Friday, 3 June 2011

National Gallery, British Library: positive about inclusion

In my first post I reported how thrilled I was with the National Gallery’s attitude towards people with disabilities.  In the last few weeks, I have spoken to people within visually impaired charities and the arts world, and while many of them thought the offer of assistance in bringing food to a table was a gold standard, they’ve all been pleasantly surprised by the coffee cup size option.  I had said at the outset that the National Gallery was totally unfazed by my walking in off the street and asking about viewing a Canaletto painting I had seen in the past. 

The National Gallery runs a programme on the last Saturday of the month called “Arts Through Words”. (  I had been to this in the past and enjoyed it, though it’s often difficult to keep your dates and diary up to date and occasionally one forgets what day of the week it is.  I made an effort to get to the discussion on 28th May and a friend came with me.  There were about 30 people at the meeting including some tourists.  Two of the staff were on hand and the discussion was based on William Hogarth’s Marriage a la mode.
As is the case of many ‘blind groups’ the meeting starts with those present introducing themselves so that one put a name to the voice!  A reproduction of the painting is provided along with some enlargements of details.  The presentation is interactive and positive, and a wide mix of attendees provided interesting contributions on the mores of the time.  (c1740s)  The characters and features in the painting are described in relation to the background to the work, the artist, and the setting.  After the discussion we were encouraged and guided to the actual painting which is part of a series. 

This is where the WOW factor really came in for me.  There was a spectrum of people with little or no vision and when we were ‘looking’ at the painting in the setting of the gallery, one felt as if one was an art critic for a newspaper!  It’s amazing how much more one can make out if you’re guided there.  This is one event which I have recommended to friends and in fact it was a coincidence that a member from one of my local blind group was also there. 

British Library (

The British Library is another part of British culture andlike the National Gallery is fully inclusive. It’s located next to St Pancras railway station and is not far from  the RNIB in Judd St.  On a nice day, the coffee shops are attractive and there are usually events going on which can be enjoyed on one’s own or with friends.  I have gone into the British Library on my own from time to time and whether one wants just to investigate the Magna Carta or some of the permanent displays, you only have to ask. 

On one occasion, a guard took me round and provided me with information about the exits, the various ways of getting into the site, and where the escalators and all the facilities were.  I also enquired about facilities for people with sight problems and the British Library positively encourages researchers to apply for a Reader’s Pass.  As in the case with many institutions, you need to know what you want and to be able to express it.  Another institution within the British Library is the sound archive, which should be on a visit programme if you’re in London. 

The attitude of the above institutions in London indicates the level of inclusion practiced across a range of services.  I would juxtapose this with some organisations and regrettably many companies who have a ‘disability corner’ attitude with various parts of their ‘service user’ profiling.  This sort of language and attitude usually results in failure, with me at any rate. 

I can give a couple of examples: in one hall, a blind person with a white cane was plonked next to me without so much as an introduction and we were both totally ignored.  I doubt if either of us went back to that meeting. 

On another occasion, at a meeting regarding health care issues, a blind lady was plonked next to me, though we knew each other, and in turn three wheelchair users were plonked next to us.  We were all furthest away from the speaker and too far away to add anything beyond allowing the organisers to tick a metaphorical box that we had been there. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I can recall very happy and pleasant moments with a former official from the local council’s ‘Boulevard Management’ committee.  There had been a campaign led by the guide dogs organisation to do with shared space, clearing the clutter form pavements, sidewalks, and street safety transport and obstacles.  This official was keen to involve everyone and I have even assisted in painting bollards around parts of London in order that some of us don’t crash into them.  This is an example of a council doing the right thing by listening and acting; and challenging those who thought our two-tone ripple texture drop kerb were not aesthetically pleasing. 

Finally, a brief mention of the RNIB “Books Beyond Borders” campaign.  While this is a matter for the UK government, I know that there are some non-UK visitors to the site who might be interested in the outcome of an international meeting (World Intellectual Property Organisation) concerned with intellectual property.  This affects copyright issues way beyond the scope of this blog, but if you feel able to lobby the minister, Baroness Wilcox, at the House of Lords (,
I would be thrilled if you could do so.  Similarly, you might care to lobby your own government regarding issues concerning the right to read books beyond borders, and accessibility issues on the web and in the public sphere.  
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