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Discussion: William Phillips on barriers to access for visually impaired people - disability arts online
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> > > William Phillips on access for blind and visually impaired museum and gallery visitors

5 July 2010

portrait of the author wearing a green jacket in an outdoor setting

Photo of William Phillips

In the run-up to the In Touch with Art conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in October 2010, DAO publishes a discussion document on access for to museums and galleries from William Phillips - a Collections Officer with the Hampshire County Council Museums Service.

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.

In1992 Australian introduced a DDA and in 2003 I went to Australia 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 from Australia 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.

In Touch with Art offers International perspectives on equal access to museums for people with vision impairment. The conference is organised by St Dunstans - a charity for blind and visually impaired ex-Service men and women.

In Touch with Art runs from 13-14 October 2010, at the Sackler Centre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 2003 Will Phillips travelled to Australia on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study Disabled Access in museums and galleries.

His research looked broadly at changes within the cultural sector since the 1992 Australian DDA was passed. The 2004 report, which is available here as a download, makes comparisons with Disabled Access in museums and galleries in the UK.

It raises the question of how far the UK has moved on since the implementation of the 1 October 2004 Disability Discrimination Act.


annette haworth

29 April 2011

I'd like to get in touch with any museum or organisation which is looking at using visitors own mobiles or ebook readers to help with all types of communication and sensory impairment. My email is info@i-say.org.uk. thanks.


Colin Hambrook

8 December 2010

Jenny I will pass your comment and questions on - thanks ED

Jenni May

7 December 2010

Dear Will,

My name is Jennifer May from Scotland. I am currently working on my final assessment for my degree in Art and Design and hope to follow a career in teaching art.

I am looking at how visually impaired students can access art and design courses within mainstream secondary schools. The research I have done so far would suggest that while access to the art curriculum for students with physical disabilities is no problem, there would appear to be very few students taking art as a certificated subject, due mainly to a lack of appropriate teaching resources within art departments.

I am aware of some good work going on in the Tate Modern in London as well as a number of art galleries which have devised methods for allowing the visually impaired to fully access and appreciate art and design.

I read with interest your article on the barriers to access for visually impaired people and fully agree with your comment ‘intellectual access is still a challenge’. I wonder if you would be able to give me your opinion on a few issues I have encountered in my research?

1. Do you think ‘intellectual access’ to art and design should/can be fostered in school age students?

2. Are you aware of any mainstream educational establishments which have an inclusive policy and support visually impaired students to access the art and design curriculum? If so, what methods do they employ?

3. Are you aware of any special schools which present visually impaired students for certificated exams eg GCSE etc ?

4. As an artist myself I know that I have had to learn and develop skills and this has involved studying the work of other artists. I am aware that some visually impaired are involved in painting and design, but wonder if they have been able to develop their skills through attending courses such as I am doing at present? Obviously unless this happens, even the best intuitive painters and designers will lack the full opportunity to understand and appreciate the medium in which they are working.

I realise that you are a busy person, but hope that you can provide me with some of your ideas on the above.

I look forward to a response from you. I would of course acknowledge any of your opinions in my thesis and if you are interested, would provide you with a copy of the finished work.



27 July 2010

Thanks for your comments Naomi. I think it is largely down to the will of galleries and museums to really engage with VIP audiences - which is clearly something that you have tackled in partnership with Fabrica and Manchester Art Gallery. It would be great if DAO could publish some of the experiences of your groups?

Naomi Kendrick

26 July 2010

p.s I forgot to mention I also phone regular participants, who do not belong to a group, at home to let them know about the workshops which is also an inexpensive helpful way to market.

Naomi Kendrick

26 July 2010

i am an artist and have been running workshops for visually impaired and blind adults and children for eight years. I agree that things are still very limited in terms of individuals being able to visit museums and galleries independently and without attending a programmed event, and indeed there is a long way to go in providing quality programmed events themselves. However two of my most regular workshops Second Sight at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton and Making Conversation at Manchester Art Gallery have, according to its participants, succeeded in providing quality inclusive workshops. These workshops give a multi sensory and self directed approach to engaging with contemporary art, using audio description, disscusion, sounds, objects, smells and creative activities. These workshops have established a mixed audience of both visually impaired, blind and sighted participants. This mixed audience is an important aspect of why people choose to attend. Though it is a group activity it means that people are not 'lumped together' because of sight loss but rather brought together because of a shared interest in art and this alternative way of engaging with exhibitions. This lack of segregation has been flagged up as a real positive amoungst participants. Some of the participants do attend as groups using transport provided by day centres etc, the rest attend without carers or relatives (unless they have invited someone along who may be interested in participating too). These participants either pay for a taxi (this seems to work well if they have an established relationship with the taxi company )or bus or the gallery pays for taxis. In evaluation sessions it has been shown that my relationship with the participants is crucial to their attendance at the galleries, I am a trusted person who will meet them outside the gallery and guide them to the workshop. Costs are always an issue, particularly now, and when it is nessesary to provide taxis. However it can not be understated how important the presence of an individual who builds a relationship with participants is, wether it is myself (the person running the workshop) or a member of gallery staff. This is something that can be achieved for free and in combination with guideing and audio description training really works.


22 July 2010

Kerrie - DAO is planning an In Touch with Art blog coming soon... to discuss these kinds of issues.

In the review of the last In Touch with Art conference which took place at the end of 2007 - DAOs review speaks very highly of access at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I don't know how digital access has moved forward - but it may be worth getting in touch with Rebecca McGinnis who spoke as the Educator in Access Coordinator at the museum

You can read this at http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=314&result=success

kerrie v

21 July 2010

I am a grade school art teacher developing programs for online use. I have recently been learning about accessibility of not only my future web site but of my lesson content. I am wondering what your experiences and thoughts are concerning digital access of the same. Also, what suggestions do you have for me to improve student access to distance education in the visual arts? I have had such a difficult time finding accessible digital museums, for example. I am from the United States of America. I realize anything I create and teach becomes potentially global so I would definitely welcome your comments and suggestions.

Damien O\'Connor

13 July 2010

William, an interesting article It rings lots of bells with me. You maybe interested in the following website. www.alteredimages.ie Ireland's first accessible exhibition. I will be giving a presentation at the In Touch With Art conference. Feel free to contact me if you would like any further information

sarah p

11 July 2010

Access to museum and other collections is a big concern of mine. In 2001, I was on the steering group for MLA for a national survey of provision for disabled users of museums, archives and libraries - following which we produced a disability portfolio. William, you may find it interesting to have a look at the report, its conclusions and recommendations if you've not done so already? It's clear from my own visits to museums and galleries that there's a mixed bag - some are excellent, some are are poor and some are part way there. Great to hear you are working to improve the situation.

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