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> > > William Phillips on access for blind and visually impaired museum and gallery visitors
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.