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Opening up the arts: interview with Matthew Cock, VocalEyes chief executive

Matthew Cock is the chief executive of VocalEyes, a charity that works to make the arts more inclusive for people with disabilities, primarily through audio description services at theatres around the UK. He helped lead VocalEyes’ work on State of Museum Access, a report that delved deep if and how 1,700 UK museums publicised their access information online.

Matthew is also one of the organisers of the Jodi Awards. This annual event celebrates positive use of technology to widen access to information and resources in museums, libraries and other cultural organisations for people with disabilities. E-Access Bulletin caught up with Matthew to find out more.

- Tell us more about VocalEyes’ work:

“VocalEyes delivers live audio description for around 180 theatre performances each year, for between 80 and 100 UK theatres. We also audio-describe opera and dance, open-air theatre, circus and even fireworks displays.”

“We work with around 30-40 museums on different projects each year – training staff in visual awareness, guiding and the skill of audio description, so that the museum can programme audio-described tours of their exhibitions and galleries.”

“We’ve recently expanded our offer into producing large print descriptive guides and tactile drawings with Braille. We also support arts venues in attracting blind and partially sighted audiences, including through a free listings service on our website that any arts organisation can use to publicise their audio-described event.”

- How have audio description services in the arts and cultural sectors changed or improved over the years?

“I think that museums have become more aware of the broader context of the visitor experience, and more specifically for disabled visitors. VocalEyes did some research in 2009 that has informed our offer since – museums not only need support developing audio-descriptive skills, but also designing the events and an overall programme, marketing and ensuring front of house and other staff are trained in awareness and are knowledgeable about the museum’s access offer.”

- Tell us more about the Jodi Awards:

“Through championing and celebrating best practice initiatives and projects, we promote barrier-free access to cultural collections for disabled people. The panel of judges take a holistic approach, assessing projects and the organisation in multiple ways.”

- What institutions have been previous winners of Jodi Awards? 

“Previous winners range from large national museums and organisations – such as the British Museum and Tate Modern – to smaller local museum and library services around the UK, such as Hampshire and Leeds. We’ve also had inspirational winners from across the world, including Berlin für Blinde in Germany, the Sign Language eLibrary of Finland and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. The most recent winner is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre (in England) for their work with Signly, delivering smart BSL-signed content directly to the user’s device.”

- How did the State of Museum Access report come about?

“We know that there is lots of good practice and fantastic resources around the country, but there was no overall picture of what access information and resources museums offered. We undertook the report so that we could use it as a benchmark to campaign for improvements in the sector, and do more to bring to an end the exclusion of disabled people from museums.”

- How was the work carried out?

“A group of volunteers visited the website of around 100 museums each to find its access information (or not), and completed an audit on what was covered or not. It wasn’t an audit of the website’s technical accessibility, we simply followed the route that most members of the public do when planning a cultural trip – and our report is based on that premise: if a museum doesn’t address access barriers or promote access resources on their website, they may as well not have them at the museum itself, because people will decide not to visit. Lack of good information online effectively excludes disabled people.”

- What were the findings?

“Overall, 27% of UK museums provide no access information on their website for disabled visitors planning a visit. Only 30% of UK museums provide information on their website that would be useful for a blind or partially-sighted person. And when it comes to specific resources that they could use, the figures are even worse: only 18% publicised labels or information for their exhibits in large print, and only 10% publicise live audio-described tours and handling sessions.”

- How can museums and other cultural spaces go about improving their accessibility offerings if they don’t know where to start?

“Ask the community. Set up an access panel of disabled people; get in touch with local groups and invite them in. Ask them to use your website, and take a tour around your museum with you. There are also some amazing community sites in DisabledGo.com and Euan’s Guide, which have access audits and reviews.”

- What emerging technology in the arts and culture will become important areas for accessibility developments?

“Chatbots and the underpinning AI engines present an amazing opportunity for museums to engage with audiences, and I believe could be a fantastic way for reassuring visitors that their access needs will be met, and what resources or events might be available for their visit. The chatbots could be in text or voice format, offering accessible alternatives for a wide range of users.

“Secondly, virtual and augmented reality. We need to ensure that as with all formats, they are developed with inclusive and creative approaches. It’s an incredibly exciting area – marrying three-dimensional sound tech with VR – and an amazing challenge and opportunity for AD (audio, or verbal description).

“However, while new technology changes the landscape all the time, we mustn’t forget that millions of regular images of museum objects and artworks online still lack descriptions that can open them up for blind and partially sighted people, something that is only being addressed by a handful of museums across the world. A project developed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago called Coyote could be the model that enables this to change, at scale.”

Read the State of Museum Access report in full at the VocalEyes website, found at the following link:
http://eab.li/81 .

Find out more about VocalEyes’ work at the charity’s website:
http://eab.li/80 .

For more information on the Jodi Awards, visit the event website at the following link:
http://eab.li/7- .

Read more about the Coyote project:
http://eab.li/87 .

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