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Some thoughts around the power of the audio guide from Wendy Moor - audio guide writer and producer / 11 October 2010

In his blog William Philips talks about a recent ‘Secret Shopper’ survey of Hampshire cultural sites. He says that "nearly everyone who carried out the survey said an audio guide would help them to negotiate and enjoy the sites." So – as vision impaired visitors have themselves identified the potential of this medium to meet their needs, museums and heritage sites should feel confident that making it a central part of their access provision will be a worthwhile exercise.

Having spent much of the last ten years writing and producing audio guides for blind and partially sighted visitors I have witnessed first hand the huge difference a good tour can make – the difference between a frustrating, bewildering and negative experience and one that’s liberating, fulfilling, stimulating and fun.

The first thought which probably springs to most people’s minds if ‘audio guide’ and ‘vision impairment’ are mentioned in the same breath is ‘audio description’. Of course this function is extremely valuable – provided the description is pithy, logical and evocative. But I wonder how many people are fully aware of the number of other roles this kind of guide can play. It can also facilitate safe and comfortable navigation. 

At risk of stating the obvious, there’s no point in a visitor making an enormous effort to come to your site if they can’t get to the exhibits. And a truly effective vision impairment tour can enable visitors with a degree of residual sight to navigate independently. When the visitor has located an exhibit or other interesting spot the guide can support a direct engagement through touch, sound and smell – maximising every possible opportunity for sensory encounter.

And there’s more – much more. If all that sounds too good to be true experience this for yourself by taking the Jodi Award-winning guide to AirSpace at Imperial War Museum Duxford.

Undertaking a project like this can be daunting. It demands time, skill, and the close involvement of a focus group. But it can be done – as Duxford and other determined organisations have proved. Reassurance should be taken from the fact that the scripting process needs to start with a back-to-basics investigation into the essential characteristics of the place. Nothing more fancy or complicated than that. 

To be successful the guide must reflect at every moment the precise reality of what’s actually there – with all the unique characteristics, which make that specific site worth visiting to begin with. The honest, open-minded approach necessary to achieve a level of clarity – and reveal everything your site can offer a blind and partially sighted audience – can be refreshing and enlightening. I’ve lost track of the number of times people have said to me ‘I’ve never noticed that before!’

Duxford’s interactive exhibition in AirSpace was designed specifically for inclusivity – but other factors are key to the success of the venture – for example pre-visit information and staff training.

Other organisations have commissioned a vision impairment audio guide after a general guide is up and running. The outcome can be positive, provided it’s recognised that in order to have any relevance to a blind and partially sighted audience the so-called ‘adapted’ version cannot be a mere ‘tweak’ of a tour designed for a sighted audience. Again this would seem obvious.

The vision impairment guide can of course draw on the existing content – and often must if equality of learning is to be achieved. But content has to be presented in a different way, carefully woven in with the guide’s prime function – providing the coherent orientation and sensory engagement essential for a quality experience. The ‘adapted’ tour requires just as much work as a ‘from scratch’ vision impairment tour, and ultimately becomes a new tour in its own right. 

Experience has taught me that doing things the other way around – starting with the vision impairment guide Duxford-style – is the ideal. The rigorous discipline necessary for making a tour of this kind can challenge preconceived ideas and pinpoint barriers to understanding – physical and intellectual – which tend to affect all visitors. The resulting solutions can then be applied to future tours – and the overall learning applied across the whole organisation.  In other words, everybody benefits.

In conclusion here are the words of one of the Duxford project focus group members.

‘Planes, trains and automobiles… until recently just modes of transport to me.

A plane was simply a means to an end.  If I was lucky and had saved my pennies it took me to a far and distant place for a period of indulgence and then brought me safely back to the UK.  But Duxford AirSpace changed all that.

For me as a visually impaired person modes of transport often hinder rather than help me – and the inaccessibility of it all is more often than not very testing.  So to experience the delights aircraft and flight can offer was something I didn’t think I’d experience in my lifetime.  Never before have aircraft seemed so interesting.’

Keywords: access issues