Sightseeing in New York City is surprisingly compatible with traveling with the vision impaired. Sidewalks often have raised bumps, tactile cues that you are reaching the end at the curb. And though midtown sidewalks can be crowded and intimidating for even the sighted visitor, new pedestrian walkways in busy neighborhoods like Times Square allow everyone to stroll without fear of getting hit by a car.
Bikes Can be a Hazard for the Blind
As New York regulars know, the city’s bike riders are another matter, whether they’re the bike messenger racers portrayed in movies or the little old men in suits who bike to Wall Street towers.
More bike lanes in New York City mean fewer people riding their bikes on the sidewalks (illegal, too, for those over age 14).
However, the placement of bike lanes varies from avenue to street — sometimes in the parked car lane, sometimes alongside it — so all visitors have to be careful of the many bicycles.
Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Stimulates the Senses
One of the first places to take a visually impaired visitor is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden home to the first garden in the United States specifically designed for blind or limited vision visitors. The Alice Recknagel Ireys Fragrance Garden, created in 1955, offers plants selected for their fragrant or tactile qualities. Visitors are encouraged to touch and smell all the plants.
The Fragrance Garden plants, grown in raised beds, are the perfect height for those in wheelchairs or kids in strollers. They are very popular with small children and can be enjoyed by anyone. Braille labels identify the plants, and young kids also enjoy the tactile guides.
New York City’s Collections for the Blind Child or Adult
Lighthouse International, based in New York, publishes a guide, “Let’s Go! Museums in The Big Apple.” The guide details information on facilities for the vision impaired at museums throughout the city. Some museums offer regularly scheduled touch tours, offering a tactile way for kids and adults to experience the museum; others have verbal descriptive tours where guides go into great detail about what you are encountering.
Additionally, the non-profit Art Education for the Blind publishes a New York Beyond Sight audio guide with descriptions of favorite attractions by prominent New Yorkers. Their website provides many other resources for travelers with sight impairments such as this video, "Come to the Table" which teaches sight impaired children how to eat better and enjoy their food, something that all parents appreciate, especially when traveling.
If you are traveling with a young child, The American Museum of Natural History has a Discovery Room for children that features lots of touchable artifacts. The Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth also has touchable rocks.
Visiting New York City with an older blind child requires more hands-on activities. The Jewish Museum offers family touch tour about archaeology or other themes, depending on the child’s interests. Kids can make a clay artifact, touch the mosaic floor in the galleries, and explore other artifacts by hand. The museum requires two weeks advance notice.
Family members of any age will appreciate a rainy day or an afternoon at the Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind at 40 West 20th Street in Chelsea. This barrier-free branch of the New York City Public Library has adult and children’s reading rooms which provide specially-formatted materials, equipment for listening to recorded books and magazines, and a variety of other electronic reading aids. There may even be a free concert or lecture at your visit, so check their schedule ahead of time.
Touch Tours for Arts Lovers at New York City Museums
The Brooklyn Museum has renowned collections of African and Islamic art, the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and 23 period rooms. The museum, which shares a parking lot with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, runs touch tours with a guide who offers detailed verbal descriptions of artwork. These tours are by appointment only.
If you visit for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and The Brooklyn Museum on the same day, you can save on a combo ticket. And kids under age 12 are free at both institutions.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has regularly scheduled touch tours, and verbal description tours, and also offers free private tours. If you prefer a self-guided tour, Audio Guide players are free for visitors who are blind or partially sighted. There are also large-print and Braille tour booklets, and Braille labels in the sculpture garden. The Met has Picture This! hands-on workshops for families with kids ages 5-17. These multi-sensory workshops offer detailed descriptions of artwork, touch, and a chance to create your own masterpiece.
Exploring the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum with the Blind
The U.S. S. Intrepid offers monthly guided verbal description and touch tours through the USS Intrepid, a WW II-era aircraft carrier. You can also book a private tour.
For those with low vision, the museum offers verbal description and tactile guides using smart pen technology. Borrow the guides at the information desk and take the self-guided tour, with raised line maps, tactile images of artifacts and audio.
More New York City Resources for the Visually Impaired
If your family is exhausted from the hustle bustle of touring contemporary Manhattan and Brooklyn, plan a day’s outing to the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden — no appointment necessary.
The historic home offers verbal description and touch tours any time during museum Hours. The colonial ca. 1799 building at 421 East 61st Street between First and York Avenues has eight fully furnished period rooms and a large garden.
Note that the landmarked museum has limited accessibility for visitors with mobility impairments.
For more resources in New York City to assist visitors who are sight impaired, visit the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
And before you travel, be sure to visit the The Family Center on Technology and Disability website to see the latest reviews on smartphone and tablet apps that can make travel with sight limitations easier for all.
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