What are Berkshires tourist attractions doing to better accommodate people with varying needs?

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Tanny Labshere can't see Norman Rockwell's paintings, but she knows all about the artist's history and his work.

The Stockbridge woman, who is blind, has been Brailling the namesake museum's biography of Rockwell for the past year, since being enlisted by the museum's curators.

Because of her efforts, the museum now offers labels and descriptions of selected artwork in Braille, a series of six raised dots that allows people who are visually impaired to read with their fingers. The materials are available at the museum's information desk.

"It takes me an hour to do 30 labels," said Labshere, who lives down the road, at the Riverbrook Residence for women with disabilities.

Her labels are designed to provide historical context and a vivid description of the painting for those who might not be able to see it.

"I hope that people who are blind will be able to read the labels and be able to get a better sense of what the artist did," she said.

With tourism season in full swing, dozens of Berkshires cultural institutions have opened their doors to visitors from across the world — including those with disabilities.

As museums, theaters and galleries vie to boost their visitor numbers, accessibility can play an important role. AdLib, a Pittsfield-based organization, works with other agencies and institutions countywide to ensure that people with disabilities can have equal access to places, programs and services.

"I think it's important, because we are becoming more and more of a tourist destination," said Nancy Rumbolt-Trzcinski, AdLib's assistant programs manager.

It's also the law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that museums and other institutions meet specific standards relating to accessibility that provide the institutions guidance and help them open their doors to a wider population.

So, what are tourist attractions in the Berkshires doing to better accommodate people with varying needs?

Efforts range from Brailled information for people who cannot see, to aids for the hard of hearing, to wheelchair ramps to support mobility.

In a document on accessibility, the Massachusetts Cultural Council states: "It is not the person who is disabled, but rather the environment that is disabling."

At a statewide level, the council has done research on accessibility through its Universal Participation Initiative. In part, the council's leaders are looking to understand whether administrators and staff in the state are doing enough to support all residents and visitors at the commonwealth's cultural venues, and how universal accessibility matters.

From the wide, slightly inclined walkway as one goes up to the front entrance, to its sprawling and majestic galleries, the Norman Rockwell Museum presents a cheery, open and welcoming atmosphere to the public. But it has been trying to open its doors wider, so to speak, to ensure access to all.

While some of the art on the walls is behind velvet ropes, the museum features various outdoor sculptures by Peter Rockwell in its campus courtyards and on its lawns that people are able and encouraged to touch, in addition to the Braille materials made by Labshere and audio experiences, which have been available for some time.

At the beginning of the summer, Tom Daly, the museum's curator of education, told The Eagle that five visitors had accessed the Brailled materials. As of this past week, Daly said that number has since doubled, to 10 people.

While that figure is still small, he said, "The feedback has been extraordinary."

'Great promise'

In thinking about other pathways for people to access its collection and programs, the museum team also has worked extensively with people who have learned English as a second language.

"A new initiative that uses the images in our galleries to help ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) residents navigate a new culture holds great promise," said museum spokeswoman Margit Hotchkiss.

The initiative partners museum staff with existing ESOL programs to tailor access to art and information based on students' interests and needs, Daly said.

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"The programs create the language piece," he said. "We provide a place for students and teachers to meet for the workshops and we work closely with the providers."

During one of the workshops he organized for ESOL students, Daly said, two students discovered that they lived only a couple of hours' travel apart when they lived in Vietnam. That workshop helped them connect with each other and become friends, and that's part of what accessibility programs are meant to do, he said.

Accessibility can be used to break down barriers, make connections and give people new experiences that they otherwise might not have.

At Berkshire Theatre Group, which has stages in Pittsfield and Stockbridge, creativity and accessibility of a different kind is fostered. The facilities are ADA-accessible, and their productions are open to all.

"When we're in the show, everybody is equal," said Allison Rachele Bayles, BTG's administrative director of education. "There's no differences."

She noted that students with disabilities have much to offer.

"Whether they're further on the autism spectrum, or they have a visual impairment, or a physical disability, their brains are still thinking," she said, "and they always add to the production."

Disabilities can serve as learning experiences for the community, as well as for the cultural institutions that are required to meet their needs.

"When we're in the exhibition planning stage, I meet with our curators," said Caitlin Tucker-Melvin, the visual arts exhibition manager at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. "We start really early from the jump with our artists talking about the expectations here."

She added: "What I was interested in was, can we, on any given exhibition, build a space, or build an experience that is something all people can access."

Mass MoCA offers many tools to assist people with disabilities. The grounds are accessible with ramps and elevators for people in wheelchairs — their most requested assistive device. The museum has its own fleet of wheelchairs there for people to borrow as needed, whether they have an injury, a disability or a general need for help with mobility as they tour the massive former electric company campus.

The museum also offers stools with handles that can either act as a place to sit or a supportive device. For the deaf or hard-of-hearing community, they offer latex-free balloons to carry, which allows people to feel the vibrations when attending a concert.

"We started a committee about a month and a half ago with a focus around inclusion," said Keifer Gammell, visitor services manager, in early June, "and how Mass MoCA is going to evolve with the times to accommodate needs that we're not familiar with when they arise to us."

Gammell placed emphasis on, "understanding that not one thing is ever going to be perfect, knowing it and owning it. We do our best, but we also understand that we're not perfect."

Accessibility-related issues can always be worked around by talking with people individually and figuring out what works for them.

"It's very difficult, of course, because of the nature of their art, to have it in a tactile format," AdLib's Rumbolt-Trzcinski said of Mass MoCA. "But I've found that they have been very open to suggestions. They've gotten Braille displays in for some of the descriptions on their art."

Regarding future plans for accessibility, Gammell said, "We've been doing research into having audio clips for some installations and testing how that could work."

Staff at all three cultural destinations were very excited to implement changes and expand on what is there.

"I think that theater performances could benefit from at least having one or two audio-described productions," Rumbolt-Trzcinski said, referring to audio-described theatrical performances for the visually impaired. Audio description is an audio track that plays during a movie or play that describes what is going on for visual context, beyond just the dialogue.

Accessibility projects can be expensive, ranging from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars, depending on the scope and the scale of investment. But it doesn't have to be overly expensive, either, especially if costs are shared among organizations or subsidized through grants.

The ultimate goal is to inspire acceptance, cooperation and discourse among various groups of people to make the Berkshires' cultural treasures more open and welcoming.

"I think that people are definitely more aware, and willing to talk about it," Rumbolt-Trzcinski said. "Everybody is different. I know it's difficult to accommodate everybody, but it's important not to lump people all into one category. Everybody is individual, and everybody's needs are different."

Keenan Provencher can be reached at kprovencher@berkshireeagle.com.


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