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Interpreting the Garden for Visitors with Sight Difficulties

Christine Preston
Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, UK


The University Botanic Garden in Cambridge, UK, comprises over 16 hectares of mature trees, a lake, glasshouses, themed plantings and wonderfully informal areas of naturalised woodland and wildflowers. Much of the Garden is now over 150 years old and provides a significant wildlife habitat in the city of Cambridge as well as being an important amenity for local residents and tourists. The primary remit of the Garden is educational – it supports teaching and research within the University and beyond, to all members of the wider community. It is enjoyed by around 100,000 visitors each year, including educational groups of all ages.
Encouraging and enabling inclusion is an important aspect of our work, if the Garden is to fulfil its potential as an education provider and amenity within the community. We believe that access to environments of the quality of the Botanic Garden is the right of every individual, whatever their age and ability.
Indeed, current UK law requires that all service providers, whether shopkeepers, hoteliers, health clubs or botanic gardens, make “reasonable adjustments to the way that they deliver their services so that disabled people can use them.” This requirement of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is currently being phased in over a period of years and will become fully implemented in 2004.
In westernised countries, the number of people with some form of disability is around one in five of the population and this figure is predicted to rise in line with increasing life expectancy. So, what “reasonable adjustments” can we make at Cambridge to reduce barriers that may deter disabled people from enjoying the Botanic Garden and learning from its collections?
In the UK, many people associate disability almost entirely with impaired mobility, perhaps because other forms of disability are often less explicit and may go unnoticed. For example, a person with seriously impaired vision or hearing may present virtually no outward sign of their disability and make no strong demands for their needs to be met.
One person in every 60 in the UK is officially registered as blind or partially sighted. This amounts to around 6 million people and, extrapolating from this, we calculate that about 1,333 of our visitors each year may have been clinically diagnosed as visually impaired. Visual impairment manifests itself in many forms and degrees of severity, but only about 1 in 6 of those affected are actually blind.
A high percentage of visually impaired visitors are aged 50 years and above – the age group which accounts for over 50% of our current visitors at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. In addition to those who are officially visually impaired, one can add the many more elderly people whose sight is deteriorating gradually due to inevitable ageing processes. They may experience difficulty distinguishing fine detail and reading small text in poor light conditions. So, what can we do to enhance access for these groups, to enable them to enjoy the Garden and its collections more fully, through senses other than sight?
For most of us, sight dominates our experience of the world. It is what we see that so often creates the initial impact. Our culture is highly visual. In botanic gardens, text and graphics are the principle means of communicating information, both when interpreting our collections and when publicising or promoting access to them.
In the first place, anything we can do to improve our standards of textual and graphic communications is likely to benefit all whose sight is failing, as well as young children who are still novice readers.
Developing access for people with sight difficulties
‘In to Touch’ and the introduction of sighted guiding
For about four years, we have been developing contacts with visually impaired people in our local communities and those who provide support systems for them. Our aim has been to encourage them to derive more benefit from the green haven that the Botanic Garden embodies. It is an environment that has much to offer in terms of non-visual attractions.
I would like to outline some of our strategies and to share with you some of what we have been doing so far. So how did it all start?
• During 1999 and 2000, we worked in partnership with education officers at other local organisations to coordinate a festival of activities for visually impaired people (VIPs). At each venue, events were promoted highlighting techniques for accessing information by means other than visual. We worked under the promotional banner of ‘In to Touch’. Partner organisations in the festival included museums, an art gallery, a cathedral and a theatre.
• To help us get started, initial training in Visual and Disability Awareness and Improving Access was provided by the staff of Cam Sight, a local charity supporting VIPs. This proved invaluable.
During the festival we pioneered our first sighted guiding events. We enrolled a small number of volunteers from amongst our Friends organisation and we all received preparatory training in the skills of sighted guiding. This, for any who may not have encountered the term before, refers to the accepted techniques for the safe guiding of a blind or partially sighted person.
We also made sorties in the Garden, wearing ‘simulation specs’. These are sets of goggle-like contraptions that mimic forms of visual impairment such as tunnel vision, peripheral vision and macular degeneration. We found these optical distortions extremely disconcerting, but valuable in raising our awareness of how diverse and disabling the effects of sight impairment can be.
We organised two events each year, to which VIPs and their sighted companions were invited. Local Social Services laid on transport for those unable to reach the Garden unaided, whilst others came with family or friends. We provided a sighted guide for each VIP and after a few welcoming words everyone dispersed into the Garden to pursue their own interests, later meeting for tea at the Café. The age range of those attending was between 8 and 90 years old.
Sighted guiding is social and informal. It works well, for both parties, when the guide is able to tune rapidly to a compatible wavelength for the VIP in their company. Once a rapport is struck, the VIP feels confident of influencing the proceedings and negotiating a Garden experience to suit his or her inclinations and fitness. The guide’s role is as facilitator and interpreter. Not surprisingly, VIPs’ interests cover as wide a spectrum as would those of any diverse group. Some may have an intellectual interest in the Garden and its plant collections, whilst for others their visit may be purely recreational.
Visual impairment typically enforces varying degrees of social withdrawal. Cherished activities such as allotment-keeping or gardening may no longer be practical. The guide will be alert to hints as to which plants have significance for the VIP and may be able to locate favourite examples and kindle memories, for example through
• exploring the impressive shape and scent of the flowers of Magnolia
• comparing the diversity of bark textures, fruit or seed forms
• the pleasure of smelling and comparing a range of different mints or
• the fun of finding ripe mulberries amongst the leaves or re-experiencing the distinctive scent and feel of a tomato plant in fruit.
Others, perhaps living in a city apartment, may have little access to open space and relish the opportunity to sit on a bench in the fresh air, chatting or listening to sounds around them, such as birdsong, the fountain or the voices of people relaxing together.
In our unpredictable climate, we have found it helpful to collate a handling collection of plant materials and related objects with interesting associations. Exploring these provides an enjoyable fall-back activity if the weather is unaccommodating or if a VIP tires quickly and wants to return to base to sit down.
Our sighted guiding events reached relatively small numbers but participants’ responses encouraged me to feel that there could be value in extending the service throughout the year, making it available to any VIP able to reach the Garden independently or with a sighted companion. I felt that some people might prefer an alternative to visiting as a member of an organised group.
Audio-guiding versus Sighted Guiding
I also explored the feasibility of developing a specialised audio-guiding system. The idea was to enable a VIP to seize the opportunity of good weather and turn up at the gate to borrow a pre-recorded audio-guiding wand that would assist with both way-finding and the provision of interpretation about the collections. Funding was available to develop this project, but it would have required substantial pioneering. Although such systems are now relatively familiar at indoor venues, I could find no specialised VIP audio tour in the outdoor environment to use as a model. We decided that with our limited human resources it would be an over-ambitious venture for the Garden to develop at present, although the appropriate technology will no doubt become feasible with further developments in wireless computer technologies.
Using a human guide offers many advantages. A sighted guide self-programmes instantly to respond appropriately to what he or she encounters on the day – be it the mood or fitness of the visitor, the season of the year, weather conditions or unexpected bumps and wrinkles in the ground surface. A human guide can exchange a joke over a cup of tea and make the most of interpreting the unexpected happenings that occur in gardens everyday – the great or small things that make gardens invigorating places to be and keep attracting people back for more.
We also have to be aware that using sighted guides introduces potential risk and inconvenience for both parties. An appointment may be broken, leaving one or other partner stranded, disappointed or annoyed. People with visual impairment are physically and sometimes emotionally vulnerable and may be anxious about walking off into a garden with a virtual stranger.
As for the guides, although covered by the University’s Public Liability Insurance, they are aware that they may be putting themselves at risk of litigation, should a VIP have an accident whilst in their care. Similarly there is no guarantee that a VIP might not file an accusation of assault, whether true or false.
Such issues provoked considerable discussion and soul-searching for the guides and myself as we negotiated the guidelines for our longer-term modus operandi. Whilst it is worth pointing out that the guides are members of our Friends organisation, and not strangers to us, all were in agreement that when recruiting, we should obtain two references attesting to the applicant’s suitability for this type of work. Even so, risks remain.
Where we are now
We now have 10 trained volunteers to call on to act as guides in response to requests from VIPs, at any time of year. The demand has grown gradually. We were warned to expect this, as we are promoting a new concept to people for whom most forms of advertising are inaccessible and many of whom are elderly and may take time to respond to new ideas. For some, the journey to the Garden is certainly a real barrier.
I am satisfied with the current volume of demand. If we were to be swamped with requests for sighted guiding, we would find it hard to devote the necessary time to managing the scheme. We currently provide guides for around 50 VIPs each year and more than half of these attend as members of a group visit. The development of tactile maps and interpretive diagrams is an issue that I am currently exploring. Whilst we develop our work, we learn more about how we can enrich our interpretive repertoire. We believe that this can only offer benefits for all of us and for all visitors to the Garden.
Is there anyone else out there?
For anyone who might be considering assessing their own garden in terms of accessibility to people with sight difficulties, I have drawn together in Diagram 1 some of the concepts that may be worth considering. By doing so I do not wish to imply that we have achieved all these aims at Cambridge.
Improving accessibility for people with sight difficulties calls for wide-reaching changes and takes time. We are only a small part of the way along the road to incorporating better practice in all the relevant areas of our work. I would love to hear from any colleagues who have also been working in this area. Please make yourself know to me, so we can share ideas whilst we have this excellent opportunity.
Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Part III – Access to Goods and Services).
British Standards Institute (2001). Design of buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people – Code of Practice. BSI. Chiswick, London, UK. ISBN 0 580 38