Art-Reach puts culture within the grasp of the oft-overlooked

    The antique carousel was playing a calliope version of the Beatles’ “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da.” But most of the dozen people on a guided tour of the Please Touch Museum couldn’t hear it.

    “We have cats, rabbits, goats, pigs, and of course the horses. Take your pick of the menagerie here,” said the director of collections, Stacey Swigart. “And, state law: You have to buckle in.”

    Wearing headphones on their heads and radio-signal receivers around their necks, the adults instantly turned into children as they climbed onto the hand-carved beast of their choice, and spun around and around.

    This was a tour of the historic Memorial Hall – now the home of the children’s museum – for the hard of hearing.

    Speaking into a microphone headset that beamed her voice into the ears of those gathered, Swigart explained the hall is the last thing still standing from the 1876 Centennial Expo, a world’s fair which introduced the typewriter, the telephone, the modern bicycle, and Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic.”

    This tour would not have been possible without Art-Reach, an organization that makes cultural venues accessible to people with handicaps. Director Michael Norris acts as a broker between disabled groups and cultural venues, to make sure each gets what they want. Audiences have special needs like para-transit parking, closed captioning, sufficient space to turn wheelchairs around – things a cultural venue may not know it’s missing. Those venues, for their part, need paying audiences.

    Art-Reach also makes theater, museums, and concerts available to poorer people who cannot afford the full ticket price. About 15,000 people a year are able to take advantage of Philadelphia’s rich cultural life through the organization.

    “A lot of non-profits focus on food, clothing, and shelter, the three legs on the stool of humanity,” said Norris. “We focus on the fourth leg: the spirit.”

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