Access without barriers to arts and culture!?

Visiting concerts, going to the movies or venturing out on a field trip to the museum – all of these activities are not possible without limitations for many persons with disabilities since the cultural scene still presents numerous obstacles. Can we actually talk about inclusion in our cultural landscape?


Photo: Young woman eating popcorn in the cinema

In German movie theaters companions of wheelchair users have to sit in a different spot; ©

When wheelchair users want to go to the movies or the theater, they are typically limited in where they can be seated because there is preassigned wheelchair seating. Companions also frequently have to either sit on a wobbly chair next to them or in a different spot altogether elsewhere. A joint cultural experience? Not even close!

In movie theaters, deaf and blind persons increasingly are given the option of either getting captions or videos with sign language via apps or so-called audio description for blind moviegoers. Sign language interpreting and translations are also increasingly provided during concerts for deaf people – generally, only if the artists and/or the organizers know about this option and intentionally offer it and are not wrongly assuming that deaf persons categorically don’t frequent concerts.

Inclusion as the basis for concepts

But how do you actually know beforehand whether a cinema or theater is accessible and addresses the various needs of persons with disabilities? This is the goal of the Culture Inclusive project: on a cultural map, people can research online whether the desired places of cultural interests provide accessible solutions for various types of visitors.
Photo: A tactile paving system and the inclusive "drum"

A tactile paving system (left) leads the visitors through the exhibition and by this to the inclusive communication stations; © DHM/Thomas Bruns

The German Historical Museum ("Das Deutsche Historische Museum") in Berlin, for example, pursues an inclusive concept with its current exhibition "Unification. German Society in Transition" ("Alltag Einheit. Porträt einer Übergangsgesellschaft") that has been extended until February 28, 2016: the center piece is a hexagonal, rotating "drum" that was specially designed for the exhibition and that serves different types of media on each side. As needed, the information is available in German or English texts, in Easy to read language and Braille, in videos with sign language and audio messages with audio descriptions for persons with different needs.

All communication stations are also interconnected through a tactile paving system. This way, blind and visually impaired persons can find their own way. Additionally, all of the stations are accessible and provide special brackets for walking canes. Many of these exhibition concept details were jointly developed by experts with disabilities.

With cultural encounters in mind

The "Gaining New Perspectives" ("Neue Perspektiven gewinnen") project also emphasizes this cooperative intent: since April 2015, the team has been working on creating room for long-term encounters in the German museum landscape and making a mutual dialogue between persons with disabilities and museum employees possible.
Photo: Two photos of participants of workshops in a museum

People with and without disabilities come together for museum workshops in the project "Neue Perspektiven gewinnen"; © Matthew Schoenfelder 2015 (left) Jochen Mooslehner (right)

"Since the project started, there have been 24 inspiring workshops in various museums in Berlin (among others, the German Museum of Technology, the Berlin Gallery, the German Historical Museum, and the Grunewald Hunting Lodge Berlin) during 490 workshop days," says project assistant Stefanie Wiens. "We were able to reach approximately 320 participants with and without disabilities with these workshops. Thirty presenters and experts with disabilities have so far been committed to this project and have ensured a productive dialogue on different perceptions, existing barriers but also great examples of best practice."

That’s why Wiens can also confirm that persons with disabilities have only been recently recognized as a target audience and have generally been insufficiently included in museum activities. "This drastically contradicts the principles of major institutions such as the International Council of Museums, under which museums are defined by their educational objectives and the Society for Museum Education, ("Verein Museumspädagogik e.V.") which is committed to providing access for all the sections of the population. There is an urgent need for action," explains Wiens.

The European cultural landscape

What do we notice when we take a look at our European neighbors? One example: Austrian TV not only televised the Eurovision Song Contest live with captions and audio description but also featured translations by sign language interpreters. During the preliminary show in the Swedish broadcast, a sign language interpreter did such an impressive job that people outside of Sweden were totally excited about his translation – and this included those viewers who are able to hear.

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre situated on the West side of London is currently testing the "Signly" app: hearing impaired and deaf persons are able to scan QR codes next to the exhibits with their smartphones. They subsequently receive information about the art works in video format in sign language.
Photo: "Mona Lisa" as touchable 3D printing

Classic art paintings like "Mona Lisa" can be enjoyed by blind people with the help of 3D printing; © Vesa Laitinen/Unseen Art

A project titled "Unseen Art" in Finland also wants to contribute its share to more inclusive art appreciation: the team from Helsinki wants to make classic art paintings such as the Mona Lisa, for instance, accessible to visually impaired and blind people with the help of 3D printing. Whether the crowdfunding campaign that was launched in November 2015 will be successful was still pending at the press release date.

However, it is apparent that both the cultural and arts scene are increasingly addressing the needs of persons with disabilities. Although this still includes many obstacles, failures, and uncertainties, it should not keep the decision makers in these sectors from creating an inclusive cultural environment with long term effects.
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(Translated by Elena O'Meara.)