Directly in front of us is our destination for today – The Chinese History Museum. It is a squat, single-storey building, painted a light peach – built in the colonial style. It is a symmetrical bunker in form yet somehow elegant in its simplicity. It is a central oblong, from its flat roof at each corner to its thick foundations rising about 3 feet above ground level. A smaller annex juts out from each side, doubling the frontage but only reaching to three quarters the height. The front of the building has three vertical strips, carved with Chinese characters in relief. Between them, two sets of low stairs lead up to two sets of glass double doors, each covered by a small, curved porch.
Can you picture the building in your mind’s eye now? Now, imagine you are blind or visually impaired, perhaps from birth, perhaps from a more recent development, and ask yourself the same question. Go further and ask yourself whether you would now appreciate the addition of this kind of visual description to a guided tour of this or any other museum, heritage site, event or even any unknown space or place and you might begin to consider why some members of the blind or visually-impaired community in Malaysia are promoting it.
This is a world designed by the sighted for the sighted, but increasingly, as our notions of humanity and society evolve, any discrimination against or exclusion of individual commu- nities, no matter how much of a minority in numbers, is being rejected.
This piece of description is the start of an audio-described tour of the Chinese History Museum in Kuching – an extension of a tour previously offered primarily, (though not exclusively) to sighted people in Kuching. This tour, designed, and conducted free of charge by volunteer heritage guide and new Kuchingite, Paul Gerarts, ran for a year, one Saturday a month until dwindling numbers brought it to a close. The audio-described version of the tour has been conducted once with members of National Council for the Blind Malaysia and the Sarawak Society for the Blind in May 2017 – a test run of sorts. But, with the upcoming festival What About Kuching in October of this year, the decision was taken to rerun the tour and, additionally, to promote the audio-described version alongside it; to truly act as an example of exactly What Kuching is About – inclusivity, harmony, unity.
We live in a world where sight is central to much of our professional, social and cultural lives. In many respects, this is a world designed by the sighted for the sighted, but increasingly, as our notions of humanity and society evolve, any discrimination against or exclusion of individual communities, no matter how much of a minority in numbers, is being rejected. The goal now is a world where people who are blind, visually-impaired, hearing-impaired, speech-impaired, wheelchair-bound, black, white, female, male are taking their places in a society based on their abilities and not their ‘disabilities’, whether in our schools, homes, workplaces and now, cultural spaces.
Of course, ever since the invention of Braille all the way up to the emergence of various new technologies (some invented by members of the blind community, some by sighted people) there have been gadgets and systems to make visual elements of the world accessible to people who are visually impaired. Audio-description is one such tool. It is described by Dr Joel Snyder, the head of American Audio Description Associates and the trainer who conducted a 2015 workshop with Penang-based heritage guides and two interlopers from Sarawak, as the ‘visual made verbal.’ Largely applied in the areas of theatre, dance, film, television museums and other cultural spaces, audio description, as the name suggests, aims to describe orally the visual elements that would otherwise be missed by people who are blind and visually impaired. This is not informational, but purely descriptive, much as might appear in a novel to create atmosphere and context. Interpretation and explanation are discouraged – the description is a way for an audience who is blind or visually impaired to access visual cues for themselves, and then interpret and explain in their own way.
In fact, for the elderly, for anyone who may have forgotten their glasses on a trip to the cinema or simply for those not gifted with great powers of observation, audio-description can be a boon, drawing out previously unnoticed elements. Interestingly, for the audio-describer themselves, it can create attention to detail that would be missed in a more cursory glance – it simply encourages more focused sight. One of the first institutional examples dates back to 1917 in a report on how Lady Waterlow enabled soldiers blinded during the First World War to enjoy a ‘cinematograph lecture’ about Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic by describing the images. In reality, informal audio description has been conducted presumably for as long as there has been interaction between blind and sighted people. However, in many countries, under the aegis of anti-discrimination legislation, audio-description is now becoming mandatory, for example on television.
Here in Malaysia, there is no legal requirement for inclusivity of this kind, though many ordinary Malaysians are pushing forward initiatives voluntarily. The Rotary club of Kuching, for example, is conducting walks with members of the blind community in October this year. Sarawak also saw its first blind lawyer, Loh Wei Siong, called to the bar in 2015. However, his employers took the step of providing him with a course in public speaking at their expense so that he could learn the skills needed to connect with a sighted audience. Sarawak institutions like MBKS, DBKU and the Sarawak Tour Guides Association are sending staff to workshops on audio- description. Inclusivity is in the Malaysian nature, it seems.
Much of the drive for audio-description specifically here in Malaysia has centred around the tourism industry so far. It is a chicken and the egg scenario - Sarawak doesn’t have many tourists who are blind and visually impaired but perhaps simply because there is nothing here for them to see! If we build it, they might come. Encouragingly, the new Sarawak Museum campus is incorporating accessibility issues in its design. But the hope is that the increasing availability of events that are deliberately made accessible to minority communities will snowball into a more deliberately inclusive society. This is the driving concept behind the promotion of audio-description. For the tour of the Chinese Museum, not every member of the blind community will want to attend - not everyone is a museum buff, whether blind or sighted. For the test tour, some loved it, most enjoyed it, but all appreciated that it was on offer. Choice is the key.
After all, people who are blind or visually-impaired are no different from sighted people in their range of interests. The term ‘special needs’ has come into use but, in reality, the needs of this community are not special. Just like all humans, they need the grand ideas that are common to all of us – sustenance, love, companionship, money, enjoyment, knowledge, education, freedom, variety
The goal now is a world where people who are blind, visually-impaired, hearing-impaired, speech-impaired, wheelchair-bound, black, white, female, male are taking their places in a society based on their abilities and not their ‘disabilities’, whether in our schools, homes, workplaces and now, cultural spaces.
– the list goes on. In fact, the sighted do not need sight; they simply use it to get the things that they need. For those who are blind or visually-impaired, that particular tool is not available to them and so, society is finding ways to deliver alternatives.
The idea is to provide the same range of options that is available to the rest of us – the dominant majority - to make sure that people who are blind and visually impaired feel like all our spaces and places are as much theirs as everyone else’s. That is basic humanity and that is what Kuching is basically about.
Karen Shepherd was one of the two Sarawak interlopers, along with Paul Gerarts, to attend the course in Penang on Audio- description. It opened her eyes to her own lack of understanding and access to people of the blind and visually-impaired community, the occasional massage notwithstanding. She learned, among other things, that most sighted people ask the same questions – her favourite being: How do you dream?