Category Archives: Information Accessibility

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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Filed under Accessible Engagement, Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, The Arts

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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Colour contrast counts! A cautionary tale

Information accessibility challenges can pop up in unexpected places.

Recently I was talking to someone involved with an amateur dramatic society. Billboards were designed for the latest production. The billboards, complete with fancy font for branding, were displayed in and around the small country town where my friend lives. On the computer screen they looked great. But he discovered to his annoyance that when driving past them at the open road speed they were unreadable. Some retrofitting was needed. A steady handed volunteer was recruited to outline the lettering in black to increase visibility.

Before: digital image

Before: digital image

After: modified billboard

After: modified billboard

My friend reflected ruefully on the problem. He decided that in future he would stick to plainer fonts, never mind the branding. He also decided to do what he perhaps ought to have done at the beginning of the process. He tested the contrast on the electronic version of the billboards with a colour contrast analyser. It failed.

Lessons learned.

The principles of universal design and accessibility are indeed universal. Everyone, not just disabled people, will benefit from their application.

Think about what your audience needs before worrying about the branding.

Things that look great on your computer screen might not look good anywhere else.

Colour contrast really does count!

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Filed under Inclusion, Information Accessibility, The Arts

Re-thinking disability advisory groups for community engagement

For some years now many disabled people have been involved in advisory groups. These are usually established to enable organisations such as local government, central government, health organisations or other national and local bodies to meet their obligations towards disabled people.

These advisory groups are not limited to the disability community  - but my reflections on their workings are.

As some advisory groups exist now there are problems resulting from a lack of commitment, or a tokenistic approach to “doing the right thing” rather than a real desire to include disabled people’s perspectives for effective results. Those working with them admit they don’t always work and that there is a need for change.

Disabled people are nearly a quarter of the population now at 24%, (Statistics New Zealand,) and the present approach needs some serious re-thinking.

Some problems

Selection of the group is often not by the community, or collaborative, and is controlled by the organisation, so there is inadequate community “buy-in” and support for the group. It is perceived as closed and exclusive and not representative of the whole community. There is a risk that results will be biased by a narrow range of views.

Groups may not be truly interactive with the organisation and endure “death by PowerPoint” with no real opportunity for critique, innovation and meaningful exchange. Members may not have access to all the information they need in ways they can process.

Groups can be low-status, perceived by everyone as powerless, and have little access to the real decision makers.

Members may serve for some time and become co-opted by the organisation, especially if they do not have strong community accountability. This can be the result of poor recruitment processes, and the substitution of an advisory group for strong, mutually respectful community relationships.

Members may have no real community constituency and therefore no real accountability. If they are invisible they will be talked about rather than engaged in constructive conversations within the disability community that will inform and further their work.

The group may not have the expertise or be adequately resourced to do the essential networking or for outreach to maintain a healthy two-way flow of information to inform the process of engagement.

Organisations can subtly control what they hear by setting the purpose and agenda of the group too rigidly. This might be entirely unintentional but results in a lack of creative space for new community concerns, voices and issues to emerge.

In some instances an exclusive relationship with an advisory group may create barriers to wider communication, or be used to discourage different or new voices. The group itself may become a two-way barrier. In the worst cases the existence of a group may be an excuse for a lack of wider engagement, and less rather than more knowledge within the organisation about the disability community.

Of course there are some groups that work well, with few of the above problems, but there is an air of cynical world-weariness among disabled people when this subject comes up in conversation. There is a strong belief that disabled people’s contribution is not valued, and they sometimes even feel “ripped off”

A new approach

It is time for a new, more sophisticated and pluralistic, open and accessible style of disability community consultation and engagement..

Here are a few suggestions.

  • Take a positive stance, forget narrowly focused “accommodating” and ghettoising in favour of valuing disabled people and acknowledging the contribution they make to your organisation and the wider community by making an inclusive approach “business as usual.”
  • Advisory groups should flow from strong and respectful community relationships rather than the other way around. They should not be the sole means of engagement with the disability community.
  • Accessibility is established as “business as usual” in wider community conversations and other activities. Disabled people are interested in other things besides disability.
  • Trust disabled communities and disabled people’s organisations to take the lead. But look beyond the usual suspects and recognised service groupings. Spread the net widely.
  • Organise well-facilitated face-to-face meetings in small groups or within communities
  • Where possible assist with capacity and community building to build strong relationships.
  • Offer training in engagement methods and strategy to the disabled community
  • Engage through focused and moderated social media.
  • Accessible online platforms can encourage straightforward well-structured conversations, but should not be used exclusively.
  • Recognise and celebrate the rich diversity of the disability world, taking account of intersections such as ethnicity and culture, gender, LGBTI, family status, and so on in the rich weave of community fabric.
  • Look for the grassroots leaders who know and are known and respected by everyone, not just a small single-impairment-focused group.
  • Honestly confront, acknowledge, explore and navigate the inevitable power imbalances inherent in relationships with communities, especially those who are marginalised.
  • Last, but certainly not least, employ qualified disabled people in meaningful, valued roles where they can help with disability community engagement.

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