|Practical Considerations: Step 3|
Practical Considerations Step Two: Organizing and Working with Your Advisory Board
The Make-up of Your Advisory Board
Your advisory board should represent your local community of people who are blind and visually impaired. So, your first step is to educate yourself about the types of groups and individuals that constitute the community of blind and visually impaired people in general, and within your local community. See also the Community Outreach module for a list of groups and individuals that represent different professional interests, age groups, and relationships within the blindness community.
Professional interests and memberships:
- Professional artists and amateurs who are blind or visually impaired
- Art lovers and museum goers with some or total sight loss
- National organizations of blind people
- National organizations of seniors (such as AARP)
Different relationships within the blindness community:
- Parents and families of blind children
- School educators
- University programs for teachers of visually impaired students; graduate students
- Researchers and university professors
- Recreational counselors
- Ophthalmologists and optometrists
- School administrators, Special Education divisions at the Department of Education, Federal Quota trustees
- Art therapists who work with visually impaired people
- Librarians and Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Different age groups:
- Adults and seniors with sight loss
- Veterans with sight loss
- Homebound individuals with sight loss
- Blind students in residential schools for the blind and public schools
In considering the composition of your advisory board, aim for the most diverse backgrounds and experiences, including:
- Experience with different kinds of visual impairments. Different visual impairments mean different needs and expectations from your institution's program. Understanding your visitors with visual disabilities will help you to understand what type tour/learning tools and accessible materials they may prefer and why. Early blind and congenitally blind people are more likely to be braille readers and have experience with reading tactile maps and tactile diagrams, and a well-developed sense of touch, and thus will be very interested in a touch tour. People who recently lost sight may prefer to read large print, and do not have experience accessing the world through touch, so they may be disappointed with a touch tour and will not gain much from a tactile map of the building. The people who lost sight later in life will often enjoy more a verbal description or a combination of a verbal description and tactile diagram or enlarged reproduction. You should be aware of the different expectations that your advisory board members will have and how they can be accommodated.
- Diverse experience with, or exposure to, the visual arts. People who started losing their sight later in life are more likely to be familiar with the museum experience, and often have an in-depth knowledge of the arts. They may appear more enthusiastic about the program than congenitally blind people who have had little exposure to the visual arts, or disappointing previous experiences with museums. Some blind people may be more familiar with literary and performance arts.
- Educational and socio-economic diversity. If your blind advisors are a teacher and an attorney, you may want to include a musician, transcriber, vendor, office professional, or computer specialist who is blind. Take a look at professional divisions of the National Federation of the Blind.
- Cultural diversity of your advisory board should not be overlooked.
Cultivating these committee members requires first meeting individually with them to learn about their affiliated organizations and their personal experience with sight loss and even museum experiences. Share with them the goals and responsibilities of the committee. These individual meetings are an important way to find out if members have any accessibility needs, such as requiring information in large print, braille, audio cassette, or if they use wheelchairs.
When approaching your advisors, it is important that you communicate to them that it is a volunteer, long-term commitment. Make your board members aware of the fact that this is not a one-time engagement, that their feedback is valuable and needed on an ongoing basis, and that their active involvement will ensure the longevity of the program.
The first meeting of the advisory committee will set the tone for the entire relationship that the museum will have with this group. Therefore, it is important to establish a comfortable environment for open discussion. Achieving this requires both acknowledging accessibility needs of the group and initiating open discussion. Make the meeting as accessible as possible, and ask for feedback on improvements that could be made for the next meeting.
When establishing the advisory committee, develop a list of short- and long-term goals for the committee and clearly stated responsibilities for the committee members. This will not only guide all of your work with the committee--it will also help the members know what is expected of them and how they can be most effective.
Along with general guidelines for working with people with sight loss, below is a list of suggestions for your meetings:
- Have everyone introduce themselves at the beginning of each meeting. The network of people in the field can be very tight, and they may already know one another. However, brief reintroductions at the beginning of each meeting are the only way for individuals with sight loss to know who is present.
- Describe the room where the meeting is taking place. This may be your first experience with a verbal description! Let them know the estimated room size, the function or any relevant history of the room, images on the walls, and views from the windows. Ask for their feedback about the description.
- Have two or three staff or volunteers who are working on the initiative attend the meetings. This will expose more staff on your team to direct experience with this audience. It will also be very helpful for the committee members if they need sighted guide assistance.
- Provide members of the advisory committee with a catalogue of the museum's collections and free passes to the museum. Even if the individual is not able to see the words or images in the catalogue, they most likely have someone who can assist them and describe the images to them.
- Find out in advance if anyone will need information (agendas, goals, etc.) in large print or braille. A computer can easily make documents into large print. If your museum does not have a braille machine, one of the local organizations represented on the committee may be willing to provide materials for the meetings in braille.
As previously mentioned, it's essential from the start to create an open environment for discussion. Keep this goal in the forefront of all that you do during the meetings. First, discuss the history of the museum's involvement with this audience. Be prepared over the course of the meetings to receive a wide variety of suggestions. It is critical to state up front that you will be listening to and exploring all the suggestions, but that this initiative will be a process and not everything that is suggested will be feasible. At the last meeting, prioritize the next steps into short- and long-term goals.
It is also critical for representatives from other museum departments, such as visitor services, education, curatorial, conservation, and security, to be involved in the advisory committee meetings. Interacting with and learning more about this audience will increase the staff's comfort with the project, and they will be more invested in the process. Also, in the event that there is change of staff working directly on the initiative, the program is more likely to continue if a number of museum staff are involved in the process.
It is important to know the history of your institution's involvement with a target audience. Therefore, document these meetings for your later use and for program archives by assigning someone to record the minutes or by audiotape. Be sure to ask the committee's permission before taping.
Issues Discussed by an Advisory Board
Advisory boards meet several times a year, or as needed, to review programs and evaluate whether the community's needs are being served. The advisory board provides an opportunity for information exchange and self-representation for visually impaired people. Advisory board members serve as a sounding board for your program and can be tremendously helpful with getting the word out. This exchange allows museum staff to respond effectively to the museum audience's need. Conversely, members of the visually impaired community will see their opinions reflected in the museum's programs and take ownership of museum-based programs. This sense of ownership is crucial, as your museum may previously have been perceived as off-limits or irrelevant for blind and visually impaired people. Often people who have lost or never had sight do not think of themselves as museum goers.
Advisory Board Meeting during Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month
One way to celebrate and acknowledge your advisors is by organizing a small event or a meeting during the annual Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month, an international initiative launched by the Art Beyond Sight Collaborative and coordinated by Art Beyond Sight. Awareness Month is a chance for museums, libraries, schools, and other community institutions—even individuals—to showcase the work they are doing to promote art education for people who are blind or visually impaired and to raise public awareness. Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month will offer your advisors a chance to connect with other museums around the country and abroad, and share their experiences and ask questions during the Collaborative’s annual telephone conference calls. Another element of the Art Beyond Sight Collaborative that your advisors can benefit from are our discussions groups, which network different groups within a community, and share expertise in different fields related to art and museum education for people who are blind.