Ulrich ‘Solving for X’ exhibition embraces accessibility for Blind, Visually- and Mobility-Impaired

September 06, 2019
WICHITA, Kan.--Alison Roets has been legally blind since birth. A senior from Derby majoring in Strategic Communications at Wichita State University, Roets is also a student employee at WSU’s Ulrich Museum of Art.

“At first I thought it was a little weird to have a partially-blind person working the front desk of an art museum,” she said. Weird mostly because Roets said she doesn’t visit art museums. Although she can make out shapes and colors if she gets up-close to objects, most art museums just aren’t set up to accommodate her.

“It’s not something that’s thought about often since art is such a visual subject,” she said.

Still, Roets and her guide dog, Piper, have become popular figures at the Ulrich, where she spends her shifts telling others how they can view the various galleries that, so far, she has not been able to fully experience.

However, that will soon change thanks to an exhibition sponsored by Envision, a Wichita-based organization with locations in 11 states, whose mission is to improve the quality of life and provide inspiration and opportunity for people who are blind or visually impaired.

The exhibition, “Solving for X=Accessibility: GuideBeacon,” is one of three new shows that the Ulrich will unveil at its Fall Exhibition Opening Party, which will be held at the Museum from 5-8 P.M. on Thursday, September 12.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Ulrich to create meaningful art experiences that can be equally enjoyed by people who are blind or visually impaired,” said Heather Hogan, senior vice president Foundation and Mission Services at Envision. “Art is for everyone, and we hope this exhibition spreads that message.”

“Solving for X” is a series of exhibitions organized by the Ulrich in collaboration with scholars across campus. The goal is to work with scholars in all disciplines who are problem-solving to create visualizations of their research. In this second installment of the series, the Ulrich is working with Vinod Namboodiri, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer science at WSU and senior scientist at the Envision Research Institute, who is developing GuideBeacon, a wayfinding app that uses bluetooth beacons to assist blind and visually impaired (BVI) people in navigating indoor and outdoor spaces.

The installation of GuideBeacon at the Ulrich is an exciting new application of the accessibility technology that is being collaboratively developed between Envision and WSU through a National Science Foundation grant.

“I think this is a game-changing technology,” Namboodiri said. “It may not be perfect yet, since it’s a research prototype, but you can already see how useful this can be—not just for museums, but for exploring any area you are unfamiliar with. The only challenge is how to scale it up with time to get it everywhere.”

For the exhibition, the Ulrich will transform its Grafly Gallery into a test site for GuideBeacon by offering multi-sensory access to a selection of works of art from the Museum’s permanent collection. The five works from the collection, which include well-known pieces by Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell, and others, will each be displayed next to touchable tactile graphics of the work produced by WSU’s Instructional Design and Access team. GuideBeacon will be loaded with audio guides that provide vivid descriptions and contemporary contexts for each piece. The Museum will also offer opportunities for simulated BVI experiences and limited mobility experiences to help encourage increased understanding and empathy among its sighted patrons.

Ulrich Director Leslie Brothers, who invented the “Solving for X” series, said the exhibition is a commitment to joining other art museums around the world in trying to make art more accessible to everyone.

“We will move forward from this test site exhibition to include vivid descriptions and tactile graphics for all of our future shows,” Brothers said. “It’s part of our commitment to make the Museum more inclusive.”

Roets, meanwhile, said she is very excited for the exhibition to start.

“I hope it brings a ton of the BVI community to the Museum, and that they recognize the Ulrich as a place willing to take the extra steps,” she said.
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About Envision: Envision promotes advocacy and independence for those who are blind or low vision. Founded in 1933, Envision is one of the largest employers of individuals with vision loss in the nation. Headquartered in Wichita, Kan., Envision’s mission is to improve the quality of life and provide inspiration and opportunity for people who are blind or visually impaired through employment, outreach, rehabilitation, education, and research. For more information, visit www.envisionus.com.

About the Ulrich Museum of Art: The Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University serves as the area’s premier venue for new work by emerging and established artists of national and international reputation. The Ulrich Museum is home to the renowned 80-piece Martin H. Bush Outdoor Sculpture Collection— rated one of the top collections of its kind by Public Art Review—and a permanent collection of more than 6,700 works of modern and contemporary art. Established in 1974, the mission of the Ulrich is to expand human experience through encounters with the art of our time.

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