Great Lakes Aquarium, Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss Partner to Bring New Experience to Visitors

Tour the Great Lakes Aquarium by Touch; Kickoff Event Taking Place Saturday, November 9

DULUTH, Minn. – More than three million people in the United States live with vision loss, whether it be partial, full, for a lifetime, or later on in life.

Great Lakes Aquarium is now working hard to break down barriers, making sure every visitor receives the same satisfaction no matter how much they’re able to see or hear.

“If you couldn’t tell, I’m over the moon excited,” said Samantha Smingler, Inclusion Coordinator at Great Lakes Aquarium. “This cannot stop here; we’ve got to do more!”

The fish, otters, and even jellyfish will soon be seen by all visitors in some way, shape, or form when visiting the aquarium.

“In an effort to make sure that truly everyone can experience the aquarium and have a really engaging experience, we have been working with Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in Duluth, ensuring folks in our vision loss community can have an equally epic time here and feel connected to Lake Superior,” said Smingler.

Smingler has devoted more than a year of her work at the aquarium to make sure the facility is accessible to visitors living with vision loss.

“We were able to work with both a set of teenagers as well as youth, so children under the age of 12 all the way up to seniors, and folks who have experienced vision loss their entire lives are able to feel comfortable during their visit,” said Smingler.

She says other modifications have taken place at the facility as well during the planning process for the new touch based tours, such as rearranging of large objects, lighting, and adding more tactile displays.

“The tactile tour is specifically designed for someone with vision loss so that someone can describe and walk them through the tactile objects,” said Smingler.

Staff are now trained at using detailed descriptions as well as models and other tactile tools to help make time spent at the aquatic attraction extremely rewarding for those in the vision loss community.

“As someone who has experienced vision loss with a brain injury, it means everything to still be able to experience something and for it to come in different formats,” said Smingler.

“This new addition is really exciting because we have a company here that has made a point about making their place accessible especially to the visually impaired,” said James Kelm, an employee at Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss. “I think this is just really neat.”

Kelm lost all usable vision at the age of 30. Since then, he often comes into contact with situations that leave him feeling left out.

“You often times aren’t able to enjoy what people in your family, your neighborhood or your community; you can’t enjoy what they enjoy because it’s not accessible,” said Kelm.

Thanks to the collaboration from aquarium staff, and Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss, Kelm and his four legged companion Casper, along with countless others will be able to have a much more enjoyable and educational experience during tours.

“When you look at something visually a lot of times what you’re seeing, you don’t necessarily see what’s under the skin in terms of the musculature and the way the animal really moves,” Kelm said while holding a model of a river otter. “By touching it, I can feel their muscles so it’s kind of fun to discuss what we both experience, because sometimes I think by not being able to depend on your vision, you actually learn more about what you’re looking at.”

Tactile objects, audio descriptions, and braille, helping to make memories for future visitors who otherwise may have felt left out when it comes to opportunities in our community.

“It seems to be the best win, win. I think all of our visitors and all of our community is going to benefit, but it makes me extremely excited that our community with vision loss had a welcoming place to have an exciting time, not a good time, but an exciting, engaging experience,” said Smingler.

The Great Lakes Aquarium is hosting a launch party on Saturday, November 9 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Six tactile stations will be set up for visitors to utilize, along with professional audio descriptions and vision screening provided by the Duluth Lion’s Club.

Discounted admission rates of $12 per adult and $7 per child are offered with an RSVP. Low income access rates, group rates, and Aquarium memberships also apply for this event.

Click here to RSVP. (RSVP not required, but will secure your discounted admission)

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