Obituary: Caryl Barnett was sightless, but a true visionary

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2012 - 8:50 PM

Caryl Barnett opened the eyes of the seeing world on behalf of blind people eager to appreciate museums and theater.

Blind herself for more than 50 years, Barnett worked closely with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater to ensure that others wouldn't miss out on the Twin Cities' cultural offerings.

Barnett, of St. Paul, died May 9 after suffering from lung cancer. She was 78.

"She and others made it possible for other people to enjoy" the arts, said Jon Skaalen, access program coordinator for VSA Minnesota, a nonprofit that promotes accessibility for the disabled to the arts. "She was such a gentle person who could describe things [to arts officials] without getting angry."

Her advocacy and education about how to best serve blind patrons led to creation of tactile tours at the Guthrie. Blind patrons also enjoy behind-the-scenes touching of costumes, set exploration and audio descriptions as the story unfolds.

In 1982, Barnett met Margaret Pfanstiehl while they were training with guide dogs. Pfanstiehl told Barnett about theaters offering audio descriptions of the actions, costumes, facial expressions and anything else on a stage or in a film or in an art exhibit.

Barnett approached the Guthrie and successfully pushed to get the funding and staff training necessary. Other theaters followed suit, and Minnesota now leads the nation in audio-described shows, with more than 200 a year.

Barnett "was in very close contact with our volunteer tour guides and offered sensitivity training to help with our blind patrons" on and off for eight or nine years until about a year ago, said Courtney Gerber, associate director of education, school and tour programs for the Walker.

"She was very open and honest," Gerber added. "We could make mistakes and she would gently correct us."

In 2009, VSA Minnesota gave her its Outstanding Promotion of Access award.

Michael Latz, her rabbi at Shir Tikhah in Minneapolis, described Barnett as a "fierce and determined" woman who had a "deep and profound empathy for what should be right."

Latz added that Barnett was in her mind "never, never a victim; never self-pitying" as she gradually lost her eyesight to a rare disorder.

"And this after the woman went blind with two young children, went back to school and got a graduate degree and then went to work for 40 years" as a clinical social worker until retiring in 2001, the rabbi added.

And despite her blindness, Latz said, "she had the best sense of direction ... and could give directions better than anyone I know."

Barnett grew up in the Albany, N.Y., area and raised her children near Syracuse, N.Y., before moving to the Twin Cities in 1975.

Along with working at Lutheran Social Service in Minneapolis and Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, Barnett also was on the faculty of the Gestalt Institute of the Twin Cities and volunteered with the Walk-In Counseling Center, Jewish Family and Children Services and other organizations.

She is survived by her two children, Michael and Amy; and a sister, Adele. A memorial service will be held at noon May 24 at Shir Tikvah, 1360 W. Minnehaha Pkwy., Minneapolis.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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