In front of the ImaginOn Center next to the Rail Trail on East 7th Street stands an art installation that features an enormous stack of stone books with a giant inkwell on top, and nearby a jumble of statuettes emerge from the ground that upon closer investigation represent typewriter keys. When I went looking for it on a recent afternoon, however, it was easy to find.
Upon approaching the stack, I closed my eyes and tapped the play button on my iPhone.
“It’s as if we are standing on a giant’s desk, but he has stepped away,” the narrator describes. “Atop this structure stands an inkwell which holds a massive gold feather quill pen that swivels around by gusts of wind.”
The description continued, making note of the minutiae: the inscriptions, the texture, the general atmosphere this sculpture conjured up. I opened my eyes, feeling genuinely surprised. I had passed this installation countless times before but had barely ever noticed it. I had certainly never registered the inkwell, never studied the patina of the typewriter keys. It was like I was seeing the statues for the first time.
“The Writer’s Desk” was one of nine stops on the inaugural Art Is for Everyone descriptive walking tour, which allows people with low vision or no vision to get a taste of Charlotte’s public art scene through audio description, artist analysis and fellowship.
On April 22, the group held their second walking tour in Plaza Midwood. I had to miss it due to a COVID-19 scare, but because the audio from the 2021 tour was readily available online, I took the tour myself.
I came out of my solo tour all the more intrigued by the idea of making art accessible to visually impaired people, so I went to the founders to find out more.
Art is for everyone
Rosebud Turner is a creative force. After retiring from teaching English and social studies, she wrote two children’s books and a memoir in verse. She’s an author, a poet and a lifelong art lover.
What sets her apart from most creatives in Charlotte is that she is blind. She lost her vision 16 years ago, but never her passion for the arts.
“I had a hunger still for that,” she said. “I’ve always loved art.”
That hunger has kept her going to theatre performances and museum exhibits. When she heard about a tour of public art specifically for people with vision loss, her interest was piqued.
Dana Draa, chief program officer at Metrolina Association for the Blind, was one of the key forces behind the tour. She has worked to improve accessibility for unsighted people for 17 years, but an experience in 2020 led her to launch the Art Is for Everyone tours.
It was that summer that Draa’s visually impaired friend Sherri Thomson asked Draa to accompany her to the newly painted Black Lives Matter mural on Tryon Street in Uptown so as to describe what the mural looked like.
Thompson was moved by the Tryon Street visit.
“It was so impactful for her,” Draa said. “That planted the seed in my head.”
In the course of visiting the mural with Thompson, Draa had an epiphany: Cities create public art so the public can enjoy it, but how accessible is it to people with disabilities?
Draa reached out to Anne Low of ArtWalks Charlotte as well as Julia Sain and Samantha Nevins of Disability Rights & Resources. With funding from the Arts and Science Council, they charted a path around Uptown’s most notable works of public art.
On their inaugural tour, art lovers joined them to find out more about the history and meaning behind some of Charlotte’s more recognizable public art — some of whom had never had a chance to appreciate it.
The first tour was confined to seven blocks, all of which remained close to the Rail Trail with plenty of benches and rest stops along the way, as accessibility was the priority. Several of the stops had a touch-related component, making it easier for people with low to no vision to physically sense it.
The group arranged transportation, planned a lunch, and consulted with disability safety expert Brad Blair to ensure guests could fully engage with the art.
Rosebud Turner was “thrilled” at how the audio descriptions noted all the details: the subjects’ ethnicities, the colors of their scarves, the texture of the brick. “It made it very clear for me, but not only for me,” she said.
The tour also deepened the understanding of these works for sighted people like Turner’s friend, who was surprised by how much the tour helped her.
“She kept saying, ‘This isn’t just for unsighted people.’ Because looking at it, and listening to the description, she kept saying, ‘I never noticed that. I didn’t even notice that part.’”
How audio description has evolved
As executive director of Disability Rights & Resources, a nonprofit working to address the disparities disabled people face in Charlotte, Samantha Nevins plays a number of roles. One of those roles is trained audio descriptor, in which Nevins helps convey visual details to blind or low vision people at events.
“We audio describe field trips for folks, we’ll audio describe a mural here and there, we’ll audio describe an event,” she said. “During some of the protests down in Charlotte two years ago, we were called to come and audio describe the protests. Over the past few years, though, the majority of our trained audio description work was for live theatre.”
Modern audio description, which serves to narrate movies and theatrical performances, has been in use since the early 20th century. But sighted people sometimes find it perplexing — if they think about audio description at all.
Though many organizations, from Disney to Blumenthal, employ audio description, there remain countless mediums and platforms that lack it.
What results is an access gap between the sighted and unsighted. For example, much of the internet remains out of reach for visually impaired users. Many websites don’t support descriptive alternative text, or alt text, for photos and videos. The few that do often feature clumsily written alt text, detailing too much, too little or something completely irrelevant.
This, Turner said, can make for a confusing experience.
“[In audio descriptions] there has to be — both visually and in written form — just a love of detail. That’s key, because sometimes you get too much detail, and it’s like, ‘What? Why are you telling me that part?’” she said.
Quality audio description, particularly in the arts, strikes a balance between the necessary and the poetic. Nevins said the trained descriptor style remains “kind of old guard.”
“There was always a way that we were taught to describe things,” she said. “However, that is evolving and that is changing.”
One thing that’s changing is language norms. Audio descriptors are now more adept at noting the apparent race, gender and disability of performers and portrait subjects. As people with low to no vision continue to assert their needs, the method of description continues to change.
The project Alt Text as Poetry, for example, advocates for a more prosaic, rather than perfunctory, approach to alt text. On the walking tour, blind and partially blind participants continually asked for clarification and further details of the artwork.
Balancing the perspectives of the tour participants, the artists, and the docents was a huge task for Nevins and her fellow audio descriptor Marty Musser.
“Needless to say, Marty and I were stressed,” Nevins laughed. “I was very nervous that day reading our descriptions about [the artist’s] art. Like, ‘Hope we did it justice!’”
To Nevins, the collaborative spirit was worth all the stress. “The way we all kind of piggybacked on each other, this symbiotic thing that was happening … It was so amazing.”
“We’re making a piece of art come alive,” said Draa.
Obstacles to accessibility
At one point in our conversation, I asked Draa what she thought about the misconception that blind people don’t enjoy visual art. Draa immediately cleared things up.
“What I think sighted people get wrong is not thinking about how people with vision loss experience art,” she said. “It’s not that there’s misconceptions, it’s just that there is a complete lack of thought about it.”
Turner echoed that sentiment.
“Sighted people don’t understand how many steps there are to do something that we actually might want to do,” she said.
Turner loves going to museums and the theatre, but she can easily understand why other blind people might find those events too daunting.
First, you have to purchase a ticket, potentially through a non-accessible website. Then you need a ride. You might also need a guide. And then there are the spontaneous challenges. What if there are technical difficulties with the earphones you wear to receive audio description? What if a sighted person says something out of pocket to you?
“It’s that kind of thing that really stops someone who is unsighted to venture out,” Turner said. “That’s just something people need to understand. It’s not always a lack of interest. It’s just really choosing where to put my energy.”
She thinks Charlotte’s art world can do better, and that begins with listening to blind and partially sighted people.
“If you call an agency, almost insist ‘I really wanna talk to someone who is actually unsighted.’ Because a lot of people only talk to a Dana [Draa]. Dana has worked with unsighted people almost all of her life — don’t get me wrong, she has lots of knowledge — but she’s never been unsighted.”
Draa said she agrees. Working with blind people has taught her to recognize where there’s a disparity, but she feels most non-disabled people are unwilling to acknowledge how they’ve excluded disabled people in daily life.
“When you tell them who’s not in the room, there’s crickets,” she said.
And though the tour series is a major step, she’s waiting for the rest of Charlotte’s art scene to make their own moves.
“I question if the Charlotte art community cares about people with disabilities,” she said. “I’m on the fence because, in engaging people in the arts community, I have been ignored more than I’ve been engaged. Let’s challenge them and say, ‘Hey, let’s do some more inclusion of all people when it comes to art.’ Everyone deserves the right to experience it in some way, shape or form.”