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Perception of museum pieces by blind and partially sighted visitors

Marta Lyubimova—visual impairment specialist, researcher at
the Institute of Corrective Pedagogy at FGBNU of the Russian Academy of Education

It’s unlikely that there’s anyone in the world who wouldn’t be interested in getting to know something new. Curiosity is inherent to all of us, whether we are sighted, partially sighted, or blind. Unfortunately, convenient and comfortable conditions are far from a regularity for partially sighted and blind people. As a result, they frequently respond negatively to questions as to whether they like to visit museums or whether they liked a particular exhibit, picture, or sculpture. This is a fair position for blind and partially sighted individuals, insofar as a visit to a museum often means, in the best-case scenario, getting acquainted with a piece of art “by ear” as a tour guide or seeing friends tell them what a particular work looks like. It’s unlikely that such descriptions give a clear impression of the pictures, sculptures, and so on that they describe. So how can we make a museum truly accessible for partially sighted and blind visitors? How can we make their experience of getting acquainted with works of art as comprehensive as possible?

Before we speak specifically about adapting museums for partially sighted and blind visitors, we should define the characteristics of sight and the challenges that they pose.

In total, we can define the following groups of visitors with vision challenges:

  1. The blind:
    1. Totally blind: cannot see anything at all;
    2. Blind with residual vision: can recognize light, outlines of objects, and color; can see with parts of their field of vision;
    3. Blind with residual vision: can recognize light, outlines of objects, and color; can see with parts of their field of vision;
  2. Partially sighted: those with a clarity of vision reduced by various degrees.
  3. People with reduced vision: those who have difficulties with visual perception of information, which can be partially or completed corrected (with glasses or other devices). They can also have problems with binocularity1, resulting in difficulties with depth perception, and so on.

The totally blind and those with residual vision primarily use tactile perception as their primary sensory receptor. Touch gives them the clearest estimation of an object, while words simply complete the tactile impression. This is especially important to remember when working with blind adults and children who lost their sight in early childhood, as they either totally lack visual notions of the surrounding world or have an insufficient visual experience to perceive art in the format to which sighted people are accustomed. If one were to give the totally blind nothing but a verbal description of objects, this might lead to verbalism. We understand verbalism to mean the use of words and concepts that are not reinforced by real experience and are essentially deprived of concrete meaning for them. A person only knows these words theoretically; they cannot match them with any image or impression. Partially sighted people and those with and without visual impairments usually do not experience this problem, as they are able to “turn on” their visual associations even when learning about something merely by description.

Example

Let’s imagine that two people, one blind and one sighted, don’t know what a mammoth looks like. How can you tell them about this animal?

You could say that a mammoth a big animal, kind of like an elephant, about five meters in height, with thick, brown wool and curved horns. A sighted individual will most likely have no trouble imagining what a mammoth looks like based on this description, as they have visual impressions of such concepts as “meter,” “brown,” “elephant,” and so on. (However, various people’s imaginations will be different, as their visual impressions depend on their experience and personal characteristics.) With regard to the blind, such a description will give them a fragmented understanding of how a mammoth looked in the best-case scenario: “big” means that they can’t wrap their arms around it, “thick wool” probably means soft to the touch… Still, descriptions like “about five meters in height” and “like an elephant” might be empty for them, or not correspond with reality at all.

Any blind visitor to a museum is liable to find themselves in a situation like this “description of a mammoth.” Even if a blind person tells you that they know what a given object looks like, you can’t say for certain whether their impression is accurate or not or whether it corresponds with reality until you offer such a visitor a tactile model of a given work, for example.

When working with those who are blind from birth or from an early age, always remember that only those objects that they have held in their hands exist for them. Therefore, it’s better to let them touch one object than describing ten.

Of course, some notions are impossible to express in tactile form—color, for example. Is it worth explaining such a category to the blind at all? Of course. However, you should use names of colors that are more frequently used in speech: for instance, “blue” rather than “cobalt,” “yellow” rather than “ochre,” and so on. You should also use descriptions based on the work’s emotional content, and that engage different sensory organs. Though they may not be able to imagine color fully, the blind still understand their emotional weight and can imagine what color a particular object has: for instance, grass is green, but if an artist portrayed it in a different color, this carries additional information about the content of the picture or the artistic technique in which it was executed.

The aforementioned primarily relates to people who were born blind (in the pedagogical community, this includes those who lost their sight before the age of 3: it is considered that before this age, a child does not accumulate or memorize sufficient visual imagery). In addition, we cannot forget that an object has to be described even if a person cannot acquaint themselves with it through tactile means. In this case, words should be carefully chosen

Цветная фотография здания Музея “Гараж”. Здание имеет форму сильно вытянутого по горизонтали прямоугольника. Стены здания прозрачные, но мутные, поэтому нельзя разглядеть, что находится внутри Музея. Фото сделано летом на фоне голубого неба. Перед зданием высажено пять деревьев с зеленой кроной.

The perception of visual information by a person without visual impairments

and comparisons should only be made with those objects that a blind person has most likely encountered in everyday life.

Blind people with residual sight and partially sighted people can perceive visual information, but as a rule, the image is blurry and unclear. In order to visually imagine the nature of visual perception for various categories of people, Nataliya Lesina prepared several illustrations.

In the illustration we have shown how people without visual impairments perceive visual information.

 

 

Пять изображений, на которых последовательно показаны разные варианты восприятия зрительной информации слабовидящим человеком. На изображении запечатлен Музей “Гараж”, часть изображения скрыта разными по форме черными пятнами.

The perception of visual information by partially sighted people and blind people with residual vision

In the illustrations we show versions of how blind people with residual vision and partially sighted people perceive the world around them.

Of course, the characteristics of visual perception vary depending on a person’s diagnosis. In any case, blind people with residual vision and partially sighted people see a distorted picture that needs more time and effort to process. Often, a person needs to approach an object more closely, look at it from a specific angle, and so on.

People with reduced vision have correctible problems with visual perception. However, you should not presume that glasses, for instance, can completely compensate for these problems. For this reason, when you see a person in thick glasses behaving with uncertainty, ask whether or not they need help.

How can a museum help those visitors who experience difficulties with visual perception of the objects on display? There are two complementary, rather than mutually exclusive paths:

  • Creating conditions suitable for tactile perception of museum pieces;
  • Audio description: detailed and appropriate verbal description of pieces.

Tactile perception of museum pieces demands special preparation. It is necessary to carefully choose objects for tactile examination: partially sighted people might lean over a particular world, bring it closer to their eyes, approach it closely, and so on. Therefore, if direct tactile examination of an original piece might carry a risk of injury or if the piece is especially fragile or valuable, a tactile model of it should be made.

Providing sculptures for tactile examination, as a rule, is not problematic, especially if the sculptures are no taller than a person’s height. However, if a work is considerably larger than a person, a reduced-scale tactile model or relief illustration should be made, in addition to offering visitors a chance to interact with a full-scale fragment or detail from the sculpture so that they can understand the true size of the work.

Regardless, museum professionals should think in advance about which pieces will be offered for tactile viewing. They must provide uninhibited access to them, provide good lighting conditions, and create their verbal description and, when necessary, tactile models.

It’s entirely possible that a blind or partially sighted person will need help in examining pieces, so with their permission, you may place their hand on those elements that command attention. You shouldn’t use your own hand to guide them: a person might not see your gestures. If there is writing on the pieces, visitors can be acquainted with it using relief illustrations.

Audio description (for more detail, see Galina Novotvortseva’s article, ‘Development and Adaptation of Educational Programmes, p. 71) is a concise description of an object, space, or action that a blind or partially sighted person cannot perceive due to their visual impairments. Such a description is typically prepared by a specialized audio commentator. If there is a permanent exhibition at the museum, the audio description text must be written in advance. The finished audio description can be read by any museum employee. Audio description is the most accessible mode for the presentation of information to blind people in museum conditions. Audio description cannot replace the information that is typically offered on tours, such as historical facts. A prepared audio description is always better than an improvised one, as more precise language can be used, the names of various depicted objects and elements can be checked, and the method of delivering information can be thought through. Commentary should contain information that describes the object at hand as clearly as possible with simple, accessible words. Don’t forget that audio description complements the tactile image, but does not replace it.

In certain regions of Russia (including Moscow), audio description is currently being taught by the All-Russian Society of the Blind (VOS), the VOS’ Rehacomp Institute for the Professional Rehabilitation and Preparation of Personnel, and other organizations. In addition, if a museum lacks its own audio description staff, they can also turn to the VOS for help. In extreme situations, any museum employee can independently prepare their own audio description text after studying the nuances of perception by the blind and partially sighted. Such audio descriptions need to be discussed with partially sighted and blind visitors in order to make any necessary corrections. Over time, it will become easier to create descriptions of pieces for blind and partially sighted visitors, and the quality of these audio descriptions will grow significantly. In any case, the lack of specialists is not an excuse to reject the idea of inclusion—every step towards creating an accessible museum is important.

Below we offer several recommendations in preparing your audio descriptions:

  • You should offer a description of the object that includes information about its shape, size, material, color, and so on.

You need to name and clearly describe elements that are not easy to perceive through touch (if they are small or poorly defined, for example).

It is somewhat harder to give a person with serious visual impairments an impression of graphical works and architectural structures. Nevertheless, just as in the case of encounters with three-dimensional works, there are several options here:

  • Audio descriptions of graphical images that cannot be perceived through touch;
  • Graphic relief copies of graphical images;
  • Models of architectural structures.

Audio description of graphical images and architectural structures is based on the same principles as audio descriptions for sculptures and other three-dimensional works. In any case, the commentator becomes the eyes of the visitor—this means that they need to find the words that describe the atmosphere of the image as clearly as possible but do not contain any personal judgment. In some cases, it is worth paying attention to small and dark details in a graphical image.

The optimal solution when introducing partially sighted and blind people to graphical works (or architectural structures) would be to create graphical relief copies of both the entire work and of individual details, accompanied by audio description.

Relief copies are an important step in providing overall access to information; however, it is extremely important for these tools to be created correctly.

The most serious and commonplace mistakes in working on graphical relief illustration are the creation of copies of graphical images in minuscule detail and attempts to make them visually attractive. It must also be noted that through graphical relief illustration, you can reproduce visual elements of nature, like the pattern on a butterfly’s wing.

Blind people can help in adapting a graphical work and creating its graphical relief illustration. In addition, visual impairment specialists can offer consultations. Finally, any tool should be tested by blind and partially sighted people, and their comments should be used in its further development.2

Models of architectural structures are created based on the same principles as graphical relief copies of graphic images.

There are far more visitors with visual impairments than you think: they include older people as well. For this reason, visual products (stands, booklets, and so on) should be created in a way that accounts for partially sighted and blind visitors from the outset, rather than placing a specially adapted version next to the “regular” ones—a well-adapted piece for partially sighted people is suitable for everyone, as a rule. It is important to remember that the ideal design is a universal one, as it is human-oriented and convenient for everyone. Of course, we cannot forget that if a blind or partially sighted person comes to a museum, they have the same right to access information as a sighted person.

1. Binocularity (binocular vision) is the ability to see with both eyes at once, resulting in the observed object being perceived as a unified whole. In addition, binocular vision provides stereoscopic (three-dimensional) perception of objects and the precise determination of their relative position in space. — Ed.

2. However, when bringing people with disabilities into test programs, it is necessary to account for their experience and professional training. If a person has not studied audio description or taken a special preparatory course in adaptation, their opinion should be interpreted simply as a review, rather than as an instruction. —Ed.


Sources

  1. Maydanov, A.S., 2010. Vospriyatie nezryachimi krasoty [The perception of beauty by the blind] Мoscow: Kanon+ ROOI Reabilitatsiya.
  2. Vanshin, S.N. and Vanshina, O.P., 2011. Tiflokommentirovaniye, ili slovesnoe opisanie dlya slepykh: instrukt.-metod. posobie [Audio description, or verbal description for the blind: instructional handbook. Мoscow.

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