Historic and botanical gardens attract visitors not simply for their natural beauty, but also because of their cultural and scientific importance. The Equality Act (2010) states that service providers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to provide access. Despite this, in the heritage sector only a small minority of institutions (and very few historic gardens) are able to offer accessible tours for blind and partially sighted (BPS) audiences. To make historic gardens widely accessible for BPS people, this research proposes that the sector needs to move from conventional notions of ‘niche’ accessibility provision, to an inclusive design approach. To achieve this, the research will build on the concept of Blindness Gain (Thompson, 2017), and examine whether the techniques used to provide access for BPS people can also enrich the experience for sighted audiences.
Access for BPS people is often provided through Audio Description (AD). AD has traditionally consisted of a verbal description of visual and spatial aspects of an experience (Fryer, 2016). However, research from psychology suggests that AD may benefit sighted people as a form of ‘guided looking’; the audience’s eyes are directed to visual details, through description (Hutchinson and Eardley, 2021). This means the benefits of AD potentially go beyond its original purpose.
Little research work has been carried out on AD within the museum and heritage sector, with next to nothing on outdoor heritage, such as historic gardens. This research will examine different types of AD, including AD co-created by BPS and sighted audiences (Chottin and Thompson, forthcoming). Drawing on methods and techniques from psychology, it will evaluate the impact of these experiences on visitors. Thus, by reframing ‘access’ as inclusive, shared experiences for all visitors, this research will aim to reassess the way heritage sites and visitors think about accessibility.