Blind Bargains

Editorial: A Follow-up to our Post on Name Tags, and a Completely Accessible Form of Art

Below is a follow-up post to last week's guest editorial by Chancey Fleet. We look forward to reading your reactions to Chancey's post in the comments.
When I submitted my editorial post about encountering name tags at an event designed for blind people, I made the extremely difficult decision to refrain from identifying the institution where the event took place. I am heartened and thrilled to tell you that we have mutually decided to open this conversation up for real. Please meet the welcoming and talented staff for education and access programs at New York City's Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibit we came to experience is called  the Rain Room. Created by art collective Random International, the Rain Room is an "immersive environment", about the size of a small gymnasium. On the walls there is cloth; on the floor, grates; in the air, a strong suggestion of chlorine; and on the ceiling, aluminum cubes - which are cameras - and Lego-like tiles that send down rain. The website notes that, when the cameras detect a human body, the rain stops over that human's head. When our docent was asked whether the rain would stop for guide dogs, she thanked us, without missing a beat, for being "the beta testers" that would help find out. Having enrolled in that program, I can report that the technology in place does not discriminate based on species.

The periphery of the Rain Room is a rain-free zone from which one may observe and stay dry. I was never able to feel quite sure where the rain potential started exactly, since by staying away from it, I only heard enough to make a general guess; and by getting under it I stopped the rain above me. (I never really understood the idea that a person can change something just by observing it, but I totally get it now.) 

Pockets of rainlessness get bigger when people are gathered together. If you stand alone, you stand under what our docent described as a "virtual umbrella" - a self-shaped absence of rain. If you surge forward, the rainlessness follows you but not right away. It's raining - oh, it's not - this is art that is equally confounding and accessible to a person with sight, a person without, and a canine beta tester (whose nickname, coincidentally, happens to be Moma). 

Here's another thing about the Rain Room: if too many people get under the rain simultaneously, it stops. All of it. That's no fun for anyone. So while I was concentrating on having my name tag-generated politically indignant moment, our docent was - along with  handling photo releases, giving directions and narrating a great tour - focused on the unique properties of blind group dynamics.  In a room full of echoes, pouring rain, excited people, running children, and delicate technology, managing the number of folks under the rain at any given time was mission critical. 

The Rain Room is meant, according to its website, to invite consideration of "the roles that science, technology, and human ingenuity can play in stabilizing our  environment”. I doubt that Random International realized that, one day, that experience would branch out into the lobby of all places. As our docent affirmed when I shared my impressions with her prior to publishing my thoughts here,  with me, "It's definitely meta".

Gathering together and standing apart have consequences. Wherever you stand, you change that place to some degree and with some degree of intent.  Whatever tools you have – whether they be top-dollar cameras from the future or just your keyboard and your voice, can be used to stabilize your environment. It was not my intention to come into the Rain Room and get involved, on a personal level, with the values and assumptions that power the exhibit. I know little about art and less about diplomacy. But somehow the dynamics of the Rain Room and the dynamics of a recent convention of 2500 blind people gave me enough openness and hope to try something crazy. I decided that I was tired of my usual recourses to blind problems: tired of telling the story of how slighted I felt to the folks I knew would agree with me and validate my experience; tired of letting my own poor first reaction be the last word; tired of having low expectations of people who are sighted. As it turns out, speaking up in a new way requires no special training; no foundation support; and no leadership title. You just do it and wait to see what happens. 

Now that we've all dried off, 'we can talk at leisure in the weeks and months to come about how communities of disability can be part of MOMA programs. MOMA offers access programs for people with physical, intellectual and other disabilities - check out the impressive list of offerings. I am told that the education department is currently designing access programs for the next year. The staff members dedicated to accessibility appreciate feedback of any kind. They would probably appreciate, in particular, (1) specific and original program ideas; and (2) if you, person with or without a disability, would show up to more of their programs and bring your friends and blog about it or whatever, because museums are meant to be well and diversely attended.

Our docent who was kind enough and brave enough to permit me to tell the whole story has this to say: "I agree that we can set an example about how honest feedback, delivered in a kind way, can be well-received and lead to improved interactions and experiences". If you'd like to join the conversation, you can comment here - our docent is watching the blog - or you may email Let's get out there and explore social space!

Category: Articles

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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