A specific case of discrimination in the arts in Australia

By way of background, I’m told that I’m disabled, but I don’t see it that way. I have moderately severe hearing loss. 80% on one side and 60% on the other when compared to ‘normal’ people of my age, gender and eye colour. It’s been that way for a long time, and I’ve always had some level of difficulty but I didn’t even know it was a problem until I was about 30.  I can hear noises, voices sound as if they are under water, and a lot of the sounds that I can hear (and get in the way hearing of everything else) are just happening inside my head.  There are compensatory mechanisms, similar to the way many blind people have razor sharp hearing. For example, I can tell you what the number is on the bus that’s so far down the road you haven’t yet seen it, or how the brush strokes change five feet up the canvas (now hung 2m up the wall) where the artist could no longer comfortably reach from standing on the floor and had to resort to a ladder. For most of the time, it isn’t a problem. Like the sign says, just don’t cover your mouth or turn away when you speak to me and we’ll be fine. If I start to just smile and nod, I haven’t heard a thing and I’m just bluffing until I work out what you said.

I do enjoy a good exhibition, and I’m happy to travel a long way and spend some serious cash if it’s one I particularly want to see. Mrs The Reverend comes too, and also helps me understand what’s said with a combination of pointing, a form of signing not unlike interpretive dance, and the old standard of repeating things JUST A BIT LOUDER.

I don’t know if you’ve met the audio guide at an exhibition. They are small plastic box with a pair of (hopefully) sanitised headphones which tells you things about specific paintings or objects in an exhibition. Galleries and musea use them to avoid having to paste essays on the walls and to keep punters moving at approximately the same pace. They are great for the vision impaired, not so much for us deaf buggers. On our last 5-week tour of the UK, just about everywhere had audio guides and provided laminated transcripts for the hard of hearing. The one place that didn’t (because they were all in use) offered a guide to go around the exhibition with us.  A couple of places, recognising most people read faster than they speak, had more information on the written guide than on the audio one. 

While everything is sunny in the UK, things are pretty crap at home. I’ve never yet encountered a transcript in Australia, and the response when you ask ranges from incomprehension to outright aggression. One of the most egregious examples happened early last year at a place we’ll call the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.

We’d pre-purchased our tickets and joined what we thought was the entry queue but it turned out to be the audio tour queue instead. Rather than waste the time, I thought I’d ask if they had a transcript for the audio impaired. He didn’t look up, so the response from my point of view was an incomprehensible mumble. My companion repeated the enquiry, at a loud enough volume for me to hear and include me in the conversation. Apparently he’d responded ‘no’. They did have a sheet of all the captions in 48 point for the visually impaired but no one was using those because the audio guide sufficiently catered for the hard of seeing. And he’d thank her to stop shouting at him. She tried to explain that the volume level was for my benefit, and there was nothing wrong with my eyesight but he was having none of that and managed to turn it in to a real argument. From that point onwards, we were marked people. Despite the wild gesticulating going on around us, we couldn’t raise a hand or programme to point out a detail on a work without having a security guard appearing under our elbow warning us about setting off the alarms with the unpleasantness sure to follow. Speaking at the volume equivalent to 48 point text was apparently disturbing and threatening the other visitors. I say apparently because there was no evidence of disturbance other than the assertion of the guards. We went through the exhibition much quicker than I normally like to, feeling harried the whole way.

Following a pleasant dinner with friends, we went to a late night exhibition of medieval books and bindings at the National Library. No audio guide, no problems with us talking at whatever volume and we free to point and wave all over the place. They were even really nice and patient when explaining that no, I couldn’t take the 12th century manuscript home with me even if I was going to look after it properly.

Once back in Sydney, I made the effort to get in touch with the gallery to suggest they have copies of transcripts available at exhibitions that have audio guides. They told me to use the feedback section of the website. I did get an automatic form response telling me my feedback was important, that it would be considered and they would be in touch in due course. Eighteen months later, I’ve given up waiting for that to happen. We went to another exhibition at the same place a couple of months ago, again there was an audio guide and a look of total incomprehension when I asked if there was a transcript. Obviously my feedback wasn’t important enough to spend $15 sending one of the volunteers or work experience kiddies off to Officeworks. They only need three people to hire the damn things to cover all costs.

There have been other exhibitions at other places, many with the dreaded audio guide. This one is the one that sticks in my memory, the only time where asking if a transcript existed resulted in an argument. To be fair, If I’d been handing out audio guides for six hours, I’d probably be a bit narky too, but that doesn’t excuse the escalation.

All I’m after is the same sort of access to the information that everyone else gets. I don’t mind paying the same that they do for the privilege. I have trouble with audible communication because my ears don’t work properly, not because I’m stupid. Don’t tell me there is no script, the bored sounding person in the plastic box is reading something. Don’t tell me you’d have to have to get translators in so you could have seven different languages available when the audio guide and enlarged captions are available in English only. Translate them too so non-English speakers can participate in our culture too if they want. Don’t tell me it contravenes copyright, if that was the case, the multiple copies of the audio would too. It’s not too expensive. You already have the script, it’s easy to print out a few copies in 12 on 14 point Times Roman and laminate them so all they need is  quick wipe down with a damp cloth when returned to remove evidence of damp palms. You don’t even have to go to the expense of recharging batteries and boiling headsets.

What are your experiences – good and bad? Have I misrepresented the situation? If you work for a gallery or museum and would like right of reply, I’m happy to link to it or publish it here.

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