Category Archives: Information Accessibility

Disableism, the book famine and the Marrakesh Treaty

It is only too evident to disabled people on a daily basis that disableism is all-pervasive. Sometimes it is intentional. Mostly it isn’t. It ranges from “The little acts of degradation to which other people subject us, those little reminders to us that we need to know our place in the world,” such as the comment in the supermarket, the unwelcome question from a complete stranger, to the systemic acts of discrimination. An example: the NZ government can take a child for adoption from a disabled mother without her consent, under Section 8 of the Adoption Act, simply because she is disabled.

These actions, large and small, but no less damaging to the individual disabled person, flow from a deep-seated, ancient cultural view that disability of almost any kind makes you a lesser being than others. There are also degrees within the disability world of this “lesserness.”

Disableism on a grand scale

Disableism also exists on a grand and international scale. Access to information, in particular books and print material, affects many disabled people. The publishing industry and public libraries have traditionally taken little account of accessibility until recently, seeing access for print-disabled people as a charitable endeavour, partly because of technical limitations. Now technology has advanced to the point where the demand for access cannot be ignored, although copyright has been a thorny issue for the various interests involved.

April 23 was International Copyright Day, and the links between this and Blogging against Disableism Day, May 1 seemed fortunately coincidental. There are now powerful tools available to us to address at least some of the systemic disableism. They flow from the acceptance that human rights, codified for disabled people in the CRPD, can drive change.

The book famine

Literacy, and access to printed material is something taken for granted and expected in western countries. Yet in countries such as New Zealand only 10 percent of print material is available to blind and vision impaired and other print-disabled people. In developing countries it can be as little as one percent. Millions of people worldwide, including children and students are being denied access to books and other printed material.

In NZ and similar countries there are delays in accessing important education materials such as textbooks. Many general book titles are not available in accessible formats at all.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The World Blind Union and others have worked hard to combat the “book famine.” The result is The Marrakesh Treaty, which will directly address the problem. Firstly, it will enable “authorised entities,” such as blind people’s organisations and libraries, to more easily reproduce works into accessible formats (braille, DAISY, audio, large print, e-books, etc.), for non-profit distribution. Secondly, the Treaty will permit authorised entities to share accessible books and other printed materials across borders with other authorised entities.

Currently the international system does not allow for cross-border sharing, leading to needless and expensive duplication of books by organisations with limited resources.

When the Marrakesh Treaty comes into force, cross-border sharing will be legal, which will help avoid duplication of reproduction efforts in different countries. The Treaty will also enable countries with large collections of accessible books to share them with blind and print-disabled people in countries with fewer resources. This will help print-disabled people in developing countries.

Cross-border sharing is essential for combating the book famine as blind and partially sighted people are among the poorest people in most countries, and organisations for and of blind people often don’t have the resources needed to produce enough materials in accessible formats.

Ending the disadvantage

Those of us who are blind and print-disabled want to be able to go to a bookshop or library to pick up and read the new bestseller like everyone else. Blind and partially sighted children want to be able to go to school and to become literate just as much as their sighted peers do.

I am angry and distressed when I find smart disabled people with their life choices and opportunities hampered by their lack of literacy. Sometimes it is about teaching and opportunity, but often it is about access to age-appropriate print materials. Education is the key to life opportunity, such as fulfilling work, continuing learning and community participation as citizens. But it is also important to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading to expand our horizons and enable us to explore other worlds beyond our own experience.

Ratifying the Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty will begin to tackle the book famine, once it is ratified and implemented. The Treaty and its benefits will only apply to countries that have ratified it, and it will only come into force once it has been ratified by 20 countries. Currently, the Treaty has been ratified by 15 countries, making it possible for the treaty to come into force in 2016.

It is important that those of us who will benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty pressure our governments to ratify it, and end this disableism, the lifelong disadvantage of lack of access to the wider world of learning and the simple pleasure of reading enjoyed by everyone else.

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

Review of the second NZ Festival Shapeshifter sculpture exhibition Hutt Civic Gardens 26 Feb – 20 Mar 2016

I usually write accessibility reviews of arts events that have accessibility features. This time I decided to write one about a NZ Festival event which wasn’t accessible, but has the potential to be very accessible in future NZ Festivals. It would not be helpful to criticise access in this case without giving useful advice on how some relatively minor things could be done differently to make significant accessibility improvements.

It felt like the last day of summer the day we visited. The outdoors Shapeshifter exhibition was a welcome contrast to the nearby dark, cavernous and bleakly subterranean Dowse Gallery. What could be better then, than a leisurely outdoors wander around a pleasant garden exploring interesting sculpture in the warm sunshine? It was an experience both satisfying and, sadly, frustrating.

Us, a tactile low curved multi-faceted andeiste stone sculpture on a rough sleeper base. Sculptor Claire Sadler.

Us, a tactile low curved multi-faceted andeiste stone sculpture on a rough sleeper base. Sculptor Claire Sadler.

It was deeply satisfying and enjoyable to be able to get close and personal and touch many of the exhibits, because being displayed outside they had to be robust. They gave food for thought as well as the pure sensory delight of touch, colour, shape, form and texture, even rich, warm sound.

But the sunny weather brought its own problems. Because of the random location of exhibits and the unhelpful catalogue there was no guiding logical order to follow. Frequent reference to the catalogue was needed. Finding shade to remove my sunglasses and put on my reading glasses to struggle to read the small, grey text in the bright light created a significant barrier to my appreciation and enjoyment of the work. This wasn't helped by the tiny exhibit numbers in the catalogue, which were printed sideways.

This difficulty left me feeling tired and irritable, with a slight headache and overall disappointment with the experience, despite the variety, quality, tactile and interactive nature of the work. Towards the end I gave up, not having seen all the work. It was a case of paying the same as everyone else for a lesser value return.

This was a great pity, because, with some careful forethought and only a little more expense Shapeshifter could have been a very accessible experience.

Opening times

The daytime opening is ideal for older and disabled patrons who sometimes find evening events difficult, especially where there is a lack of public transport. This is a positive aspect of the exhibition. Fixing some of the other accessibility faults would be appreciated by older as well as disabled people.

Physical access

With a few adjustments, particularly at the entrance, most of the exhibition could be physically accessible. If an expert environmental access appraisal is sought for future Shapeshifter outdoor exhibitions, advertising could then include specific information on physical access.

Visitor welcome

We were welcomed very nicely at the entrance, but for me that was where it ended. Feeling welcome is more than a pleasant and friendly greeting.  I enjoyed encountering a group of new New Zealanders exploring the exhibition, along with lively groups of school children. Why not welcome blind, vision impaired and other disabled people to an engaging exhibition with such accessibility possibility.

Exhibition layout

A more thoughtful and logical layout and catalogue presentation for future exhibitions in this space would enable user-friendly navigation guidance for a more pleasurable visitor experience.

Catalogue

Having photographs of the sculptures was helpful, but the accompanying print size and quality was poor. The grey print and tiny sideways printed numbers were very difficult to read. A better quality print and colour contrast of text to background would be an improvement. Being able to download a large print copy in advance would be an extra and much appreciated accessibility feature.

Interaction

The robust nature of many exhibits, the scope for physical tactile interaction, including interactions to produce beautiful sounds, is one of the strong attractions for me, as a vision impaired person. This interactive element lends itself particularly to audio description for blind and vision impaired people.

The Shapeshifters exhibition had the potential to be very accessible. It could have been a more exciting addition to a NZ Festival which is positively and seriously including disability and Deaf access.

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Filed under Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, The Arts

A personal perspective on arts access

I spend a lot of time advocating for various forms of arts access for disabled people. For once I thought I would share some of my own personal views of things I dislike most about museums, galleries and theatres, and a few things I like too. Don’t get me wrong, I love GLAM, (galleries, libraries, archives and museums,) theatre and music performances; I have done so all my life. But as a vision-impaired person, as distinct from blind, I often feel frustrated by the simple changes that could be made that would be helpful for many arts patrons, especially in an ageing community. As a lifelong arts patron I think I, and others like me, deserve better. Currently we often pay the same price as everyone else for a lesser experience.

Here are some of my pet peeves, and likes, starting from the beginning of the process, which can stop me in my tracks.

Advertising is often unreadable. Accessibility options are buried on web sites and difficult to find. Its fine to have aesthetic design but communication with an audience is paramount. Web sites and other advertising are often designed with art rather than access in mind. The two aren’t incompatible. The New Zealand Festival is making progress this year with an easily found accessibility section on the web site, (although an access link would be even better on the home page.) The Fringe, not so much. A shame as Fringe events may be within the budgets of more disabled people.

Booking is often difficult and expensive and plain inaccessible in many cases. I love Circa Theatre for their friendly and direct regular booking process. Chamber Music NZ  and New Zealand Opera also have user-friendly ticketing for audio described performances. The booking process should be easy, with accessible alternatives if necessary.

Lighting can be very poor in places where I most need it, such as reading my programme or catalogue, often difficult to read anyway, or on labels on exhibits. Carefully targeted lighting is possible. Transitions from light to dark, in particular are often inadequately managed and a bit scary.

Clutter and wayfinding. Museums often leave me exhausted with sensory overload and a struggle to find one thing to focus on, with so much sound and vision all together all at once. I realised how much I miss when I get a little taste of audio description. Poor lighting can contribute to this confusion.

Print materials are generally designed to look good rather than for readability. A downloadable more readable and accessible version would help. Labelling in galleries and museums could be easier to read, with larger, clearer print, or again downloadable so I can read them on my chosen device in comfort.

Libraries.  As a passionate reader, I am a regular user of our precious public libraries. Here there has been a real change. I use an online catalogue to find my chosen reading matter, but best of all, public librarians will, without question, help me find things on the shelves. In the past I found librarians rather intimidating and unhelpful. I don’t use the Blind Foundation library as I can read some print, often on my iPad. If the government ratifies the Marrakesh Treaty there should be more large print books available too.

Disability experience reflected in art, culture and heritage.  Last but not least we, disabled people, and our stories on our terms are largely absent. So-called “outsider” art is fashionable and collectable, but often not seen alongside “real” artists’ work in mainstream galleries in New Zealand yet. Theatre is slowly beginning to explore our stories, and disabled performing artists are appearing. But we still have a long way to go. Our heritage and history on our terms are not included in museums, and literary writing by disabled people is invisible. I have found few books on disability subjects I can relate to in our libraries by New Zealanders. Popular media stories are not the answer as they reflect unrealistic stereotypes. I want to see and hear and read “real” stories like mine.

What can we do? I am a practical person who tries to find solutions to the problems I encounter. In the research I have done over the years I know there is a lot of help available, and some wonderful stories to be told, and I’m not talking about sob stories, super crips or inspiration porn either, but human nuanced stories well presented. Our history, sometimes uncomfortable, unsafe and shameful, is largely untold in heritage institutions.

There are also opportunities missed. For example the wonderful Shapeshifter sculpture exhibition at the last NZ Festival would have been an audio describer’s dream as most exhibits in the outdoor exhibition were touchable. Perhaps this year? Cultural festivals such as the Chinese New Year, Cuba Dupa and Diwali, have possibility too. We have terrific trained audio describers in Wellington who are really keen to work.

Making change is not always easy. The disabled audience is diverse, and has to be cultivated and developed.  But talk to us, engage with us on social media and in person. Often the people factor is the most important. There are Arts Access Advocates who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, often arts practitioners ourselves. The skilled and helpful people at Arts Access Aotearoa, have a wealth of resources available, some of which I helped create. These resources include a much wider range of arts access ideas, tools and advice than I have covered in this personal account. Most are free.

But don’t take the expertise of individual disabled people for granted. We are experts just like curators and other staff. That needs recognition in the same way.

We are an ageing population. Arts institutions need to retain us as audience. The arts are a critical part of my life. I desperately want to keep it that way.  We, disabled people are 24% of the population, and growing. Ignoring and excluding us as patrons and participants is not an option.