Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was the first US president to use a wheelchair, so it makes sense that the memorial built in his honor should make accessibility a priority. That’s why in the lead up to the memorial’s 25th anniversary, a team of specialists including a Smithsonian-organized review panel of people with disabilities, worked hard to create a series of new accessible waysides and exhibits for the memorial. The new waysides include tactile models, audio description, and braille to increase access for all visitors. National Mall and Memorial Parks (NAMA) Visual Information Specialist Glenn Klaus led the effort and was honored for his work with a Tilden award, the NPS’s top honor for interpretive excellence.
While Klaus’s leadership was central to the project’s success, he is quick to acknowledge the efforts of many other individuals and groups. Among them is Beth Ziebarth, Director of the Access Smithsonian program, who helped organize the review panel of people who are blind or low vision, some with brain-based disabilities, and some with physical disabilities. Learning from the review panel helped shape how the new waysides go above and beyond the norm. (Smithsonian involvement with the project was facilitated by an agreement organized by the Chesapeake Watershed Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit. The National Park Foundation funded the project.)
When deciding how to include braille, one concept the reviewers vetted was to overlay a clear layer of braille directly over the wayside text. Reviewers pointed out that over time, debris would likely accumulate on the raised braille surface obscuring the printed text beneath, so the team opted to separate text and braille. They put the braille in black on a separate panel underneath the printed text, so that sighted companions to blind or low vision visitors, would be able to see and point out the availability of the braille.
Reviewers also helped the park determine which waysides should include touchable bronze models that depict elements of the memorial. While the park was interested in highlighting the statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a wayside, review panelists said that models of the human form just aren’t that interesting. In contrast, a tactile model of tumbled blocks and broken stones from the third room of the memorial were extremely helpful, since they allowed unsighted visitors to understand the complex arrangement of elements in that area.
On the topic of audio listening devices on each wayside, reviewer input was mixed. For some it was a firehose of information, while for others, it was a welcome and thorough description.
Audio recordings go beyond braille and tactile models and, in this case, can last up to 5 minutes (not all low vision and blind individuals can read braille). The recordings include the text of the wayside, a description of that section of the memorial including any inscribed quotes, and a description of the sculptural elements.
All in all, nine new waysides were created and installed at the memorial. They not only enhance the memorial experience for visitors with disabilities, but also their friends and family, and in fact, all visitors. In the end, there are now more pathways to engage and connect with the memorial honoring the legacy of FDR.