Deaf Awareness Week 2017
Monday 15th May sees the start of Deaf Awareness Week and it has reminded me why I wanted to move jobs and work within the Museum and Heritage sector.
Whilst working as a Sport Development Coordinator, I completed my Level 1 and 2 British Sign Language (BSL) qualifications. My fascination with this visual language was one of the instigators for starting my Masters and had a big influence over the direction of my dissertation, focusing on engagement and accessibility for audiences with varying levels of hearing in museums and art galleries.
Over 11 million people in the UK experience some form of deafness, from mild to severe, so assumptions when generalising the term “deaf” or “deafness” should be avoided; not all those who are deaf use Sign Language or wear a hearing aid.
There are also different dimensions to deafness and identity, including Deaf with a capital D, deaf with a lower case d, and hard of hearing. Those within the Deaf Community, who use BSL predominantly, Deaf with a capital D, do not recognise their deafness as a disability but being part of a cultural, linguistic minority. Awareness of individual preference on communication, learning models and also terminology of deafness and identity is essential.
Marketing company Culture Hive identified the ideal scenario of inclusion regarding communication, irrespective of hearing levels, to be spoken word, subtitles and BSL interpretation, known as the “total” communication model.
Sport has had an impact on accessibility and disability awareness within the UK, starting with London 2012, continuing to the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, with Channel 4 adverts being available with BSL interpretation, subtitles and also audio descript, not only on their website but also shown on TV. It promotes awareness of these communication models and different cultures within society.
So what is being done within museums and heritage?
Representation in Museums
The Social Model of Disability identifies the disabling barriers that society creates limiting access to services and activities, moving away from the Medical Model of Disability. This may be reflected in some access provisions of museums and art galleries but currently doesn’t always feature within the content of exhibitions, with the focus of some still remaining on the medical aspects of deafness, as opposed to the communities or individual social histories.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England, Exceptional & Extraordinary saw the collaboration between artists, medical professions and museum experts. They were inspired by medical objects found within eight British museums, to produce a series of events.
I was fortunate to attend Let us tell you a story…, a dance performance by the all deaf dance company Deaf Men Dancing. The project aimed to challenge attitudes surrounding the “idealised norm” of the physical body and communicate the human stories beyond the medical objects. The multi-sensory composition that focused on significant events within Deaf history, also included voiceover pieces, performed by Deaf artists, finding a new medium to express the silent stories of this community.
Induction hearing loops are a silent provider of a vital resource, but we are only aware of them not working when they are required the most. Visit England recommends hearing loops be checked weekly, the same protocol as fire alarms. How many heritage sites check theirs regularly? A mystery shopper report conducted in 2014 at 31 heritage sites in Scotland by Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, found that 19 failed to have a working induction loop.
Access for visitors with varying levels of hearing should stem beyond auxiliary aids. The Science Museum has inverted the traditions of museum interpretation through their Deaf led events, the SIGNtific programme. Deaf presenters communicate in BSL, with a voice over situated at the back, creating an inclusive event for Deaf and hearing visitors.
Case Studies: Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre
For my dissertation, I chose the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre as a case study, to showcase the innovative way they communicate with the Deaf Community.
The Signly App, created by Intermedia and the charity Deafax, works by scanning a QR code with a phone or tablet to reveal a BSL interpreter through augmented reality, allowing the visitor to see the exhibition and the interpreter at the same time.
This technology can also be applied to 3D objects, scanning them to reveal BSL videos, as well as other forms of literature such as books or posters. The app is free to download, using the free wi-fi available at the Museum, with 24 QRs across the three galleries, communicating the life and works of Roald Dahl.
Action on Hearing Loss provides useful tips on how organisations can be more deaf aware and support communication:
- Attention: Ensure you have the visitor’s full attention before you speak and have your mouth visible, as some visitors, but not all, may lip-read.
- Lighting: Good lighting and reduced background noise will assist conversations.
- Speech: Use plain language (try to avoid slang), as well as normal lip movements and facial expressions, avoiding the temptation to raise the level of your voice, as it can be uncomfortable for hearing aid users if you shout.
- Confirm understanding: Ask the visitor to confirm whether they understand or not. If not, consider how to communicate the information in a different way- paper and pencil can be another method of communication.
- BSL (British Sign Language): Get your staff to learn basic finger spelling, such as their name, or an introduction to BSL. Consider what questions or requests are frequently asked by your visitors and learn how to understand the questions and communicate the answers in BSL. These may include:
- Directions: Exhibitions, café, shop, toilets
- Opening/closing times
- Auxiliary aid provision: Hearing loop/audio transcript
Sites should consider what communication methods they use for their displays – Are written transcripts of audio-visual presentations readily available and do subtitles feature on videos?
Venue equipment such as induction loops and lighting should be regularly checked. If provisions are available at events, such as BSL interpreters, speech-to-text subtitles and lip-readers, these should be clearly communicated via multiple communication channels and methods.
As with all awareness campaigns, understanding the needs of an audience with varying levels of hearing should not be limited to one week of the year. An active approach should be adopted in the delivery of services and resources that increase access for all, irrespective of hearing levels, to offer a holistic and inclusive provision as standard practice. The content of exhibitions should also reflect the history of the Deaf Community and those experiencing hearing loss, beyond the medical association.
I think it’s time to get practising my sign language again and consider completing my level 3 qualification.
By Anne-Marie Rooney, Resilience Syndicate Intern
 Action on Hearing Loss, Statistics, https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/your-hearing/about-deafness-and-hearing-loss/statistics.aspx,
 Visit England, Ross Calladine, ‘Ingredients for an Access for All Award winning experience’
 Action on Hearing Loss, Tourist attraction accessibility improves threefold, less than half accessible, https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/news-and-events/scotland/news/mystery-visits-to-scottish-tourist-attractions.aspx,