Blindness and the Arts

The arts are an important, yet sometimes undervalued part of life. It allows people to express themselves regardless of their culture, language or the time in which they live. In its most traditional forms, some art is not accessible to those who are visually impaired. Often pigeon holed into the non-essential category of daily life, we don’t hear about accessibility and the arts enough. I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen more often.

The benefits of experiencing the arts go beyond enjoyment. Of course enjoyment is often the primary reason we seek out the arts, but look a little closer and we see they bring so much more. Appreciating art encourages creativity and focus. Learning an art can uncover hidden talents, inspire self confidence and even have therapeutic effects. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience these benefits, whether it is therapeutic, confidence building or just as importantly, to cultivate the mind. Whether it’s performing arts or visual arts that captures our interest, we cannot let a visual impairment be a barrier to truly and completely experiencing an artform.

All over the world, steps are being taken towards making the arts more accessible, but there is a way to go. Progress is slow, which is likely due to funding and resourcing issues, but any progress at all is very welcome. I am interested to know what is available to blind and visually impaired people and what technologies are being developed to make the arts more accessible. I have done a little research and I’m going to share my findings with you.

Theatre

A live performance at the theatre is something truly special and loved by many, but for those who are visually impaired in the audience, there is a gap in the experience left by the lack of visual information. Many theatres now offer audio described performances and tactile tours for their visually impaired patrons. This involves a guided tour prior to the performance where you are introduced to some of the sets, props and costumes that will appear on stage. You can touch them as they are described to you in detail and you can learn about when and how they appear in the production. The performance itself is audio described through an earpiece. The audio describer talks through everything that is happening on stage, what the performers are doing and any scene changes. They will ensure no visual cues that are key to the story, are missed. Audio described performances are becoming more widely available for plays, musicals and ballets, so contact your preferred theatre for their upcoming programme.

Classical Art

Imagine hearing about famous paintings but never knowing what they really look like? Helsinki based designer, Marc Dillon wanted to change that by using 3D printing to recreate paintings such as the Mona Lisa, so that those who can’t see them, can get to know them through touch. His vision is to create an online repository where people can contribute the necessary 3D data for a painting, so it can be shared and printed out by anyone with a 3D printer. If successful, this project would bring paintings to life for blind and visually impaired people around the world.

Sculpture

In Prague, a collaborative project between NeuroDigital, The Leontika Foundation and the National Gallery of Prague has developed a virtual reality experience which allows blind and visually impaired people to experience the world’s most famous sculptures. Through the sense of touch those who are blind or visually impaired can now ‘see’ the world’s most treasured masterpieces, The Head of Nefertiti, Venus di Milo and David by Michelangelo. The experience is delivered through Haptic feedback gloves which send vibrations each time a 3D object is touched in the virtual space. The vibrations vary depending on the texture and shape of the object and can even be delivered to different areas of the hand and fingers depending on how the user is ‘touching’ the sculpture, ensuring they are in control of their virtual experience. This is an exciting development in making art not only inclusive, but accessible in a geographical sense too. The masterpieces can be downloaded so the experience can be enjoyed from anywhere, providing the necessary equipment is available. If the equipment can be shared and made available to galleries perhaps even as temporary exhibits, this experience could reach many blind and visually impaired people around the world. Find out more at Touching Masterpieces.

Books and Literature

The RNIB’s Talking Books has ensured that blind and visually impaired people can experience the joy of reading for more than 80 years. With 25,000 titles, magazines and newspapers to choose from, readers can access this free service in various formats including CDs, digital downloads and USB sticks. CDs and USB sticks are delivered to your home and can be returned in the post free of charge. The service is quick and you can borrow up to 6 books at a time, with no limit on how many you can borrow each year. If you prefer to download your audiobooks, you can browse the vast online library to find the titles that appeal to you most. The RNIB library also provides access to large print and Braille books as well as music and educational resources. More information on this service can be found here.

Artwalks

Artwalks take place in cities around the world, where on a particular evening, venues around the city open their doors to people seeking out new and exciting arts. The venues and art forms are varied and can be unexpected. You may find yourself in a large gallery, a bookshop basement or a local cafe. You might admire the works of a renowned photographer, listen to someone playing a Japanese harp and try out a new virtual reality experience all in one evening! Are you wondering how all this is accessible to people with a visual impairment? My local sight loss charity Wakefield District Sight Aid partner with the organisers of Artwalk Wakefield to create a programme at each Artwalk, which is accessible for their service users. Together, they choose exhibits which can be enjoyed by those with little or no vision. A guide from Artwalk and staff and volunteers from the charity, guide visually impaired art lovers and art novices alike, around different venues, experiencing music, sculpture, ceramics, poetry, virtual reality and many other unexpected arts. I don’t know if other cities have similar collaborative projects, but it is worth asking your local sight loss charity if it is of interest to you. I’ve only recently discovered this fantastic project and hope to sign up for the next event, so I’ll update you on this at a later date.

These are just a few of the initiatives out there that all work towards making the arts accessible for those who can’t ‘see’ it in the traditional sense. They allow us the appreciate and enjoy the arts along side our sighted peers. Some are well established, like the audio described theatre performances. Some are in the early stages of development, like 3D printing of classical art, but all are equally exciting. These imitatives open up fantastic opportunities, not only for blind and visually impaired people, but they also offer a unique opportunity for artists and curators to view their art from a new, exciting perspective. Such projects are beneficial and are a huge step forward for both patrons and the industry alike.

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