Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons

Museums like the Smithsonian Natural History Museum can be overwhelming for those with special needs. <i>Courtesy of Verifex/Flickr</i>

Museums like the Smithsonian Natural History Museum can be overwhelming for those with special needs. Courtesy of Verifex/Flickr

D.C. boasts some of the best museums, theaters and art venues in the country. But for people with special needs or disabilities, just getting to those places can be a challenge, and enjoying them like the able-bodied or neurotypical can be another proposition entirely. Are there stairs? Doorways wide enough for a wheelchair? Loud noises that could lead to overstimulation?

Several venues in D.C. are working on ways to help everyone enjoy themselves, from “sensory friendly” theater performances that are quieter and brighter to special programs that help the visually-impaired navigate museums.

We’ll talk about the progress they’ve made in creating an inclusive environment, and the challenges they’re tackling next.

Produced by Maura Currie


  • Beth Ziebarth Director of the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program
  • Betty Siegel Director of Accessibility for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Sound And Vision: The Smithsonian Institution Is Rolling Out An App To Help The Visually-Impaired


  • 12:38:20

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. In D.C., we are spoiled with some of the best museums, theaters and historical sites in the country. It's pretty easy to enjoy them. For most of us, you go, maybe you pay for a ticket, you walk around and see everything, and you have a nice time. But for people with disabilities or special needs, it's a different story, entirely. Can your wheelchair fit through all the doorways? Are there stairs? Is it dark? Are there loud noises? Is there a sign-language interpreter? Visiting some of the sites here can be a challenge, and just getting to them can be another story.

  • 12:38:54

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSJoining us to talk about what these institutions are doing to accommodate special needs are Beth Ziebarth. She's the director of the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program. Hi, Beth.

  • 12:39:05


  • 12:39:05

    SIMONSAnd Betty Siegel is the director of accessibility for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

  • 12:39:11


  • 12:39:12

    SIMONSHi. Do you or someone you love have special needs? Have you had experiences, good or bad, trying to see a play or going to a museum here in D.C.? Do you feel like the needs of disabled people are being met by places like Smithsonian museums? If not, what's missing? Tell us. Beth, I'm going to start with you. There are lots of accessibility initiatives that you oversee at the Smithsonians. Can you tell us about a few of them?

  • 12:39:35

    ZIEBARTHSure. So, I'm going to start off by talking about how inclusion in museums means meeting people where they are, in other words, changing the environment, not the person with the disability. And the best way to do that is to give museum visitors a variety of tools they can use to access our facilities and programs. The goal is to have a meaningful experience and for people to be lifelong museum visitors.

  • 12:40:00

    ZIEBARTHAnd I know that you have a clip of Aira. I will talk a little bit about one of our services, Aira, which is...

  • 12:40:07

    SIMONSYes, we'll get to that in a couple of minutes.

  • 12:40:09

    ZIEBARTHSure. So, types of things that we have, we're always thinking about what kinds of tools we can provide, whether it's a docent who's trained in how to provide a verbal description tour for people who are blind or have low vision, to technology. We have a Smithsonian Accessibility Innovation Fund, where we're able to give small grants up to $50,000 to a museum who has come up with an innovative way to provide an accessibility solution.

  • 12:40:42

    ZIEBARTHAnd, in the last two years, since the fund was created, we have had 15 grants that we've awarded. And the projects range from things like captioning on your smartphone for a time-based media artwork. So, if you're at the Hirshhorn Museum, for example, and you're looking at a time-based media artwork, and it has that narrative soundtrack, you can use your smartphone to get the captioning. Another type of innovation that we are funding is a sensory calming space at the National Zoo, in their coral reef exhibit. So, I think those are some really good ways to do that.

  • 12:41:26

    SIMONSAnd you, Beth, yourself, you are in a wheelchair. So, what are some of the challenges that you've encountered in places like museums and theaters? And before you answer, I want to make sure our listeners know, we want to hear for you. Are there other places that you struggle to enjoy because of a special need in your family, like maybe a restaurant or a sporting event? Give us a call and tell us your story. Go ahead, Beth.

  • 12:41:45

    ZIEBARTHSo, I've used a wheelchair now for over 40 years. And when I go to museums. I can't help but look at what the accessibility is in a museum. And what I find is that being seated in a wheelchair means that I have, a lot of times, difficulty seeing things that are on display, whether they're up too high, if they're flat, in an exhibit case. Also, glare is a real issue in most museums, because the lighting is adjusted for people who are standing. So, it's not only the getting into the museum, but it's once I get in, what the exhibit experience is like.

  • 12:42:25

    SIMONSYou hinted at this earlier that one of the programs that the Smithsonians are offering as of pretty recently is an app called Aira. Now, one of our producers actually went to a demo that Aira did at the Museum of American History, and she brought back some sound for us. So, this is an Aira agent describing a statue of George Washington.

  • 12:42:49

    UNKNOWNWhy don't you tell us what George looks like?

  • 12:42:53

    AIRAIt looks like he is quite tall, possibly maybe 10 or a little more feet tall, maybe 15. It looks like he's shirtless, with his right arm raised toward the sky, pointing upwards with a cloth draped over his bicep. And he's wearing, it's like a cloth over his lap, as well. He's sitting down on top of a two-step pedestal at the bottom that goes to the floor. And that's about what I can see.

  • 12:43:19

    SIMONSSo, that sounds pretty cool. Tell us about this Aira technology that you're working on rolling out. What exactly is it? And then just tell us who it's designed for.

  • 12:43:27

    ZIEBARTHSure. So, Aira is a smartphone-based technology. So, for somebody who's blind or has low vision, they can call a live agent who happens to be in San Diego. And the live agent uses either your smartphone camera or your Google Glass or any type of smart glass that allows them to be able to see what's in front of you. And so somebody who's blind or has low vision can use it for walking down the street, using transportation, at work or in a museum, maybe like you demonstrated the description of an object that's on display.

  • 12:44:11

    ZIEBARTHAnd the little twists that we've done at the Smithsonian -- since we started offering this in March at all of our DC-based museums, we are offering the free minutes to use Aira -- we're supplying the Aira agents with descriptions that were written by Smithsonian staff. So, that way, the Aira agent doesn't have to guess as much about what it is that they're trying to describe.

  • 12:44:38

    SIMONSNow, Maria wrote to us on Facebook. She has a comment. She says: people with sensory sensitivities have a really hard time in public restrooms, because of the loud hand dryers and motion-activated sinks and toilets. I really appreciate having at least one restroom on every floor where there is nothing electric or automatic. I thought that was a good time to bring you in, Betty, because at the Kennedy Center's accessibility team, you guys focus a lot on sensory issues. So, what kind of challenges would a normal theater experience pose for a person with these types of challenges?

  • 12:45:07

    SIEGELWell, you know, it's really hard to come up with one generalized description of a person with a sensory or neurological or brain-based disability. So, what we try to do is accommodate people, most people most of the time by acknowledging that certain environments can be more or less friendly, depending on how we address them. So, we try, at the Kennedy Center, to find times to offer sensory-friendly programming and performances when the building is less busy, so that there's not as much action noise happening, as you heard from the woman who wrote in.

  • 12:45:41

    SIEGELAnd we also look at providing spaces where people can go to retreat from all that noise. Usually, in our lobbies, we'll have the show on a video. So you can go out to the lobby, which is a quieter space, and you can watch on the video.

  • 12:45:57

    SIMONSSo, that's like a description of like a sensory-friendly performance?

  • 12:46:00

    SIEGELYeah, you know, there's different elements for sensory-friendly performances but the primary things that we know -- because we did a study when we first started offering these at the Kennedy Center, is that we know that to make most people comfortable, what we need to do is moderate the noise in a performance. We don't take things out. So, if there's a thunderbolt, we don't make that go away, because the experience should be the same. It's equity issues. But we do moderate the sound, so that it's a little bit quieter.

  • 12:46:27

    SIEGELWe moderate the lighting, so a lot of times -- for especially smaller children -- when the lights go out, that's pretty scary, whether you have a disability or not. And so we leave the houselights to half. So, there's always some light in the audience. And that's critical, because we also allow for what we might call a no-shushing show. Like, parents, don't shush your children. Let them have the experience in their own unique way. So, we allow the audience to talk. We allow them to move around.

  • 12:46:51

    SIEGELWe also found out that, really, the most important thing from our audience's perspective, to make an environment friendly, is how they're treated by the staff and people around them. So, we invest a lot of time in training our staff to ensure that we are indeed creating a welcoming environment.

  • 12:47:07

    SIMONSAnd everybody's on the same page.

  • 12:47:08

    SIEGELEverybody's got to be on the same page, because that's -- think about this. Think about it being a family with one child who's got, maybe, autism. And think about the places you can't go, because that child isn't finding the environment to be supportive of their needs. So, we want to try to make that not be what you experience at the Kennedy Center. We want it to be friendly space.

  • 12:47:30

    SIMONSAnd you do a lot of work beforehand to prep visitors with sensory issues, you know, before they get there.

  • 12:47:36


  • 12:47:36

    SIMONSCan you tell us about that?

  • 12:47:37

    SIEGELOh, yeah. One of my favorite things was starting to create pre-visit stories. And I love pre-visit stories because the truth of the matter is, for many people, the thing that really throws you off is not knowing what to expect. And so, we walk our audiences through the experience of coming to the Kennedy Center from the moment they get there by car or by bus or by taxi or Lyft to their experience in the restrooms. Because we want people to know that there aren't any blowers, that you can use paper towels, which are so quiet.

  • 12:48:08

    SIEGELTo what you're going to see in the audience when people come in, that people will clap at certain times, that this is an intermission. So, we create these stories and put them out online, the Kennedy Center's website so that you can prepare yourself for that experience. And that's also another really critical component to making something sensory friendly.

  • 12:48:27

    SIMONSLet's hear from our listeners. We've got a call from Maggie, in Washington. Hi, Maggie.

  • 12:48:31

    MAGGIEHey, how's it going? Thanks for taking my call. I'm the daughter of two parents both with disabilities. My mother is hard of hearing, and my father is in a wheelchair. And I've lived in DC now for six years, and they've yet to come visit me, because they're just so intimidated that the city might not be as accessible as they think. And so I just wanted to comment that I'm really glad you guys are doing this program, because I want more businesses to say, hey, we are accessible. You can come into our doors. We are welcoming, and we're all ears. And I really appreciate this program.

  • 12:49:08

    SIMONSThank you, Maggie, and I really hope you get to encourage your parents to come, because we, as you can hear, are making strides in making sure that we are much more accessible. Sarah also wrote to us, via email. She said, I have a service dog, and was incredibly surprised by the accommodations, awareness and respect we were shown when my family was visiting D.C., especially when viewing a Supreme Court hearing. So, you know, there you go. Now, Betty, can all performances be made sensory friendly, or do you have commission stories that feel more naturally told that way?

  • 12:49:38

    SIEGELYou know, part of the thing that we have to keep in mind when we look at the issues around making environments and our cultural institutions accessible to all people is that this is a civil rights issue. And so, our goal, we strive for this, is to ensure that people can come to anything and everything they want to experience, that there's no exclusion or barrier to that experience. And sensory-friendly performances themselves -- because we moderate in the theater environment, we are changing the physical space -- do take preparation. And so we schedule events in advance.

  • 12:50:14

    SIEGELWe try to pick operas and symphonies and theater performances, so you can try every genre. And we listen to our community, which I think is something both the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center are particularly good at, which is never doing things for the community, but always doing with the community, so we are constantly engaging through expert users to test the technology that we're putting out to our customers, and inviting people in as advisors, which is really critical. So, we love hearing from patrons, and we try to make everything welcoming.

  • 12:50:48

    SIMONSLet's hear from another listener. We have Monica on the line. She's also from Washington. Hi, Monica.

  • 12:50:53

    MONICAGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 12:50:55

    SIMONSWhat's your question for us?

  • 12:50:57

    MONICAWell, actually, I wanted to comment on a program that the Smithsonian puts on, called Morning at the Museum, which my son has participated in probably since its inception. He's now 16. And it's a wonderful program that opens the museum an hour earlier, so that kids with sensory issues can experience the museum without the crowds and a lot of the noisiness of some of the exhibits.

  • 12:51:20

    MONICAAnd so, for my son, it's been critical for him to enjoy the museum. It's also an alternative educational environment, where he can immerse himself. It's just another level of learning for him that we otherwise would not have, you know, access to if it wasn't for this program. So, I just have to commend Beth for the work that she's done, and just her continued efforts to open the museum to people with disabilities.

  • 12:51:42

    SIMONSGreat. Thanks for your call, Monica. So, that's Mornings at the Museum. Is that right, Beth?

  • 12:51:46

    ZIEBARTHYes. For this year, we're doing 18 different Mornings at the Museum at different Smithsonian Museums. We open an hour early, like Monica said, and we welcome families in. We give them the pre-visit materials in advance, so that they know what to expect. We also did a set of videos, video modeling for people with disabilities, so they know what to expect when they come to the museums. And it's just a great, fun experience for the families. Low pressure.

  • 12:52:22

    ZIEBARTHOne of the things that parents really like is that it's a judgment-free zone. And they don't have to worry about how other people are viewing their parenting because their child has a disability. So, we love Morning at the Museum, and it's going very well. We're adding a new museum this year. The Anacostia Community Museum's coming onboard, so it'll be fun to have a program there.

  • 12:52:46

    SIMONSThat's fantastic. Neely's on the line. She's calling from Silver Spring. Hi, Neely.

  • 12:52:51

    NEELYHi. Thank you for letting me participate a little bit. I'm the executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, and we're a news and information service for people who are blind or have low vision or have any kind of a physical disability that prevents them from reading print. But our founder, Dr. Margaret Rockwell, at that time, was asked by Arena Stage in the District if she could devise a way for blind people to really understand and appreciate, fully, live theater. And she said, oh, yes, I can.

  • 12:53:23

    NEELYShe was blind when she funded our organization. And so she worked with Cody Phanstiehl, who at the time was the voice of Metro. And they watched movies together, and she let him know what she needed to know, and they worked together. And as a sidelight, they fell in love and got married, which was just lovely. But they devised the process now that I know that Betty -- hi, Betty...

  • 12:53:46

    SIEGELHi, Neely.

  • 12:53:47

    NEELY...that she uses at the Kennedy Center. And I don't know if you've talked about that earlier in the show, but if you have, just cut me off. Audio description just brings live theater to people who are blind or have a visual disability. It provides the information of this visual that they can't see. It might be the sets or the costumes or the lighting, or, even as Betty said, if there's a loud noise, we prep them for, that during the program notes or the preshow notes. And the describer might say, there will be smoke. There might be loud, clashing noises. And so just be prepared that that will happen. They don't, however, tell something ahead of time that is important to the flow of the play, that they're not giving away anything.

  • 12:54:39

    SIMONSWell, we'll have to address that now, Neely, for the interest of time, but I'm really glad she called in. I saw lots of nods and headshakes, so I could tell you are collaborating, you know, within the industry. Beth, I want to know from you, how can other visitors to the Smithsonians be helpful to people who are physically disabled or using technology like Aira?

  • 12:54:59

    ZIEBARTHHow can other visitors be helpful?

  • 12:55:01


  • 12:55:01

    ZIEBARTHI think that one of the things that's really important, like Betty had mentioned, is that we need the lived experience and the perspectives of people with disabilities to be able to improve what we offer. So, when we do an evaluation in terms of prototyping a new exhibit component, whether it's a tactile component or a new app, or something like that, that if we have that perspective, we can improve the experience for people with disabilities. So, anytime, whether it's a visitor with a disability or it's an ally of a person with a disability, if they can share that information with us, that will improve what we offer.

  • 12:55:46

    SIMONSAnd, very quickly, for anybody, similar question, how can theater-goers be more mindful of people with special needs?

  • 12:55:51

    SIEGELWell, you know, it's always interesting. We can't control our audiences, but we can control the environment and we can control our own staff and set an example and model the type of behaviors that we want our audiences to also pick up and engage in. You know, the concept of being inclusive is really critical to the work that we do. And I'm glad that Neely called, because she does bring up a really important point. Although I love the Kennedy Center and I love the Smithsonian, there's a lot of culture that goes on around town, and we have some amazing colleagues in the field.

  • 12:56:20

    SIMONSBeth Ziebarth. She's the director of the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program. Thanks for joining us, Beth.

  • 12:56:25

    ZIEBARTHThank you.

  • 12:56:26

    SIMONSAnd Betty Siegel is the director of accessibility for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. So, glad you were here.

  • 12:56:31

    SIEGELThank you. I hope we can come back.

  • 12:56:33

    SIMONSOf course. Now, that's it for the show today, but there's always more happening online. You can see photos and find out more about the Aira app that's making museums more accessible. Go to And on the website, you'll also see some pictures of the museum of the Palestinian people.

  • 12:56:49

    SIMONSAnd don't forget to join us back here tomorrow. We'll be talking about the challenge of buying a home in our booming region. Until then, I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo.

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