Hands-on Philly tour company opens a world of senses beyond sight

 Denice Brown visits a cheese and meat shop during a Philly Touch Tour of the Italian Market. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

Denice Brown visits a cheese and meat shop during a Philly Touch Tour of the Italian Market. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

Philadelphia’s Italian Market is known for its cheeses, meats, chocolate, and fresh pastas. But what would a tour through the neighborhood be like without the ability to see? 

That’s where Philly Touch Tours comes in. The guide company specializes in offering sensory-first tours of Philadelphia. 

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, guide Andy Maunder was setting the scene on the corner of Ninth and Christian streets before a tour of the Italian Market. The group will be visiting vendors along the historic street corridor, taking in its smells, tastes, and sounds.

Their first stop? Superior Pasta, a fresh pasta store.

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“You can hear right away the buzz of the freezers on the right-hand side of the store,” explained Trish Maunder, Andy’s wife and one of the co-founders of Philly Touch Tours. She’s describing the narrow store as they enter before introducing the group to owner Joe Lammano.

Lammano quickly cranks up his pasta machine and launches into an explanation about different types of pasta and the merits of homemade versus store-bought. (And don’t even get him started on the idea of gluten-free pasta.)

Once he churns the pasta out, he passes raw pieces around to the group so they can hold and smell it.

This is just stop one on a two-hour tour that includes a chocolate shop, a store that sells varieties of olive oils and vinegars, a cheesemonger, and a butcher. Trish Maunder said they usually run over the allotted time, because people enjoy lingering, trying samples, or returning to their favorite store at the end of the tour to buy something.

Touch Tour-3 Elizabeth Mayeux smells flowers on the street during a Philly Touch Tour of the Italian Market. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

Maunder first started thinking about ways to integrate sensory experiences when her now-grown daughter was born.

“My husband, Andy, and I gave birth to a child who was born blind 30 years ago,” she said. “As a artist and an art educator, it was a bit of a shock at first, and I think we got our heads around it by thinking, ‘How else do we interpret the world?’ “

Last year she co-founded Philly Touch Tours with Austin Seraphin, a computer programmer who was born blind. He’s been coding since he was 7 and has spent his career working on making technology accessible.

“It’s like this whole other thing for me to get into,” said Seraphin of starting the tour company. “It’s cultural accessibility instead of digital accessibility, but it all kind of comes back to accessibility.”

Seraphin and Trish Maunder set out to change what they saw as a tragic flaw in the arts and culture scene.

Touch Tour-9Austin Seraphin and Trish Maunder walking in the Italian Market. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

“For the blind there is usually not much, especially when you’re an adult,” said Seraphin. “When you’re a kid, there’s some stuff, but when you grow up there’s nothing really.”

Elizabeth Mayeux is taking the tour on this day and often attends the company’s meet-ups for happy hours or dinners out. She says she likes the social aspect.

“I love this group,” said Mayeux. “It’s very personable. I found a little family in it.”

Denice Brown from the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania said having access to a tour like this allowed her to experience the Italian Market in a new way as a person who is blind.

“Most of us have been to the Italian Market before but never in this way when we are given more description, the aroma of the different spices, flowers, and fruits and things we have come across,” said Brown. “It’s very good being a person who is blind, knowing a little more about the things that are around me.”

Philly Touch Tours started off by offering hands-on tours of the Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Penn Museum. The results were surprising to even the most seasoned curators, like when a blind guest realized the museum’s monumental sphinx has ribs.

“We didn’t know that. They didn’t know that. The docents who had been working there for 20 years didn’t know that,” said Seraphin. “No one had ever been able to touch it.”

Seraphin and Maunder said they are hoping to expand Philly Touch Tours to more parts of the city and start offering training to cultural institutions on how to reach out to people who are visually impaired.

“You mean blind people want to touch stuff and do cultural stuff?” Seraphin said jokingly. “It’s certainly an idea whose time has come.”

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