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Louise Fryer gives an overview of the value and drawbacks of using tactile images to make collections more accessible / 3 October 2010

Through my work with VocalEyes, I have trained staff in museums across the country to help make collections more accessible to blind and partially sighted visitors.

For curators hoping to make collections accessible to blind and partially sighted people, especially in these cash-strapped times, tactile images can seem like a godsend. They look good, they are relatively cheap to produce and every blind person can ‘read’ by touch – or can they?

A little while ago, I spent a morning with members of the Colchester Museum’s disability access group – the Portal group - as they piloted a series of tactile images. Members represented a range of ages and sight characteristics, but all agreed it takes time to get used to ‘reading’ an image.

For a start, a tactile must be oriented the right way up. The lines must be raised sufficiently for a user to feel. The image must also be simplified, reduced to bold shapes that can be easily distinguished. That instantly begs the question of what to leave out? Who makes that choice? And how is the divergence between the original source material and the tactile conveyed? Then there is the problem of perspective. The foreshortening and convergence typical of a 2-D image can be confusing when encountered with no explanation.

So it soon became clear that the tactiles needed to be accompanied by a verbal commentary. However, while a verbal guide to the tactile is one thing, it is very different from an audio description (AD) of the original artwork. Brian, who has no visual memory, pointed out that an image is designed to make a quick impact – he felt AD achieved this, while a tactile took time to navigate.

The tactile also took a good deal of concentration to interpret. On the positive side, Catherine, who has some useable vision, felt that, as she got used to them, the tactiles became easier to decipher. She enjoyed the fact that the tactile gave her the proportion and layout of the picture and geographical relationship between its elements.

While Catherine felt the AD was crucial, the tactile provided something extra: ‘it helps fix the image in my mind.’ The Portal Group concluded that, while tactiles are a useful tool, they need to be thought about carefully and are only part of the access answer.

For the describer, tactiles require a two-stage description – an AD of the original source material, and a separate, navigational guide. If you have used tactiles – or commissioned them for your museum or gallery, I’d be really interested to hear about your experience.

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