Online culture for blind and visually impaired people after the pandemic

Matthew Cock, VocalEyes Chief Executive asked a group of our trustees and user panel members about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on blind and visually impaired people’s cultural lives, and in particular if they have been finding their culture online, whether or not it has been accessible and whether there should be more of it in future. This article compiles their responses.

Jo comments that if you are blind or visually impaired and live somewhere that does not have green space accessible by foot, then, as you cannot drive, you don’t have access to nature. And that if you live alone or with someone who is immobile or needs to shield, then you are housebound, making you more reliant on digital channels for entertainment, supporting your exercise and even experience of nature. She feels that there hasn’t been enough audio description of digital culture, especially of theatre, and this covers both streaming of archive material and new commissions. If you don’t live with someone who can audio describe for you then such work remains inaccessible.

Glen has enjoyed watching theatre online. It has introduced him to shows that he’s not had the opportunity to watch before and made him keener to see them in person to get the full experience. But it has definitely been the next best thing to a physical visit. He also remarked that very few online shows have been audio described, which has made watching some ether difficult or impossible for him. He singles out The National Theatre, Royal Opera House and Theatre Royal Stratford East, who are streaming Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful with audio description and captions later this month, and The Old Vic who have pledged to include audio description with all of their upcoming streams.

Steve however was less positive:

“At the core of theatre for me is being physically present in a venue, feeling the emotional resonance which a performance has with everybody in attendance, whether we laugh or cry it’s a shared experience. Accessing theatre via a digital platform when pre-recorded allows some of the most special foundations of theatre to fade and make it an experience which is seen rather than participated in.”

John agrees:

“…online theatre leaves me pretty cold. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of live theatre. As I said to a friend of mine in an email the other day, one thing I’ve discovered is that neither man nor woman can live by online culture alone!”

Sharon makes a strong case for the future to contain both live and digital, saying that where social distancing cannot be achieved safely, she’d be happy to have access remotely and to pay for it as well. In part this would be to preserve the industry and those like captioners and audio describers employed to facilitate access, in order that when social distancing is no longer required, we could resume attendance. However, she also feels that there have been tangible benefits in the plethora of remote opportunities that have emerged during lockdown.

She has been able to access a wide range of things which she might have disregarded previously due to the location or time commitment to travel there. As well as YouTube, Zoom has also been a leveller: she can easily join, and Voiceover (screen-reading software) tells her as the speaker changes.

Sharon has booked to attend the Cheltenham Literature Festival later this year and is hoping that rather than postponing, it will be held remotely instead. She already had concerns about how she would get between the different venues and if this would limit the number of events she could attend. But with remote access, she can choose freely and will likely attend far more events, spending more than she would have done if there in person: a win for her and for the festival’s ticket sales.

Jo concurs, saying that she would happily pay the same prices for digital alternatives for as long as social distancing is in place. “Not being able to take part in new forms of culture and the arts not only makes me feel left out but also helpless, as I can’t support the institutions and organisations that I love by buying tickets to their events. It’s disabling.”

Sharon does not suggest that the experience of visiting a theatre or arts venue should be replaced by a remote one, rather she wants there to be room in the ‘new normal’  for the new open access approach that we’ve been experiencing to be broadened so that the relaxing of social distancing does not result in a reduction of opportunities for those who still cannot safely travel to and navigate venues. This mixed method of access might even result in opening up the arts and theatre to those who those who have not historically enjoyed them before, hopefully encouraging them to attend in person in the future.

Jo again:

“Access and disabled audiences aren’t opposite to flexibility, innovation or new forms of culture. This could actually be an opportunity to build access in from the beginning, save money and reach new audiences. Working with disabled organisations and people would increase the opportunities for innovation, potential savings and new ways of working. Working without them only guarantees expense further down the line and inaccessibility. I would love to see organisations make access part of the solution going forward, not see it as the problem. The bottom line is that I want to be your customer, your patron, your supporter but if you shut me out with inaccessible offerings in the coming months then I won’t be. And I won’t necessarily be there when things are back to normal. It’s your choice. I’ve consistently chosen you, now it’s time for you to choose me.”

Also read:

Will it be worth it? The re-opening barriers facing visually impaired people

My experience of audio described arts and culture, by Amy Stannard

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