Skip to main content

‘Touch Tour’ Offers Moran Eye Center Patients with Vision Impairment New Way of Experiencing Art

Patient Support Program "Touch Tour" at UMFA
A participant in a Moran Eye Center Patient Support Program “Touch Tour” at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts experiences a marble sarcophagus from the Roman Empire.

Wearing a pale blue glove, Mary House gently touched the 14th-century sculpture of the Hindu god, Ganesha.

“I can’t see it, but I can feel it,” she said, standing in the dim light of the second floor of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA).

She wasn’t the only one. A group of Utahns with vision loss recently visited the museum for a “touch tour” organized by the John A. Moran Eye Center’s Patient Support Program. The tour gave them the opportunity to “see” the art with their gloved hands. It’s one of the many ways the program shows patients they can still enjoy life — even with a visual impairment.

At 85, House has macular degeneration. In her right eye, she’s legally blind. In her left eye, vision loss has been slower. For people like her, experiencing the arts, whether in a museum or at a movie theater, can feel much more difficult as their vision worsens.

But sometimes all people need to do is ask for support, said Lisa Ord, PhD, LCSW, the program director.

“After the doctors have done as much as they can and someone is losing vision or blind, that’s where we step in,” she explained. “How are you going to learn to live life so you can function independently, do the things you want, and enjoy life? There’s so much more you can pick up through other senses.” 

Opening ‘new worlds’ for patients

Patient Support Program "Touch Tour" at UMFA
Participants in a Moran Eye Center Patient Support Program “Touch Tour” at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts experience a bronze statue from the 1700s.

At UMFA, the guides challenged the visitors with visual impairments to use their hands as tools. What was the sculpture made of? How did it feel different in one place than another? What might the details signify about who or what the art represented? Then, they deepened the visitors’ understanding by giving them more context and detail about what they couldn’t see.

Though a UMFA “touch tour” is always available upon request, the experience was new for many in the group, including Kasia Bolke, 22, who lost vision in her left eye after being hit by a car at 18 months old.

“It’s different for me to go to a museum and touch things,” she said.

Standing next to a marble sarcophagus from the Roman Empire, Bolke felt the exterior and guessed it was made for “someone important.”

Then, the group stopped by a wooden Egyptian coffin in a protective, clear case. They couldn’t touch this artifact, but the guide gave them a highly detailed description of what was inside: to let the words help them see.

Tours like this and auditory devices can enhance the experience of someone with vision loss, Ord explained. The program also partners with Utah Opera every year so patients can attend a performance and listen via headset to a live description of what’s happening on stage. Movie theaters often have headsets available, too, for a pre-recorded narration of what’s happening on screen.

When the UMFA tour ended, Walter Draper, 81, who lost his vision seven months ago from giant cell arteritis, said the museum experience was different than he expected.

“I was hesitant to come, but my wife encouraged me,” he said. “I thought it was silly that someone who can’t see should come to an art exhibit.”

In the end, having the art explained while interacting with other people with visual impairments was “great,” he said.

“It opens new worlds for him,” said his wife, Kathy. “It’s nice to see other people have gone through this and are succeeding.”

About Moran’s Patient Support Program

More than 600 people with low vision receive services through the Moran Patient Support Program each year. Those include support groups, the free orientation to vision loss seminar (offered monthly), individual therapy, and more. 

Learn More