What followed was a conversation that has no doubt taken place countless times in front of that wall. We talked about Braille. I explained to him that, through touch, it allowed people who couldn’t see with their eyes to read about the images on those panels. I told him it was there to make sure everyone could experience the memorial.
This week, I learned I was wrong.
The Braille at the memorial is not easily readable. It is more artful than helpful, and in some places, completely undecipherable, according to a report that will be released Thursday by the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee.
I was allowed to get an early look at the 13-page report, which will be the subject of an online discussion Thursday titled “Accessibility is NOT optional.”
The report details the accessibility shortcomings of a memorial that has long been seen as a testament to the heights people with disabilities can reach. FDR didn’t just steer the country through the Great Depression and World War II; he did that from a wheelchair.
“It’s the only memorial that shows one of our great presidents had a disability, and I think for it to not be sensitive to all disabilities is a shame,” Gordon Gund, who is blind and is scheduled to speak at that online discussion, tells me on a recent afternoon. “It’s not inclusive as it ought to be.”
In many ways, the story of the memorial captures the country’s evolving views of disabilities. Roosevelt served as president from 1933 until his death in 1945, and during that time, he tried hard to conceal from the public that polio had left him unable to walk unassisted.
Before his memorial opened in 1997, demonstrators chanted at the site, “Don’t hide FDR’s source of strength.” They called for the memorial to include a statue of the president seated in his wheelchair. But that didn’t happen — not then, and not for several more years.
It wasn’t until January 2001 that the life-size bronze statue of Roosevelt in a wheelchair was displayed at the memorial.
“The unveiling is a major national moment, the removal of the shroud of shame that cloaks disability,” a Washington Post article quoted Alan A. Reich, then president of the National Organization on Disability, saying at the time. “The statue will become a shrine to people with disabilities, but it will also inspire everyone to overcome obstacles.”
Gund recalls standing in the crowd that day, feeling the weight of that moment.
“I was moved that, at last, that well-kept secret was out for everybody’s good,” he says. “It really was taking the cloak off. It was exposing the truth.”
Now, 20 years later, exposing the truth comes in a different form. It involves looking closely at who can and who can’t experience a public space, and the reasons for that.
Gund says he was familiar with some of the Braille issues at the memorial, but he describes the new report as showing him accessibility issues that he didn’t know existed. One finding that stood out to him was that the barriers placed around broken fountains are difficult to detect by a person who depends on a white cane to get around, a description that fits Gund.
“If objects are greater than 27 inches in height, a person’s cane will go under the object and the person will not detect it,” reads the report. “In my opinion, the most dangerous fountain is the in-ground fountain in Room One because it drops a couple of feet straight down with no difference in elevation between the lip of the fountain and the surrounding sidewalk. The stanchions should be replaced by a guardrail — posts drilled into the sidewalk would be cane-detectable.”
The report was written by Cheryl Fogle-Hatch, who is blind and created MuseumSenses, a website to discuss the work she is doing to make museums, galleries and other cultural organizations more accessible. She was commissioned to inspect the site by the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee, which aims as part of its mission to document, preserve and share the work that has gone into disability representation at the site.
Fogle-Hatch says she hadn’t visited the memorial before going on March 17. The report provides a detailed account of her experience there. It shows her struggling to navigate the website for the memorial, and then once there, trying to piece together the Braille like a puzzle.
“The Braille ranges from somewhat readable to completely unrecognizable,” the report reads. “This includes the quote in the Prologue Room and the letters on the workers mural and the quotes on the columns in Room One. . . . The Braille on the columns is completely unreadable because the dots are indented. They feel like holes in the stone, and they are not recognizable as dots.”
In a 1997 Washington Post article that detailed the problems with the Braille, one blind visitor lamented, “If they’re going to go to the trouble to put the dots there, it would be helpful if there were actually something you could read.”
Fogle-Hatch points to that article to show the issue has been raised for decades, and yet nothing has been done about it. A simple solution, she says, would be to add small signs that explain in readable Braille that the Braille on the memorial is an artistic rendering that is not to scale.
Fogle-Hatch says her report is not meant to be adversarial toward the National Park Service, which oversees the memorials on the National Mall. It acknowledges that officials are aware of some of the accessibility issues and have put together plans to eventually address them. Fogle-Hatch also recognizes that government entities have many priorities and tend to move slowly.
But what makes the report significant is that it puts these issues in front of the public, instead of leaving them tucked away in government documents that most people won’t see. It lets officials know that people are paying attention and are waiting for a memorial that tells the story of disability representation in the country to show — not just through a statue, but also through action — how far that’s come.
“We’re just reminding them that it’s important,” Fogle-Hatch says. “Over the years, I’ve had people say to me, ‘There is a memorial on the Mall where there is Braille on the walls.’ Well, sort of.”
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