Local group gives blind individuals ‘a true voice’

Philly Touch Tours works against social barriers and organizes multi-sensory tours.

Austin Seraphin (left), who is visually impaired, is guided by docent Dr. Benjamin Ashcon. | DANIEL RAINVILLE TTN

Austin Seraphin got his first computer when he was seven. Equipped with a voice card, the computer allowed Seraphin—who was born blind—access to something most people take for granted.

Seraphin, now 38, is the co-founder of Philly Touch Tours, an organization working to increase accessibility and empathy for the visually impaired living in and around the Philadelphia area. The organization creates and manages tours to museums, art exhibits and other cultural sites.

“There’s really not much out there for the blind culturally, and even if there is you wouldn’t know or most would just assume there isn’t,” Seraphin said.

His partner at Philly Touch Tours, Trish Maunder, has been working with the blind since her time as teacher in Vancouver more than 30 years ago.

“Someone from the school put me in touch with a woman, who was blind who lived locally,” Maunder sad. “I remember we spoke on the phone and I asked if she would be free to come to speak about her life to my students.”

Maunder recalls losing sleep over her fear of saying or doing the wrong thing in the presence of her visually impaired guest, who ended up having no problems getting around or speaking to the children.

“It just blew my mind,” Maunder said. “So I think that when I gave birth to a child who was blind, it brought me back to this moment.”

Seraphin and Maunder met “completely randomly” at a gathering that took attendees around the Delaware River on a sailboat, Seraphin said. Seraphin was creating an online presence for the event and selling tickets. The pair later met to discuss the beginnings of what would serve as the basis for Philly Touch Tours, which officially launched last March.

Katherine Allen later joined the team as an accessibility consultant. Allen has macular degeneration, a disease that renders her legally blind. The three team members make a triangle, Allen said, “the most stable form of construction.” Each member contributes a different perspective to the program.

“We test everything we do before we put it in place,” Maunder said. “My perspective is one thing, Austin’s is another and so is Katherine’s.”

Touch Tour’s motto is “nothing about us without us,” a nod to the organization’s united front.

“We enjoy what we are doing so much, because it cuts through barriers,” Maunder said. “We’ve found that people feel intimidated when talking to someone with vision loss. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. They’re anxious that they’ll use the wrong term.”

She said with their training, they are trying to address social stigmas about the blind, but “through blind people telling their own stories.”

Allen said they try to make their tours a whole experience.

David Wannop, who is visually impaired, reads a braille inscription at the Penn Museum. | DANIEL RAINVILLE TTN
David Wannop, who is visually impaired, reads a braille inscription at the Penn Museum. | DANIEL RAINVILLE TTN

“We try to think a bit outside the box, and bring in all the sensory experiences,” she added.

“There’s a lot of thinking on our feet, instead of, ‘Oh let’s pick five pieces that are touchable.’ We try to think about what might work beyond that.”

This idea applies to their tour at the 9th Street Italian Market, which incorporates participants’ sense of taste, smell and touch.

The group also hosts two tours at Penn Museum: “Insights into Ancient Egypt: Life, Death and the Afterlife” and “Insights into Ancient Egypt: In Touch with Mummies.”

“I just find it joyful, it’s so exciting,” Maunder said. “You’re breaking barriers and trying to get new ways of looking at things. We want to actually help people who have vision loss and give them a true voice.”

Erin Blewett can be reached at erin.clare.blewett@temple.edu.

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