Category Archives: Disability Issues

Audio description at Te Papa

The delights of audio description have come relatively late in life for me. Theatre, an important part of my life since I was a small child has acquired added depth, richness and meaning with audio description.  Although I have listened to opera, apart from a long-ago visit to Covent Garden during my OE and one or two films, I have only recently attended and been enchanted by audio described live performances.

Of course each of these has sound, often very familiar sound, in the case of Shakespeare or Puccini for example. But the world of fine art is very different. Vision is usually the sole means of access. I have spent many hours in galleries around the world, but the opportunity for an audio described tour of some of Nga Toi, our national collection on show at Te Papa, with a group of blind and vision impaired people could not be missed. I have some useful vision so I looked forward to new possibilities. The visit revealed interesting detail I never suspected existed. But I was also surprised by sadness. How many great art works I have looked at, yet not really seen?

It’s a bit like books. I used to think that I found some books boring because I failed to appreciate their literary merit, frustrating to an English literature graduate, a book lover and compulsive reader. That was until I discovered eBooks. Holding a large and heavy classic with small poor quality print close to my eyes is physically tiring and requires a high level of effort, which is a challenge to concentration, but on an electronic reader it would suddenly became absorbing. The problem was the medium, not my mind.

When visiting galleries a similar problem arises. I can quickly become sensorily overloaded, frustrated and bored, because I can’t see enough detail to connect at the meaningful and satisfying depth I want. At Te Papa the well- audio described works revealed intriguing hidden detail and depth that hooked and stimulated my imagination. Without audio description I must wade through tiring, confusing and seemingly meaningless visual clutter and I can’t read the guiding printed labels and information on gallery walls. Audio description means I can focus and connect at a deeper, more satisfying level and begin to have a similar experience to that of fully-sighted people.

A member of the group is guided to explore by touch a large piece of ornate gilded picture framing.

A member of the group is guided to explore by touch a large piece of ornate gilded picture framing.
Photo by Norm Heke © Te Papa

Touchable textured examples of paint on canvas enabled us to explore technique and materials. Learning about the art of framing by an encounter with an elaborate touchable example was fascinating and enlightening.

A 3D-printed copy of a fragile and precious object gave a real sense of its shape and texture, a successful experiment with a powerful new tool for access.

I have always loved textile and texture, so being invited to touch sensuous and colourful Cook Islands tivaevae Out of the Glory Box (quilts) was something my fingers have itched to do. Our group sat around the spread quilt, much as the makers would have. We shared intimately the colour, texture and embroidery of a deeply personal treasure stitched with love by a group of women. I could imagine them singing, laughing, gossiping and sharing knowledge as they worked. I discovered that these are not quilts in the usual sense, but appliqué, sensible in a warm climate.

While advance reading about the artist or craft person and their work is helpful, it is the audio description of the work that brings it to life. It should not simply describe the item; good audio description breathes life into the work, communicating story and context, historical or modern, which would be available to a sighted gallery patron. The description of a portrait as “looking out at us” immediately established a personal sense of connection, an authentic relationship between the artwork, the subject and the viewer.

Blind and vision-impaired people rely heavily on spoken word for communication so the quality and tone of voice is important to establish rapport in audio description. Description should be narration, like storytelling, not simply read aloud. Our audio describer was professional, warm and engaging, obviously enjoying the work she described. We felt welcome and that we were valued visitors to Te Papa.

As this art tour was something new we were treated to hospitality, and over cups of tea we gave positive and constructive responses to our tour. Of the many visits I have made to Te Papa this will be one of the most memorable.

The question of cost was raised. An audio described tour does require a lot of work. However you could say the same about education at Te Papa. The guidance we gave was that if the experience is similar or roughly the same as that enjoyed for free by others then there should be no cost.

Disabled people have for generations been systematically, if not intentionally, deprived of our cultural heritage, as well as our own unique disability stories and history. New and interesting means of inclusion and equality, many of them mainstream technology, such as iPads, smart phones and 3D printers, are now much more readily available. Sometimes though, it is simply a willingness to do things differently.

Because the disabled arts, heritage and culture audience has traditionally been under-served and undeveloped there is much ground to make up. As an audience we are among the poorest and face barriers of cost, ease of travel, various kinds of access and even feeling unwelcome, or stigmatised as a “special” audience rather than part of the richness of human diversity visiting and represented in cultural institutions.

Children and young disabled people need opportunities to develop skills and appreciation or they may miss out for the rest of their lives. Older people should be able to rediscover what they may think they have lost. Including everyone is critical. Access to our culture and heritage is a human right. Without it we are the poorer as individuals and as a nation.

Arts Access Aotearoa, which helped set up the tour, is a national treasure, but cultural and heritage institutions have to wholeheartedly join in. A start has been made and well done Te Papa for taking access seriously and for engaging with the community as well as searching out international best practice. Expect expectations to rise.

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Euthanasia: A disability perspective

Recent events in Canada have revived the issue of assisted suicide, or euthanasia, in New Zealand. Disabled people in Canada and Australia have expressed dismay about a situation they see as a threat to the lives of disabled people.

The Alberta Association for Community living chief executive Bruce Uditsky said “The Court’s decision is the most permissive approach to assisted suicide in the world. Rather than require people to have a terminal illness, people with disabilities simply have to express their life is not worth living.” And there’s the rub.

We know that many disabled people in New Zealand experience violence and abuse without access to redress. Many of us are chronically depressed because of the accumulated effects of the hardship and everyday discrimination we live with. People who murder their disabled family members often receive lesser sentences in court than other murderers.

I have heard disabled people recount the experience of random strangers saying to them “If I were like you/in a wheelchair/blind etc I would want to die.”  That may be so, the idea of disability as “a fate worse than death” smoulders in the collective imagination, stoked by popular media portrayals of “tragic” disabled lives. Certainly disabled people are among the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society. But many of us don’t see our lives as tragic suffering.  In confronting all of the above we generally manage to remain philosophical and resilient.

Disabled people do feel that our lives are considered by society as being of lesser value than those of non-disabled people. Many of us are already faced with coercion in daily life “choices” such as where and with whom to live, access to our communities, education, work etc. Some have had their choices constrained to the point where they have discovered Do Not Resuscitate directives on their medical files, placed there without their consent.

It is not surprising then, that disabled people are nervous about assisted suicide. We might not feel so insecure if we lived in a more equal society, where disability was a fact of life rather than a fate worse than death.

Nor would we feel this way if we are accorded equal respect in the debate. Intimidation into silence is not helpful. Others cannot speak for us. Sadly they frequently do.

Some disabled people support assisted suicide. They believe that it is their individual right to exercise an ultimate act of control over their own bodies and lives, a reasonable point of view. But some other disabled people are not in a position to exercise such control. There is also room for mistakes, misuse and manipulation. Additionally, assisted suicide represents the worrying re-medicalisation of disability, which we have fought long and hard to change.

I suspect most of us would prefer to talk about a good life rather than a good death. There is unease that state assisted death would encourage disabled people to end their lives, especially those who have high and complex, (expensive) medical needs.

It is worth noting that New Zealand has ratified the UN Convention on the rights of Disabled People, (CRPD,) where Article ten establishes the right to life on an equal basis with others. There is no mention of a right to be assisted to die. The Convention is concerned with respect and dignity, however a dignified death does not have to equate with assisted suicide.

Baroness Campbell, herself a person who lives with significant, sometimes life-threatening impairment, said of the Assisted Dying Bill recently before the House of Lords in the UK.  “It is a Bill for the strong at the expense of the weak.

I think that she is right and her words apply to the whole debate.

 

 

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Three disability Christmas wishes 2014

This time last year I wrote a Christmas blog with three wishes. Doing it again might mean I lack imagination. Last year’s wishes have certainly not been magically granted. But Christmas is the time of wishful thinking, so here is mine for another year.

My first wish is that the great team of audio describers we trained earlier this year will have lots of work next year, for theatre, civic events such as parades, operas and other musical events, and in museums galleries, and even sports events where TV may not provide an adequate commentary or any coverage at all.

My second wish is that that the New Zealand Government decides to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to increase the amount of copyright material available in alternative formats to print-disabled New Zealanders.

My third wish, and dreams are free, is that there is a concentrated effort to include disabled women and children in family violence services, as well as action to protect disabled women and men from abuse in disability support services of all kinds.

So there are three more wishes. A very happy Christmas and a safe and restful break to all my readers. May 2015 make all our disability wishes come true.

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The promise of technology

I’m hopelessly late in my post for the International Day of Disabled People, on December 3, and somewhat late to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, and very late to review the National Disability Forum (NDF) conference in late November. But the theme for the International Day of Disabled People is important, and worth writing about, even if it is after the event. Sustainable development, the promise of technology has wide and powerful application in the digital age.

Late last month I was at the National Digital Forum Conference for the first time. I had been looking forward to it very much since joining the digital forum. I love the GLAM, (galleries, libraries and museum) sector. It represents exciting possibilities for innovative digital inclusion. While I found the conference stimulating and interesting, I also found it very frustrating and exclusive. The reality was a more risk-averse, resource-constrained approach generally associated with publicly funded bodies than the inclusive and innovative challenge the ridiculous optimist within me had hoped for.

The conference was well organised and we were asked for accessibility requirements at registration, always a good start. Temperature variation and a lack of natural light make Te Papa a trying and tiring venue, but that is often the nature of the beast. I liked the newbies meet and greet, but felt a bit unsure about the knowledge sharing session. It can be a bit lonely being the only disabled person with that interest at a “mainstream” conference, but I should be used to that.

The programme was varied, with the usual problem of choosing between streams. It was good to see Tom Smith there from the Blind Foundation demonstrating on the second day. A kindred spirit.

A powerful impression was that digital is visual, which was disappointing. In conversation I discovered that digital sound had been included at an earlier conference. There was a slight tone of “oh we have done that.” The same could be true of the absence of Sign Language content, which fits very well in the visual digital space. Yet the Deaf community is particularly innovative in harnessing digital technology for Sign Language communication. I didn’t see any captioning. Nor did I hear any mentioning of audio description in relation to iBeacons for example. Yet these are international growth areas with enormous potential. I heard no mention of alt attributes for interesting historic photographs, when discussing collecting and displaying them either.

The opening presentation by Brewster Kahle from the Open Library was informative and engaging. When he talked about universal access he meant it. He included access for blind and dyslexic people in a matter-of-fact context as a critical and integral part of business as usual for a modern library. I liked his approach. I will make a digital will, thanks to Rick Shera. I love the idea of crowd-sourced collections. Exploring publishing at a time of digital upheaval in the industry is fascinating and relevant.

Attending everything was impossible, so I may have inadvertently missed something important. The one event I had really looked forward to was the biggest disappointment. Perhaps I was tired at the end of two full on days, and I certainly was coming down with a cold. People sitting around me were obviously captivated by the MONA, (Museum of Old and New Art) from Tasmania presentation, but I did sense some unease in the wider audience. Was it a giant ego trip, a monumental folly or a truly ground-breaking innovative endeavour taking GLAMs to a new level? I still don’t know since the presentation was inaccessible.

Perhaps others in the audience were reflecting on the practicality of an example of a well-funded privately owned museum with no public accountability or obligation for the largely publicly owned and funded New Zealand GLAM institutions.

I don’t expect be able to read or follow in detail all slides and visual presentations, but many other speakers used their visual presentations as an aid rather than depending on them entirely.

I would have walked out if I could. Being conservative or older is not the reason for my discontent. I am not conservative. (I wasn’t bothered by the allusion to “porn”.) I am open to and interested in the new. That was why I was there. MONA is reputed to be successful. But success on whose terms? Not mine. I will think twice about including it on my schedule when I visit Tasmania.

I heard statements like, “Being smarter about digitisation”, “Ensuring sustainable access to Community content”,  “Manage risk, encourage innovation”, “failure, success and challenge”, “taking risk”, “design thinking”, ”collaboration”, “user experience”, “Get on with it”. But the promise of technology, the challenge, and the opportunity it presents to the Digital Forum members is to include nearly a quarter of the population in access in their work. The challenge and opportunity is also to rectify our almost complete invisibility in the content in mainstream art and heritage. Is inclusion of everyone by fulfilling the promise of technology a risk too far for the New Zealand GLAM community? I hope not.

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