detected, demonstrated that multi-sensory art experiences are fulfilling for sighted and partially-sighted audiences alike.

“I think the primary reason why folks who are blind or low-vision don’t come to museums is because they think there won’t be anything there for them; that it will be boring, that it will feel sterile and isolating,” says Chancey Fleet, assistive technology coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library at New York Public Library.

Madison Zalopany, coordinator of access and community programs at the Whitney Museum, calls awareness the first step. “It’s about saying, ‘Hey, by the way, this is inaccessible to people and you’re leaving a lot of people out.’” Then come practical considerations — including institutional fear of change, Zalopany says. “How much is this going to cost? Do we have the capacity to do this? Do we have enough staff?”

But Alison Mahoney, manager of accessibility at Lincoln Center, says most accommodations are affordable. Artists themselves donate many touch objects, often material samples.

Schnapper still roams the halls of MOMA, the Met, the Whitney, the Cooper Hewitt and the Rubin. She visits galleries all over Chelsea and attends multiple shows, workshops and lectures weekly.

“Whether it’s music or dance or theater, great art invites you to come back,” Schnapper says. “Sometimes that’s the way you know something is great art, because each time you come back, you get more out of it.”

When she looks up at a piece of art or experiences a performance, Schnapper explains, “The brain fills in what the eye cannot see.”

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