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‘Working with People with Special Needs Isn’t Charity Anymore’

‘Working with People with Special Needs Isn’t Charity Anymore’

Maria Sarycheva, graduate of the MA in Applied Cultural Studies at HSE began preparing museum guided tours for people with special needs while she was still studying. Now she works in the department of inclusive programmes at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. She was instrumental in designing the new HSE Accessible Museum course. Maria Sarycheva talked to HSE News about what to do when there is no sign language gesture for installation and how to introduce art to people with visual and hearing impairments.  

Art can be perceived in many ways

When I came to Moscow from Ufa I wanted to start an MA in arts and culture. The Applied Cultural Studies programme at HSE seemed to be the most practical. As well as the huge amount of theoretical knowledge it offered a chance to get involved in the processes of contemporary culture and take an active part in projects. I’m grateful for the knowledge, analytical and critical thinking skills I learnt here.

While I was studying I began to develop education programmes at Garage - first as an intern and then as a member of staff. I watched how they prepared guided tours for people with special needs and it made a really big impression on me. I discovered that there are many ways of perceiving culture and I realised that art can be approached from many different angles.

I used the experience when devising and teaching the elective HSE course Accessible Museum which is all about providing access and including people with special needs into the life of contemporary museums.

The cultural sphere is becoming more accessible

In 2012 Russia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to have equal rights of access to cultural establishments. In Soviet times people with special needs were scarcely mentioned in public, they were almost a taboo subject. Now Russia is gradually aligning itself with the countries promoting inclusive programmes and aims to be as open to all as possible. It’s important as well that working with people with special needs is no longer seen as charity work. Now it is becoming part of the normal standards of cultural institutions. If you declare yourselves to be a public space then you will be expected to provide the tools to understand the cultural exponents in that space for all visitors whatever their needs.  

The important thing is to get started

Our inclusive programmes department only opened recently, in August 2015. Until then it existed unofficially. We started to devise programmes for visitors with visual impairment in September 2014 and in sign language in February this year. We had already been collaborating with visitors with special needs to test out the best ways of working with them for about a year when the museum administration decided to give our department official status and since then we can say we’ve been promoting inclusivity in culture and directly involving people with special needs in all the educational processes.      

In the last two months of the summer we had more than 500 visitors with hearing impairments - the ‘bush telegraph’ was clearly working

Today we are trying to create a comfortable environment for people with different special needs. In the last two months of the summer we had more than 500 visitors with hearing impairments - the ‘bush telegraph’ was clearly working. When we realised there was such a huge demand we started training courses for all staff (whatever their job) at the museum on how to communicate with people with special needs. We even taught them some phrases in sign language. We wanted everyone to know that we were ready to receive anyone with any special needs. 

Preparing guided tours for people with special needs

Essentially it’s the same as preparing for visitors who don’t have special needs, but at the moment we are spending a bit more time designing new tours, creating original tactile models - miniatures of the exhibits - which can be handled. The museum is bringing in a signing interpreter. Usually before a guide writes about a tour he looks at the entire exhibition and reads up on it so he knows all the right terminology. Now an interpreter is brought into the process, it used to be an invited specialist but now he’s one of our team.

We also have a specialist who devises programmes for people with impaired vision and for visitors with ASD. Little by little we want to get away from the basic guided tour format and to start to incorporate the specific ways different groups of the population perceive culture. We always invite a visually impaired person to try out the text when we are preparing for a tour, we ask their opinion before we launch it. Working with sign language has particular challenges too. For example, words like installation and performance don’t have a sign equivalent so we have to find synonyms that work without simplifying the meaning but convey the essence of the artistic process.   

HSE students and graduates of the Cultural Studies degree are working in our department at the moment. 

Mixed guided tours change the perception of space

When our department started working unofficially we organised mixed tours for people with and without special needs. For the Supramen Tours by the Swedish artists Emmeli Persson and Emelie Carlen the visitors wore blindfolds. We mixed the visually impaired visitors with normally sighted people. It was interesting to see how we perceive space differently when we are all in the same condition. The artists held small workshops afterwards where people talked about how they remembered the space and what the mixed audience was drawn to.   

Now we are gradually making our own mixed programmes. On Sundays for example as part of the education programme for the current exhibition ‘Structures of Existence: The Cells’ by the American artist Louise Bourgeois we have an inclusive performance workshop. Anyone with hearing or visual impairment can come along and they will have access to guides, verbal description of objects, tactile models and sign language interpreting. Alexei Sherbakov, an actor from the Krug (Circle) inclusive theatre will work with visitors: he’ll take a sculpture and literally break it down into bricks, discuss what kind of sculpture it is, its meaning, what the artist felt when he was making it and will even try give an interpretation of it in dance and movement.  

About the future

We now know how important it is to reassure people with special needs that they can always have access to exhibitions both physically and in terms of content.

Unfortunately we have very few programmes for guided tours for individuals with special needs in Russia. If a person goes to a special school they have a better chance of getting into the Hermitage than if they have already left school. This is normal for museums and galleries which generally work on a request basis.

In future we want to be able to offer the same kind of access in Russia which is widely available in other countries. Equal access for all people with special needs in groups and on an individual basis, film showings with subtitles, signing at lectures, etc, etc. That’s our goal.

Interview by Maria Komendantova


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