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An Accessible Museum Tour in Your Hand

February 4 2010 | by

Catharine McNally is founder and president of Keen Guides, a company that creates and sells downloadable tours for the smart phone filled with images, audio, video and text. A museum lover who has been deaf since she was an infant, McNally hopes her company will make cultural outings a more enjoyable and accessible for everyone, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Q: Catharine, how did you first get involved with tour guides, especially with making sure they are accessible to people with disabilities?
I was visiting a museum in Washington, D.C., and the information desk handed me a pile of paper transcripts so I could follow along with the audio guide. I went home and video recorded a version of the commentary in cued speech [mouth movements of speech combined with hand signals, or cues] as video clips, and then went back the next day and viewed it on my iPod. It was a transformative experience for me.

Video: How Keen Guides Got Started (Captioned)

Q: What’s your connection to the art world?
I love museums and cultural venues, and worked at several of them, including the Freer + Sackler galleries, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Dali Museum in London. After I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2006, I wanted to move to Washington, D.C., and get involved in cultural organizations and museums. But I kept thinking more seriously about my vision for accessible museums. I sat down with my parents to see if this project could really become a reality, and my mother connected me with a Wake Forest alumna [Karen Borchert] who had been running her own business for eight years, and we partnered to start Keen Guides.

Q: How does Keen Guides work?
We create, aggregate and distribute short-format audio and video tours for everyone to use, including in foreign languages and with accessibility modalities such as closed captioning, sign language and cued speech. Visitors can download or stream the tours onto their personal media player, like the iPhone, or use a pre-loaded personal media player at participating cultural venues. We create the content in-house or work with third parties like PBS television station affiliate WETA or DC By Foot, which develops free walking tours of the city. The content includes short-format video that is geo-coded by GPS location and tagged with categories like “good for kids” or “Civil War.”

Q: Do you think the deaf community will readily adopt this new technology?
There’s a growing comfort with the smart phone and people are now more willing to experiment with it and potentially use it more dynamically other than for just e-mail and phone. I’m hoping that location-based travel content will logically expand into other markets and become as prevalent as text messaging once was for the deaf community. Ten years ago, the deaf population was the largest “early customer” group in the nascent text messaging industry. Sometimes, the most accessible technology out there is the best technology for everyone to use!

Q: When will see start seeing these tours in museums and popular cities?
We’ve contracted with Wake Forest and Gallaudet universities to develop campus tours for prospective students and other visitors. Once we get our application approved by Apple, we’ll be starting an iPhone Beta pilot in three cities with high tourism and local, arts-focused communities: Washington, Austin, and Winston-Salem. If you’re in one of those cities and want to be alerted when these are tours are available at a site near you, send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Keen Guides is also looking for people who have an iPhone and an interest in learning some great history about Washington, D.C. If you are interested, please sign up. Keen will send out information about downloading the test version of the iPhone application in early February.

Related Articles: For the Deaf, Captioned Tours Wherever You Roam

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