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Some thoughts around the power of the audio guide from Wendy Moor - audio guide writer and producer

In his blog William Philips talks about a recent ‘Secret Shopper’ survey of Hampshire cultural sites. He says that "nearly everyone who carried out the survey said an audio guide would help them to negotiate and enjoy the sites." So – as vision impaired visitors have themselves identified the potential of this medium to meet their needs, museums and heritage sites should feel confident that making it a central part of their access provision will be a worthwhile exercise.

Having spent much of the last ten years writing and producing audio guides for blind and partially sighted visitors I have witnessed first hand the huge difference a good tour can make – the difference between a frustrating, bewildering and negative experience and one that’s liberating, fulfilling, stimulating and fun.

The first thought which probably springs to most people’s minds if ‘audio guide’ and ‘vision impairment’ are mentioned in the same breath is ‘audio description’. Of course this function is extremely valuable – provided the description is pithy, logical and evocative. But I wonder how many people are fully aware of the number of other roles this kind of guide can play. It can also facilitate safe and comfortable navigation. 

At risk of stating the obvious, there’s no point in a visitor making an enormous effort to come to your site if they can’t get to the exhibits. And a truly effective vision impairment tour can enable visitors with a degree of residual sight to navigate independently. When the visitor has located an exhibit or other interesting spot the guide can support a direct engagement through touch, sound and smell – maximising every possible opportunity for sensory encounter.

And there’s more – much more. If all that sounds too good to be true experience this for yourself by taking the Jodi Award-winning guide to AirSpace at Imperial War Museum Duxford.

Undertaking a project like this can be daunting. It demands time, skill, and the close involvement of a focus group. But it can be done – as Duxford and other determined organisations have proved. Reassurance should be taken from the fact that the scripting process needs to start with a back-to-basics investigation into the essential characteristics of the place. Nothing more fancy or complicated than that. 

To be successful the guide must reflect at every moment the precise reality of what’s actually there – with all the unique characteristics, which make that specific site worth visiting to begin with. The honest, open-minded approach necessary to achieve a level of clarity – and reveal everything your site can offer a blind and partially sighted audience – can be refreshing and enlightening. I’ve lost track of the number of times people have said to me ‘I’ve never noticed that before!’

Duxford’s interactive exhibition in AirSpace was designed specifically for inclusivity – but other factors are key to the success of the venture – for example pre-visit information and staff training.

Other organisations have commissioned a vision impairment audio guide after a general guide is up and running. The outcome can be positive, provided it’s recognised that in order to have any relevance to a blind and partially sighted audience the so-called ‘adapted’ version cannot be a mere ‘tweak’ of a tour designed for a sighted audience. Again this would seem obvious.

The vision impairment guide can of course draw on the existing content – and often must if equality of learning is to be achieved. But content has to be presented in a different way, carefully woven in with the guide’s prime function – providing the coherent orientation and sensory engagement essential for a quality experience. The ‘adapted’ tour requires just as much work as a ‘from scratch’ vision impairment tour, and ultimately becomes a new tour in its own right. 

Experience has taught me that doing things the other way around – starting with the vision impairment guide Duxford-style – is the ideal. The rigorous discipline necessary for making a tour of this kind can challenge preconceived ideas and pinpoint barriers to understanding – physical and intellectual – which tend to affect all visitors. The resulting solutions can then be applied to future tours – and the overall learning applied across the whole organisation.  In other words, everybody benefits.

In conclusion here are the words of one of the Duxford project focus group members.

‘Planes, trains and automobiles… until recently just modes of transport to me.

A plane was simply a means to an end.  If I was lucky and had saved my pennies it took me to a far and distant place for a period of indulgence and then brought me safely back to the UK.  But Duxford AirSpace changed all that.

For me as a visually impaired person modes of transport often hinder rather than help me – and the inaccessibility of it all is more often than not very testing.  So to experience the delights aircraft and flight can offer was something I didn’t think I’d experience in my lifetime.  Never before have aircraft seemed so interesting.’

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 11 October 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 October 2010

Cassie Herschel-Shorland asks what makes a museum or gallery environment accessible?

Inclusive exhibition design
I would like to pick-up on Marcus's questions about why new exhibitions and museums are still opened without being accessible to all? What makes a museum or gallery environment accessible?

A simplified definition of 'inclusive design' that I use when working towards inclusive exhibitions is 'design that provides choice and flexibility for people'. This sounds straightforward and obvious when explained in a design team meeting or project workshop, but it is too often lost along the way when decisions have to be made and budgets met.

The idea of choice and multi-sensory design required to be inclusive is perceived as being too generous and a one-size-to-fit-all solution is the compromise presented after designs have been scrutinised and cut back to fit the budget (value engineering). 'One-size' usually only fits one person, not all of us!

Too often the visual elements win over the tactile, audio and olfactory. There is then a miss-match between an organisational policy or brief that aims for inclusion and the reality - limited by current design process and practice.

This is not always the case (but it is, too often) and creative approaches - surely the role of a designer - can create cost effective and inclusive solutions. This needs to be tackled in design education.

In the meantime I would love to see some of the exhibitors at the RNIB Tactile Graphics event display their products at design fares where exhibition designers and contractors show theirs; mixing their audiences and knowledge could prompt cross-fertilisation of ideas, materials, technologies and user centred solutions...

You can visit Cassie Herschel-Shorlands' Access and Museum Design consultancy website at

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 October 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 October 2010

Siegfried Saerberg from ‘Blinde und Kunst’ gives a poetic description of his tactile exploration of a work of art

There are many barriers for blind people in museums when they want to touch the exhibits. Touch is said to spoil or damage the works of art through chemical pollution and extractions of the skin. However, not all objects that could be touched are being made available for meaningful touching.

Very few works of art are allowed for touching and often only by using handling gloves. ‘Blinde und Kunst’ (Blind People and Art), deploy all the senses: smell, touch and sound. I view cognitive investigation as a sensual pleasure and an act of creation.

Almost hovering, my hands glide through the air. First, it remains completely open where my skin will make contact with land. Where does elastic air turn into a coast which has been cast into the firm shape of matter? Which hand will be the first to touch the shore? Will there be a rocky coast or a sandy beach?

My hand and my fingers withdraw a bit, form a circular arc. Their back is turned upwards. Thus, in rapt anticipation, they fly through their cosmos. But although they are tense, this tension leaves a downward opening which, from its inner concavity, waits for a meeting with that which is alien.

And then, at some point, the time has come. Suddenly air turns into firm matter. Finally, the fingers are free. One hand calls out to the other, "Come here!" They meet and fan out into different directions. The hands have gone ashore and start to travel through landscapes.

My hands stroke the substantial matter. Matter, formed through natural strength from time immemorial, then, for a second time, shaped by the artist with imaginative power, and ever-pulsing life, meet.

Stone and flesh touch each other with their respective auras. Cold matter against warm matter, firm against soft. I ask: Who are you, stone?

Then I want to find out which message is held inside the stone for me. At first, I "carefully" feel my way around the stone to gauge its size and shape. Hands and fingers engage in an animated correspondence. Cautiously, I slowly feel my way forward. Hollows, hills, reefs, plains, ravines, holes, mountaintops, thickets. Hands and fingers and a heavy tongue connect the many small elevations and drops to form shapes.

Sometimes the art object proves unruly. It takes on an attitude of resisting reluctance. Its fur is rough and coarse. Its material meets me with coldness and rejection. Its surface asserts its position, sharp and angular.

Sometimes the art object is also friendly, its own self still run through by its memory of life. Driftwood, floating on icy waves, that can be reanimated. The soft, smooth warmth of a gentle wood-skinned core. The touching hand gives warmth and life and in the rhythm of its movements the hands rise above themselves, grow.

All the time, my fingers keep shaping new words. My imagination keeps coming up with new interpretations for the stone until I have pieced together a mosaic, made of myself and the sculpture. The names formed by the hands try to speak their own language. Bubbling at first, they endeavour to grasp their new continent.

Bow-shaped – double-spanned – shooting upwards – lifted forwards – three-hollowed – flowing to an end. Finiteness grasping for the void.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 6 October 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 6 October 2010

Louise Fryer gives an overview of the value and drawbacks of using tactile images to make collections more accessible

Through my work with VocalEyes, I have trained staff in museums across the country to help make collections more accessible to blind and partially sighted visitors.

For curators hoping to make collections accessible to blind and partially sighted people, especially in these cash-strapped times, tactile images can seem like a godsend. They look good, they are relatively cheap to produce and every blind person can ‘read’ by touch – or can they?

A little while ago, I spent a morning with members of the Colchester Museum’s disability access group – the Portal group - as they piloted a series of tactile images. Members represented a range of ages and sight characteristics, but all agreed it takes time to get used to ‘reading’ an image.

For a start, a tactile must be oriented the right way up. The lines must be raised sufficiently for a user to feel. The image must also be simplified, reduced to bold shapes that can be easily distinguished. That instantly begs the question of what to leave out? Who makes that choice? And how is the divergence between the original source material and the tactile conveyed? Then there is the problem of perspective. The foreshortening and convergence typical of a 2-D image can be confusing when encountered with no explanation.

So it soon became clear that the tactiles needed to be accompanied by a verbal commentary. However, while a verbal guide to the tactile is one thing, it is very different from an audio description (AD) of the original artwork. Brian, who has no visual memory, pointed out that an image is designed to make a quick impact – he felt AD achieved this, while a tactile took time to navigate.

The tactile also took a good deal of concentration to interpret. On the positive side, Catherine, who has some useable vision, felt that, as she got used to them, the tactiles became easier to decipher. She enjoyed the fact that the tactile gave her the proportion and layout of the picture and geographical relationship between its elements.

While Catherine felt the AD was crucial, the tactile provided something extra: ‘it helps fix the image in my mind.’ The Portal Group concluded that, while tactiles are a useful tool, they need to be thought about carefully and are only part of the access answer.

For the describer, tactiles require a two-stage description – an AD of the original source material, and a separate, navigational guide. If you have used tactiles – or commissioned them for your museum or gallery, I’d be really interested to hear about your experience.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 October 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 October 2010

Marcus Weisen on waking up to cultural rights!

DAO kindly invited me to contribute a blog to add to the lively exchange about equal access to museums, galleries and heritage for visually impaired people begun by Will Phillips

There could hardly be a better start than William’s many reflections on remaining barriers. Here is a museum professional who can see both sides of the coin and rightly suggests that more could be done. When large print and Braille information are routinely missing, when intellectual access to the collections is wanting, when just dropping in turns into the umpteenth disappointment and when budgets are not inclusive of disabled people we have a problem.

I like to think of this societal problem in terms of cultural freedoms. Cultural freedoms, choice and opportunity in museums can remain severely restricted for people with a sensory impairment and people with a learning difficulty. I tend to think of culture onsite and online as an infinite world of opportunity I can navigate endlessly. That is if the sea is not too rough and the road to the collections and the museum experience not too bumpy.

Disabled people, like everyone, have ‘the right to take part in the cultural life of the community’, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says (article 27. 1948). It took until 2008 before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People formally recognised the cultural rights of disabled people to take part in cultural life ‘on an equal basis’ (article 30. The UK signed up in 2009).

Surprisingly, few disabled people and disability organisations are pressing for the implementation of these rights. In the UK. DDA fatigue has caught on. Knowledge of the DDA has become foggy. Who still remembers the ‘anticipatory duty’ which came into force in 1996. This requires that service providers know what requirements of disabled people might have. Dozens of new museums and major extensions were built over the past ten years for hundreds of millions. The exhibition budgets went into the tens of millions. 

Yet, many don’t provide British Sign Language, audio description, handling collections and intellectual access for people with a learning difficulty as part of the new displays. Knowledge about these access features was around though. So did all those museums meet the ‘anticipatory duty’ and make provision ‘within reason’? Only a court can tell, the law says. I am entitled to wonder though and analyse the cumulative result as a huge wasted opportunity for the cultural rights of disabled people. Alongside existing best practice examples, old patterns of cultural exclusion are still at work. The situation is no different across the Ocean. 

The UN Convention requests that governments take every ‘appropriate measure’ to ensure ‘access on an equal basis’. In 1992, the little known Council of Europe Recommendation ‘R(92)6’ called on governments and local cultural organisations to develop ‘comprehensive access policies and plans to bring significant and lasting improvements for all people with disabilities’. 

No government worldwide is anywhere near meeting this goal. There has been no public discussion as to what ‘access on an equal basis’ may mean. Sure, 100% access to collections will never exist. There are simply not enough resources and there will always be restrictions to touching. But, actually, what could ‘significant and lasting improvements’ mean?

We need to start a discussion on this. Far more than what is available now, that’s for sure. Everyone would agree it cannot happen overnight. What’s missing is a long term strategic vision and longer term objectives. That’s really the job of governments and, also, of museums. And it does take people articulating these rights in both a visionary and pragmatic fashion.

Marcus Weisen is free-lance consultant and Content Director for ‘In Touch in with Art’ at Victoria & Albert Museum from 13-14 October 2010.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 September 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 14 September 2010

William Phillips discusses access to museums and galleries for visually impaired people

I am employed by Hampshire County Council Museums Service and have responsibility for maintaining two Collections; Historic Cameras and Militaria. Along with my professional concerns I have an interest in how the blind community and other comparable groups access museum collections, exhibitions and services.

I am registered blind and have had much experience of access issues professionally and personally, as a user and a provider of public access. One way in which the difficulty of restricted access to museums can be improved is via ‘handling sessions’. Here, assortments of items from the collections are made available to different visually impaired groups and societies.

From my varied experiences I look at the subject of accessibility to our museums and to our cultural heritage from a range of perspectives. I have many contacts and friendships within the Visually Impaired community. Unfortunately the majority can provide personal and anecdotal examples of disenfranchisement. Most have difficulty with funding and obviously costs surface as a continual problem. Further to this, public transport provides another area which often results in exclusion.

Visiting any form of cultural institution for some people is almost impossible. Most Visually Impaired People (VIPs) arrive as members of a group. People do visit as individuals, but if their sight is such, they are dependent on the assistance of a relative or carer. The institution often assumes - and not through indifference but through a lack of cultural experience - that no VIP will ever arrive unannounced, impromptu or unsupported by friends or family. This response confines the institution as an organisation limited by stereotypical approaches. I feel sure that all bodies wish to improve on this, but imagine that they feel hampered by budgetary restraints and officialdom.

12 million people in the UK, living with a range of impairments, present a huge challenge for a range of service providers, institutions and organisations. Yet the issue of bespoke service is not confined to the disabled community. Parents with children and pushchairs can have as many problems with access as does a visitor who is in a wheelchair. As the Disability Discrimination Act was established in 2004 requiring all Museums and Galleries in the UK to make reasonable provision for disabled people to access their premises and the services, it would appear that there is a lot more work to do.

In 1992 Australia introduced disability discrimination legislation - and in 2003 I went to there to study how museums, galleries and related bodies managed this access development. In 2005 I attended the ‘Museums Australia’ conference in Sydney to discuss the findings of my visit. As a result of my trip I have been published in one Australian journal; Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) and the journal of the British Museums and Galleries Disability Association (MAGDA). These articles related directly to my trip, its research and evaluations.

On my return I was full of enthusiasm and wanted to put into practice what I had learned during my trip. I had carried out pre-trip audits with a partially sighted colleague, in order to see how we compared with other sites both at home and abroad.

Physical access has been tackled at some of our museum sites due to the 1 October 2004 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) Service provider’s deadline. I helped put together some guidelines for our design department for the production of exhibition related material. I also drew the attention of our design department to the already published guidelines. My report contained 10 recommendations, two of which were implemented in some way.

Statistically, Hampshire County Council has ‘one and a half’ Access officers for the whole county. Sadly, this is illustrative of the commitment to access issues throughout local authority remits. Recently, a ‘Secret Shopper’ survey was carried out at our museum sites organised by the Access Officers with particular aspects of access concentrated at the various selected sites.

Again, the usual problems emerged and the issue of physical access at some sites is still a problem. Lack of appropriate signage; no form of large print or provision of braille guides were identified as a regular feature. Nearly everyone who carried out the survey said an audio guide would help them to negotiate and enjoy the sites. Also staff training should be provided as a way of helping impaired visitors. Considering that the DDA has been in place since 2004 surely such issues must and should have been considered?

Some progress was made in 2004, however Intellectual Access is still a challenge. This is why visually impaired people do not visit our museums. Clearly budgets remain the key issue as the provision of access facilities and trained staff within any site raises costings beyond previous expectations, before implementation of the DDA.

Furthermore, the concerns of disabled people and those who depend on access awareness policies sadly has little influence on the legislative process. But as the average age of individuals in society increases, the audience will change.

While the DDA is a valid and strong force its guiding principles are easily and often overlooked. Therefore the budgetary implications must be accepted and the ideological attitudes towards access and its wider ramifications must be openly addressed.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 1 September 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 14 September 2010