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Adaptive Technologies

For Vision Impairments

Tactile Diagrams

Verbal Description Audio Tour

Audio Description

For Hearing Impairments

T-Coil Induction Loop

Assistive Listening Devices

Open Captioning


For Cognitive Impairments

Adaptive vs Assistive technologies

The terms adaptive and assistive technologies are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Assistive technology is a broader term including any piece of equipment that can help a person with a disability. Adaptive technology is a subset of that group–it includes equipment made expressly for people with disabilities and has been made specifically for that community. This section contains a listing of adaptive technologies used in museums.


Tactile diagrams

Tactile diagrams translate images into a tactile language. They are not exact relief reproductions of visual images. Tactile diagrams allow people access to the visual information in works of art, maps, architectural and other diagrams, and three-dimensional objects and spaces.

woman touching a tactile map

Tactile map of museum near entrance of Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki


hands touching a tactile of a painting

Tactile diagram of a painting

The easiest way to create a tactile diagram is to use microcapsule paper (often called “swell paper”) and a Tactile Image Enhancer. The photocopied image on microcapsule paper passes through the Tactile Image Enhancer, which heats the paper and causes the black lines and patterns to rise. Only the black areas will rise because these areas attract the most heat. The untreated areas of the page remain flat and smooth.


MAKING TCTILEWatch a video, “How to Create a Tactile Diagram”, about creating tactile diagrams. (Produced by Art Beyond Sight, formerly Art Education for the Blind)

Rubens Gathering of the Manna half tactile imageSee the Art Beyond Sight website for information about how to prepare materials to be   turned into tactile diagrams and about different printing methods.




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Verbal description audio tour

Verbal description uses non-visual language to convey the visual world. It can navigate a visitor through a museum, orient a listener to a work of art, or provide access to the visual aspects of a performance. The visitor will want the same interpretation as the sighted visitor, so the museum is just providing information about the physical object in addition to the interpretation. For artworks, a verbal description includes standard information included on a label, such as the name of the artist, nationality, title of the artwork, date, dimensions or scale of the work, media and technique. More important, verbal description includes a description of the subject matter and the composition of the work.

icon_sound(For guidance on designing and writing verbal description audio tours, see Art Beyond Sight’s Writing Verbal Description for Audio Guides)


Verbal description audio tours are typically distributed on the same equipment as a museum’s other audio tours, so front line staff should  be aware of  any special features that would help a visually impaired visitor. Most handheld units have a raised bump on the number 5 of the keypad, the same as all modern telephones, to help orient the user’s location on the device. There are several ways a museum might choose to incorporate verbal description audio:

  • As an accompaniment to a standard audio tour. In these cases, the museum may choose to do either a highlighted selection of stops or all of the audio stops that exist on the standard tour. The numbering of these audio stops will often follow a similar pattern i.e., if the standard tour uses the numbers 100-120, the verbal description version may use 200-220. Below are three examples of Verbal Description Audio Tour Stops.  (see more in Art Beyond Sight’s Verbal Description Database)


painting early sunday morningEarly Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper

(Whitney Museum of American Art)


Historical Object

bradylincolnMatthew Brady Photo of Lincoln

(New-York Historical Society exhibit,

Lincoln and New York)




sculpture broken obeliskBroken Obelisk by Barnett Newman

(Museum of Modern Art, NY)



  • As a hybrid tour. This method integrates the verbal descriptions with the content interpretations so that  the museum need only produce one version that is used by all visitors. There are some wonderful universal design benefits of this method because describing an aspect of the object on display causes the sighted viewer  to take a closer look. Here’s an example of a stop on a “hybrid” tour for all visitors.

tankardSilver Tankard

From the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition

Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York.

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Audio Description

In films or videos, Audio Description is a layer of audio in addition to the existing audio (dialogue, narration, music, sound effects) that describes what is happening on screen. This audio content provides information that a person with a visual impairment or learning difference may need in order to fully understand what is happening in a video, film, exhibition, or live presentation.  Here are two short examples produced by Art Beyond Sight (formerly Art Education for the Blind):

esrefHow Museums Use Touch

1Blind Harry Potter Fans




Bridge Multimedbannerkia is a major provider of Audio Description for film and tv programs.

See demos on their web site.
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T-coil induction loops

T-coil (short for telecoil) technology is fast becoming one of the most visible and well-used forms of adaptive technology for people with hearing loss. T-coils have been required in US phones by the FCC since 1988 and qualify as auxiliary aids under ADA law. For users of T-coil hearing aids and cochlear implants, a small receiver inside their device acts like the antenna on a radio whenever an audio signal is sent through an induction loop in their range. An induction loop is simply copper wire carrying audio sent from either an amplifier or from an individual handheld player via a T-coil neckloop. Admissions desks now often feature a portable model that can sit atop the desk and allow the t-coil user to hear the visitor services staff person who speaks into a built-in microphone. If your theater is looped, the visitor doesn’t have to request a separate assistive listening device. They just switch their hearing aid to the T-coil position and they can hear perfectly. This is the great advantage of T-coil — it provides a nearly seamless experience to that of the visitor who does not have a hearing loss.

Below are simplified drawings. The one on the left shows how a T-coil induction loop is set up for a classroom. The one on the right shows how a T-coil can be used with a video monitor in an exhibition. Click the drawings to enlarge.




Assistive Listening Devices

Assistive listening devices (ALDs) are used by people who are hard of  hearing. ALDs work to amplify sound and/or reduce background noise. FM systems, infrared systems, and induction loop systems are the three primary types of ALD systems. Having ALDs available for visitor use is essential, and a related best practice is to train staff on the location, use, and care of ALDs. ALDs are only useful if staff know where to find them and operate them, and remember to charge them.

  • FM receivers pick up specialized radio frequencies that tie into the overall sound system, like the ones used in theaters, or public address systems. The visitor gets a receiver that may be connected directly to a hearing aid or cochlear implant, or the receiver can be used with earphones to amplify sound for people who do not use a personal hearing device.
  • Infrared systems transmit infrared light waves, which are picked up by receivers similar to FM receivers.
  • The induction loop system is viewed as the most effective because FM and infrared receivers are susceptible to damage, or normal wear and tear, making them less reliable as they age. Technology also becomes outdated and it is costly to upgrade or replace receivers regularly. The cost of purchasing and installing FM and infrared systems is high and can limit the number of institutions that can use them. Although these systems directly benefit people who are hard of hearing, their use is traditionally limited to theater-style settings, where patrons attend scheduled ticketed performances. Another major limitation of ALDs is that they provide no effective communication to D/deaf patrons.

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Open captioning

Open captions are visible on videos at all times; closed captions must be activated through device settings. Open captions are preferred because they provide instant access, and D/deaf or hard of hearing visitors will not be required to take extra action to request that staff activate closed captions. Videos without dialogue should be noted as such, so people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing do not assume that they are missing out on uncaptioned content. There are no mandated parameters for how to open caption, but the guidelines below will ensure that captions are ADA compliant:

  • Each caption frame should hold 1 to 3 lines of text onscreen at a time, viewable for 3 to 7 seconds.
  • Each caption frame should be replaced by another caption.
  • All caption frames should be precisely time-synched to the audio.
  • A caption frame should be repositioned on the screen if it obscures onscreen text or other essential visual elements.
  • Spelling should be at least 99% accurate.
  • When multiple speakers are present, it is sometimes helpful to identify who is speaking, especially when the video does not make this clear.
  • Both upper and lowercase letters should be used.
  • The font should be a non-serif, such as Helvetica medium.
  • Non-speech sounds like [MUSIC] or [LAUGHTER] should be added in square brackets.
  • Punctuation should be used for maximum clarity in the text, not necessarily for textbook style.
  • Captions should preserve and identify slang or accents. Each line should not exceed 32 characters.

(Excerpted from: How the ADA Impacts Online Video Accessibility.)

Two examples of Open Captioning:

logo for pepsico's enableSuper Bowl Pepsi Commercial

This wonderful demonstration of open captioning aired during the 2008 Super Bowl. It was produced by Enable, a division of Pepsico. The importance of including text not just for dialogue but all sounds is underscored by not including any audio at all. The result is that all viewers experienced watching the video as people with hearing loss did.

project access logoProject Access: Whitney Museum of American Art

This video, produced by Art Beyond Sight’s Project Access for All,  features both audio described media and open captioning.
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TTY is an abbreviation that came from the phrase Tele TYpewriter. Today TTY stands for Text Telephone. It’s a phone interface that provides communication access by allowing the user to type and receive a message in text format via a telephone line.  This can send a message to and from other TTY devices and allow deaf or hard of hearing individuals the ability to communicate via a phone line. The interface can either be a TTY-specific display or a software interface for the computer. Museums have had far less demand from TTY-users since the dawn of the Internet. Websites provide most of the information a person planning a trip to a museum might need and he or she can ask questions by e-mail.
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Cognitive Impairments

Assistive listening devices as well as traditional audio tours can be very helpful to various communities with cognitive disabilities because they can help drown out excessive background noise and make it easier to concentrate.

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