Spreading the Word on Accessibility

Serena Cant has been been part of the Soane's innovative programme for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Here she discusses one of her recent lectures, in Stalowa Wola, Poland.


Over the last two years Sir John Soane's Museum has been running an innovative Deaf-led programme for Deaf and hard of hearing visitors, becoming the first in the country to recognise the differing needs of sign language users and lipreaders from the outset, rather than adapting existing BSL programmes as an afterthought.  

As one of the Soane’s recent deaf lecturers,  I ran a two-day workshop in March 2014 at the Regional Museum of Stalowa Wola, Poland. The museum is housed in an old manor, with strong collections of local archaeology and folk art, and regular changing exhibitions. Its accessible ethos, recognised throughout Poland, is most clearly demonstrated in its sculpture garden for all. Every sculpture provides a tactile exploratory experience for visually-impaired visitors, and is set at wheelchair-accessible and child-friendly height.

I was invited to lead a workshop on increasing museum access to Deaf visitors, with two target audiences: museum professionals from across Poland and the Ukraine, and local Deaf people, embedding the principle of user-led participation in access. The programme at Sir John Soane's Museum was highlighted as a key example of good practice, making an excellent case study.


Photo of a guided tour in spoken English and British Sign Language, at Stalowa Wola, illustrating how to work with museum spaces and exhibition displays for deaf audiences.
(By courtesy of the Regional Museum of Stalowa Wola)


Part of the workshop involved me leading a guided tour in spoken English and British Sign Language (above), illustrating how to work with museum spaces and exhibition displays for deaf audiences. Here an innovative low-cost and visually striking "wall" of dyed wool complements the exhibition’s theme of local textile traditions, and marking out the circulation space, but presents an excellent opportunity to illustrate the challenges of sightlines: she slipped behind the wall to illustrate how much harder it was to see her lips and hands.

The recognition of diverse communication needs among Deaf visitors was a revelation to most of the hearing museum professionals, in a country where provision for lipreaders is in its infancy. There was also a discussion of the constraints of space and light for Deaf visitors, who need excellent sightlines of the guide and/or interpreter, while an intimate educational space such as the Soane is an asset for this audience. Meanwhile, the historic building context of the Soane also made the discussion relevant to curators of sites and monuments as well as museums and galleries.

The Soane and the Regional Museum of Stalowa Wola are two museums with very different collections, but a shared determination to involve Deaf people as audiences and as guides.


Photograph of the interpreters at the workshop

(By courtesy of the Regional Museum of Stalowa Wola)

(An array of interpreters, or multi-lingual inclusivity! In this image, next to Serena, left to right: English-Polish interpreter; Polish-Ukrainian interpreter; deaf relay interpreter into Polish Sign Language, using Serena’s BSL then lipreading the spoken Polish to interpret; and finally Serena’s lipspeaker, who also speaks Polish)


For more on the Soane’s provision for D/deaf and hard of hearing people, click here.

Posted on 06 July 2014 in Education & Outreach
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