Disability Meets Digital March 21st 2013 – Aidan Moesby
Sometimes when I don’t know where I’m going I follow someone who looks like they know where they are going. Coming out of Piccadilly Manchester there are absolutely no signs to point the way to Future Everything so I start following someone with a Future Everything tote bag. My hunch pays off. Successfully navigating the not particularly accessible rotary doors I find myself in a throng of people. Everyone is connected to a digital device. It is a little overwhelming. I ask if this is the queue or are we just randomly standing in a line. I was assured it was a queue. But then after a few moments I ask what am I queuing for because I wasn’t sure, the lack of signs and helpers who knew saw me stand in 3 separate queues before I successfully registered. My first impressions were of somewhere and something not very accessible and not very equal. The irony was not lost.
The main thrust of the unconference was ‘how do we ensure that disabled people are not left even further behind in the digital world?’. The proceedings opened with a brief introduction from Alison Smith from Pesky People before Brad Gilbin from Film Victoria talked via skype about Accessibility in Gaming. This theme was echoed by Lynsey Graham from Blitz Games Studio. I’m not much of a gamer but both speakers were accomplished enough to hold an audience and keep it entertaining and engaged. I also learned a lot which was an added bonus.
The story from Victoria, Australia is really positive. State funding is tied into accessibility yet it has surprisingly been an industry lead initiative. In fact it makes sense on so many levels. Placing accessibility at the front of the design process is a no brainer, retro-fitted adaptations that increase accessibility rarely work seamlessly. As an industry professional said ‘We just want people to be able to use our game – it’s good design.’
Solutions around accessibility include being able to alter colour and contrast (colour blindness), remappable controls, difficulty levels that cater for those with Learning Difficulties to have an authentic experience, subtitles – colours, fonts, sizes and separate tracks for audio and video and sound effects. Cues within the game should be both visual and aural. Publishers Ubisoft do it as standard but surprisingly seizure testing is not mandatory.
Lynsey was talking from a similar viewpoint. However she introduced an additional aspect to gaming – that of community. Many games operate on global levels, where you meet, collaborate or battle with people or characters from other countries. Communities are created, socialising occurs in the virtual world which can move into the real world. Gaming also offers opportunities for relaxation, escapism and role play. Indeed play is often over looked or neglected once we enter adulthood. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence where gaming has been successfully used in rehabilitation, for example word games for people experiencing early onset dementia or stroke. These games seem to enhance the activity of pathways within the brain or partially arrest some of the degenerative processes affecting the brain and cognition.
We then explored how digital media can be used to challenge bad practice or discrimination for those with disabilities. There are assumptions made in the wider population that blind people do not go out, or disabled people do not have friends and why on earth would ‘they’ want to go and see *place your own cultural event here* anyway?
Samantha Chisnall writes for Pesky People and takes people/organisations to task when they get it wrong but also issues praise when it is due. For example some venues do a two for one deal so the PA (or helpful friend) can go for free, others don’t. Some venues offer dedicated seating or space, yet even at those that do the availability is sometimes appallingly low. Very often the problem lies with the fact that it is rarely anyone’s specific responsibility so invariably it just doesn’t get dealt with.
Social media offers an opportunity we haven’t had before. We can highlight and campaign like never before. We do have a voice. However, good as it is to advocate best practice, we also need to think that in the wider society people tend to get paid for their knowledge and expertise. When we highlight bad practice and suggest a ‘different’ or ‘better’ way are we not being a consultant and don’t they usually come at a hefty cost? Being disabled does not make us unprofessional, nor should there be an expectation that we are always the volunteer and never the paid expert.
Chris Hammond from Full Circle Arts treated us to a whirlwind tour of the diverse activities that the team are involved with. Full Circle have a Tinkerer in Residence who has been making the digital world very real. I would like to point you to their website http://www.fullcirclearts.co.uk/ because that would do much more justice than the limited space here. They have been working on real life design projects that impact on peoples lives in an immediate way. They have been working with Hack Labs and Fab Labs utilising open source and wikis to affect positive change. Again the disparity of digital take up and accessibility of digital media for disabled people was highlighted. At this point someone ‘outed’ themselves as being from the DWP and a sharp intake of collective breath was heard.
Finally for the morning speakers a representative of Talking Birds presented their ‘Difference Engine’ which was essentially an app for text captioning on a mobile phone screen. It has live editing and audio capabilities. For me however, this was much more of a sales pitch and tweaking opportunity for the developers and I had difficulty engaging with this within the wider context of the day.
The afternoon was going to be the Unconference part of the day, which for me represented the majority of the reason why I had wanted to attend. I like Open Space Technology and provocations. It seems a much more natural and relaxed way of meeting people in a semi structured space and talking round a subject of interest. This has taken the sting out of ‘networking’ as you are meeting in neutral environment without the schmooze factor.
After introducing ourselves within the large group several provocations were put forward. However as the morning had overrun several of the afternoon sessions were cut short. In another oversight the sessions were not time managed so there was only one ‘rotation’. Unless you were a ‘butterfly’ this limited the number of discussions you could sit in on and the subjects you could explore.
Topics discussed included
• ‘Museums and Galleries – Accessibility’ which explored the provision to make venues accessible within the constraints of finance and pragmatism.
• Accessible Events – looking at applications which provide information on accessible events and information on venues
• Applications – exploring some apps in development around accessibility
• Making the web accessible – what do you need to consider when building a site.
More information on these will be available on the Pesky People website if you want to explore them further http://www.peskypeople.co.uk/. The day ended with a collective feedback and verbal evaluation session. The consensus was that it had been a successful day with lots of new connections made and many people feeling inspired and empowered.
As a first conference of this style, within this context, it showed that we still have much to do about accessibility and equality in the digital world. Perhaps it highlights the limitations of trying to cover too much ground in a single day, though the optimism of the organisers cannot be faulted.
The over arching event is billed as ‘Future Everything is a summit of Ideas and Digital Invention – Exploring the interface between technology, society and culture, it is the crucible that allows artists, technologists and future thinkers to share, innovate and interact.’ From a purely personal viewpoint, though also there blogging for the Art House, I felt that there was a lack of art and creativity represented in the Disability meets Digital 13 day conference. I would have preferred less speakers and a keynote in the morning and after lunch with the majority of time dedicated to the Unconference. This way you can self select who and with what you engage – you are much more an active participant rather than a passive viewer. Surely this is what the day was, after all, advocating.
I have been volunteering at the Art House since July 2012, throughout my time I’ve had fun working as part of a team and have enjoyed the roles I’ve been offered to undertake. As an artist myself it’s been a perfect environment for me to volunteer at. I’ve loved talking and getting to know other artists, talking to artist who have studios here, setting up for Artwalks and just being part of the team at the Art House. I like to think I make a difference and being part of the something that’s making a difference is very satisfying.
Volunteering can be a great way to meet new people, socialise and gain more confidence and experience. You can learn and develop new skills, challenge yourself and get training in the area you would like to work in. It also helps when trying to make contacts for possible employment. A volunteer also benefits themselves because they get to see how their contribution has made a difference.
I have found that the advantage of volunteering is having the opportunity to try things out; to be pushed and learn new outcomes about myself.
Before volunteering at the Art House I did other voluntary work at Scope Awake Mentoring Service. This involved me working with individuals requiring support, providing guidance, encouragement and enabling disabled or disadvantaged people to achieve goals through mentoring. Being a mentor made me more self aware about my own life, my issues, opportunities and what I want in life and inspired me to help others who are in need of support.
I contacted the Art House about the voluntary opportunities available there. I was very interested in what they had to offer and eight months on I have finally gained paid employment. Having learnt new skills and experience, the Art House has played a big part in me gaining this new job.
I do believe volunteering has made me a happier person.
‘I gotta divide my emotions into wrong and right’ says Ani d’Franco in her song 'Shameless'.
Do we have a quiet instinct to protect ‘the public’ from disabled artists? I’m not Andrea Dworkin but censorship crossed my desk today, and these are my thoughts from inside the Art House.
We run an evening affordable art fair, stalls galore with Xmas presents plus mulled wine, twinkly lights and mince pies. It’s a lot of fun. Artists tell us it’s a great opportunity for them to develop new skills and build new networks.
During that evening studio holders also open their studios to the public. This year we had an interesting conversation that got us mulling about how we are can accidently censor other people’s lives.
One of our artists asked for advice on making the most of opening her studio. Due to the festive event some wondered if her work would be inappropriate. The work deals directly with her experience of her mental ill-health. We also had an artist approach us after the event to say they thought it was inappropriate that she had opened her studio when ‘the public’ was in the building- albeit they didn’t mention that they were personally offended. Complaints can feel like failure to both the staff and the artist, and that’s hard for us all. But they can be the beginning of a conversation.
It’s not the first time- once an artist wanted to show a painting in our foyer, exploring her relationship with her sexuality. Some wondered if this was inappropriate. At that artists’ talk the audience were intrigued, reflecting on their own reactions- no offence recorded. They understood the art work as exploring ideas and experiences that they had never considered before. It is also the exhibition that has sold the most work, which could be seen as validation from a wider audience. In truth we had more complaints about the scary music from a film piece- because it disrupted people working. It seems ‘the public’ doesn’t mind being asked to think.
None of our complainants said they were complaining on their own behalf, but in case ‘the public’ are offended. Have we quietly bought into the idea that we should ‘protect the public’ from their own emotions? I do wonder how they drew this conclusion. The complainants must have had an emotional reaction to the work it in this way. There is no objective line here, only subjective judgements by individuals. We’ve all had that experience of crying at the banal TV programme or laughing at something inappropriate- so I’m afraid we can’t predict which work will divide your reactions into wrong or right.
I also wasn’t clear what the complainants thought may happen to ‘the public’. What impact could be so strong that we would remove work about a person’s life- you could say- erase their life from our cultural experience, our perception of what society is? Someone once told me that they found nice, clean disabilities easier to cope with and this appears similar- anything with fluids or emotions was too unpredictable: don’t work with children, dogs or people with messy disabilities….?
As an organisation dedicated to equality in the visual arts we shouldn’t ever be saying we will protect people from art work and therefore excluding the lives of others. But we should also be prepared to assist people in thinking through work that creates difficult emotions, if they would like- we should respond to the complaint as an opening for discussion. We should be saying “ I know this is new/hard/different for you but artists come through many experiences, and those are experiences of our society. And everyone in our society is in our culture.
If a customer is unable to use our facilities due to something as serious as being admitted to hospital for a lengthy period of time should they then still be invoiced for a service they are not able to access?
At the Art House there are long term studios and short term studios available to lease. The long term studios are subject to a 12 month contract which in some respects is a short period of time but if a studio holder becomes unwell during this period it can seem like a long period. The Short Term studios are available for a lease of up to 3 months but these are in high demand.
Previously a studio holder became seriously unwell during their contractual period and due to their illness they were unable to access the leased facilities at The Art House for a long period of time.
If a contract was in place then technically the rent for the studio should have been invoiced in line with the contractual agreement. This may seem unfair for the customer to pay for something they are unable to use / access. However, if the studio is under contract it is unavailable to lease to another party and would then result in a loss of income for the organisation. Income needed to support other charitable activities.
There may also be other consequences for the studio holder such as if the studio holder is unable to earn and therefore make payments over that period of time then the outstanding amount would build as monies owed to the company. Is it then fair for the organisation to ask for this amount to be re-paid knowing that the person was unwell, on reduced income (sometimes having lost benefits due to being in hospital) and unable to access the facilities but also that the organisation was unable to lease the facilities to another party as there is already a contract in place?
Maybe one solution would be that if any such event should occur where a studio holder becomes seriously poorly and due to this illness could not access the facilities for a long period of time, for example one month or longer, that a mutual agreement is reached where only a percentage of this time is to be invoiced.
Another solution could be that if it is known before a contract is entered into that a studio holder is likely to suffer from a period of long term illness would it be prudent to agree to a shorter term contract.
I have a friend who used to volunteer with a local arts organisation, but has now stopped as he fears that if he continues to do so he may lose his benefits. The explanation for this being that if he is able to volunteer he may be deemed fit to work, despite being able to take time off when he needs it in his voluntary position, which wouldn’t be possible in paid employment.
As a relatively new member of staff I have had this in mind when carrying out an aspect of my role, recruiting and managing volunteers. I want to ensure that the voluntary roles we offer are of value but am also unsure how to navigate the variety of needs, vulnerabilities, strengths and expectations people may have when they offer their time to help us. In their first meeting with us, a prospective volunteer can understandably come across as extremely capable, flexible and willing to do any task we may need help with. This first conversation may be a good time to clarify what the volunteer might and might not feel comfortable doing and if any assistance could be given to aid them in carrying out particular tasks. I am aware however that this conversation may throw up fairly personal details that may be difficult to disclose so early on in the relationship. It also might be difficult for the volunteer to identify what they are happy or capable of doing.
The purpose of voluntary work should ideally be mutually beneficial, to the organisation and the individual. The advantage of volunteering, as opposed to paid work, is the built-in flexibility, allowing a person to take time off or go at their own pace, but also to try things out, push themselves and develop skills in a supportive environment. If not entirely successful, the consequences are less significant. Yet for me building this flexibility in has proved more challenging than first expected. It takes time to get to know people, the way they work best, what they find rewarding and what they find difficult. I am also trying to develop my ability to read and respond to these things in the way I manage volunteers’ workloads.
On a practical level, is it better to approach the relationships I develop with volunteers with an open and responsive outlook, looking to create a bespoke role that meets the needs of the individual? Or would it be of greater benefit to both parties to be almost less personal, ask the same of all volunteers and require them to let us know if there will be any issues with that? This may be less judgmental and patronising, but could let certain things go unnoticed and foster a less positive experience for both of us.
The individual circumstances of my friend who stopped volunteering may have not been taken into account but of course more time and resources would be required to do this. In my view it is always better to try to acknowledge the subtleties of the individual circumstance. The recent changes to the welfare system seem to me to have been detrimental to the culture of volunteering. I wonder if it has contributed to people’s reluctance to talk about their personal situation, what they need help with and what they want to achieve. If so this would surely feed on itself, possibly create further suspicion and fear of being misunderstood. By extension could this reduce the number of successful voluntary placements that do genuinely lead to paid employment or, more importantly, mutually beneficial contributions?
I am currently assisting an artist in scribing a Grant for the Arts application, through the Arts Council England Access Fund. On reading the artist’s blog I’ve been introduced to the particular barriers society creates for those with a disability. This artist spends most of their time in their home. This has significant impacts on their artistic practice, not only in terms of adapting art practice to their situation, but also how they are able to interact with the art world.
We’ve been talking a lot recently about artist’s studios. What are they for? How do communities work when people are different? How do you create a space for individuals and groups? We’ve been talking to different people and supporting them to talk to each other: artists, architects and staff.
- Is being rational the same as being professional?
- What if you are less able to communicate with someone, should they or you be excluded?
- Is challenge from other people a problem in an artist community?
- Is the challenge an individual or the result of two individuals coming together?
- what is normal communication?
- What type of differences will be accepted/not accepted?
- How do we listen to challenge that feels irrational?
- How do we negotiate difference as part of what creates our work: artist and non-artist?
As an artist and creative educator I think that looking, exploring, thinking and making Art is something that should be an essential part of our lives.
It helps us to think about our world, our responses and relationships with it. It helps us to think about ourselves, our feelings, our past, our future. It helps us to be inspired, create, to think in new ways, to question, and take risks.
We all respond to art in different ways through our own experiences. I think we should all take more time to experience Art, it helps us to enrich our learning, and our lives.
A visit to an art gallery, to make at home, to write a story, to dance; exploring, thinking, making, art is fun, it challenges and helps us to think and be individuals.
It's never too late to enjoy and experience Art. I work with many families working together to look, create, explore, enjoy Art and can see the lasting impact it has, taking discussions and making into the home, reaching everyone.
I say.............make Art accessible for all!
The Art House offers Art for All:
Currently running a range of Art activities accessible for children, families and adults in our Pop-up shop in the Ridings Shopping Centre in Wakefield over the Easter Holidays
For more information about our program of activity:
I started working here at The Art House at the beginning of November, and there was a few things of which I first noticed and it just made me think, life is what you make of it. You can become whatever you want, as long as there is passion and commitment you are destined for success.
How are we fulfilling our artistic policy, our reasons for being? Indeed, are we fulfilling this obligation?
We all know how words can have a major impact on our lives. They affect the way we feel about the world, about others and about ourselves.
From Winston Churchill's 'We shall fight them on the beaches...' to Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream...' the spoken word has the power to rally thousands to a cause. In our daily lives a compliment from a friend or co-worker can boost your self esteem, whilst a hurtful comment can bring you down for days.
It's not just the spoken word. The written word too carries great meaning. Books can transport you to another time and place, inform and alter your perceptions of the world. I have read stories that have brought me to tears, as well as ones that have made me rock with laughter. I've also been inspired to find out more about a subject.
I was therefore surprised how unaware we can be with our use of everyday language. From using the word 'walk' instead of 'move', 'write down' instead of 'record or communicate' we can unknowingly exclude people from an event or activity. The filling in of forms too, is something many of us take for granted. Not everyone is comfortable with this or has the necessary skills to do this. We should therefore look at other ways of collecting information that overcome these barriers, to ensure we do not alienate.
As providers of a service, we should all look at how we communicate and consider the words we use. In joining The Art House staff this is something I have come to address. I by no means get it right all the time, but I’m certainly more aware – reminding myself as often as I can, “Think before you communicate”.