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EPALE interview: The potential embedded in accessible culture. The challenges for educators

Interview with Rafał Lis, Volunteering Officer and Accessibility Coordinator at the Emigration Museum in Gdynia. 


Rafał Lis.

First published in Polish by Justyna Bednarz


Interview with Rafał Lis, Volunteering Officer and Accessibility Coordinator at the Emigration Museum in Gdynia   


EPALE: How do you define accessibility in a cultural institution and why is this issue so important?

Rafał Lis: Accessibility is a characteristic of an environment, product or service and consists in guaranteeing equal access for everyone on the same terms, without the need for them to put additional effort into using something or participating in a process. This definition of accessibility runs, of course, in line with the Accessibility Plus Programme and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I cling to the Convention like a shipwrecked sailor to a rock.

Accessibility is important because human rights and unrestricted access to anything that is publicly funded are vital. Every man and woman should have the same opportunities to see and experience what is on offer in cultural institutions. Especially since most of those institutions are financed from public funds.  

EPALE: How should cultural institutions meet the needs of people with disabilities? How can they implement accessibility in practice?

R.L.: First of all, institutions must remember that they do not create a programme only for those who are fluent readers, have good vision, excellent hearing and are good at climbing stairs... Organisers of events and managers of cultural institutions should be aware that the special needs referred to in last year's legislation may apply to people with disabilities but does not necessarily have to. Those needs may be permanent or only temporary (e.g. after surgery).

An individual who turns up in a theatre, museum or workshop room may not be able to see as well as others. It is important to be constantly aware that each recipient may have different abilities and different needs.

This is the first step - the institutions must recognise it. I am under the impression that it has already transpired. Nowadays, culture organisers and managers need to figure out what they need to change in order to make their institutions (more) accessible. Due to the fact that, unfortunately, this knowledge is often lacking, they benefit from the experience of NGOs.

In my sector, there are only a few NGOs that teach what access to culture should look like. It is possible that this is the reason why people with disabilities do not visit cultural institutions. It is the ‘vicious cycle of inaccessibility’. I often use this term in the training sessions that I conduct. The point is that the institutions were unavailable, and often still are, because the world was designed for what we would describe as an able-bodied (most often) male. People with various types of disabilities did not show up there because they were convinced that there is simply nothing there for them. Now, in some institutions, a service or a tool for building its accessibility suddenly appears, but people with disabilities still do not come. Why? Often, they do not know about it, while others do not believe that what is there is fully accessible to them and organised in such a manner as to allow them to feel dignified and comfortable.

It is also important to be aware of the methods that build accessibility. However, it is equally vital to find the money for it and to identify people who can implement it properly. Everything should be supported by proper dialogue with the disabled. A dialogue in which people with disabilities are treated equally and in partnership. Unfortunately, it is not yet a common practice in cultural institutions.   

EPALE: Often the concept of accessibility is reduced to two aspects: an architectural one, where a driveway and wide doors are provided to allow access to cultural institutions for wheelchair users, and a digital one - there is a virtual exhibition, so you can watch it online, without leaving home and, therefore, without restrictions. Isn't it too much of a simplification? And what do we forget about while thinking in such fashion?

R.L.: In actual fact, it is not clear to me where the prevalence of architectural accessibility over other aspects of accessibility of cultural institutions comes from. Indeed, very often institutions forget about accessible programmes, accessible communication or a suitably prepared website. Activities are rarely organised in such a fashion that people with disabilities can become real participants.

The primacy of issues related to architecture, in my opinion, may result from the provisions of construction law. When designing a new building or adapting an existing one, the organiser or manager of the institution is obliged to adapt the premises for safe use by people with disabilities. This is the first step that is sanctioned by law and applied (with varying success) by everyone. Thereafter ... the institution opens, and the restrictive supervision of accessibility seems to no longer exist. Therefore, institutions keep in mind architectural accessibility, but often do not pay attention to what happens next. Of course, there are several dozen institutions nationwide, including a dozen or so that lead the way in this field and are in the avant-garde of accessibility, which implement available services and tools and have all groups of recipients in mind.

When I work with institutions as a trainer, I can see that their employees often forget about the most basic and almost cost-free solutions such as simple language or tools to support blind people online. Constructing messages in a way that is understandable for a primary school graduate or supplementing graphics with alternative text is not a massive effort for institutions, especially for those with budgets counted in millions.

It is still the case that when talking about disabilities, people immediately think about wheelchair users, and when I ask about the availability of cultural institutions, I hear assurances about elevators and ramps. Moreover, the managers of cultural institutions often ignore the fact that the driveway is paved or lined with a dense metal mesh, which, for example, will exclude the support of a guide dog. Often the doors are not wide enough or too heavy. Or, what I personally find worrying, the institutions choose to design separate entrances for people with reduced mobility.

Quite often - this is my subjective feeling - accessibility is a bit simulated. That is why the new law is so important, as it also emphasises digital and communication accessibility. There is not enough information about programme availability, i.e. it does not list tools that can be used to build an accessible workshop or performance. In my opinion, an additional regulation that explains more about how to produce an accessible culture would be highly beneficial.

I am also concerned that there is a lot of talk about universal design in the context of publicly subsidised infrastructure, but when it comes to the culture, the discussion is usually about adapting something that is already made. I.e. a famous director or a great poet produces something that the education department or the accessibility coordinator then reinterprets for groups of people with disabilities. Hardly anyone in Poland starts a dialogue about a new event by saying: "Director, artist, we will show you the means that you can implement when creating your art so that a blind person can use it on equal terms". I am waiting for the moment when large-scale institutions will start designing universally, instead of ordering inaccessible works just to make them accessible at the later stage.   

EPALE: How does the issue of accessibility look, both in Poland and worldwide? Are there any countries that could be set as a model? Who should we emulate?

R.L.: It will not come as a surprise when I say that the countries that I am trying to watch closely are Scandinavia, Benelux and the United Kingdom. As early as the 1970s, institutions accessible to people with disabilities were designed there, and subtitles on television were common. It is still the case even now.

As an example from abroad, I would like to mention the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which has a large team of individuals dedicated to the issue of accessibility. Moreover, this team is led by a blind person. If someone ever asks me what the purpose of organising accessibility in a cultural institution is, I am quick to answer: we want people with various disabilities to build teams that adapt institutions to their needs. It is them, and them alone who know best what they need!

At the stage where we are now, people with disabilities are acting as external experts or educators. This, of course, fulfils the postulates of self-advocacy, which seems to me to be the icing on the cake of the conversation about accessibility. Unfortunately, probably no institution in Poland has an accessibility department. The National Gallery of Art - Zachęta in Warsaw has accessibility team, separated within their education department. But is it the trickle that starts the flood? Time will tell.   

EPALE: In one of the interviews you mentioned that within the institutions there should be an accessibility coordinator or preferably an accessibility team, as it is difficult to be a specialist that covers different types of disabilities. Are there enough experts on the Polish market? And if not, how to gain knowledge, where to train?

R.L.: If I could analyse the market, I would probably answer this question well. It seems to me that there are still not enough of those experts. This is what 2020 showed. On the one hand, it brought us to prepare for the implementation of the provisions of the Act on Accessibility - this is what we expected. On the other hand, due to the pandemic, we had a digital shift and the exceptionally high level of activity of cultural institutions on the Internet (and I do not think that we were ready for that). In addition, institutions such as the National Centre of Culture have begun to apply the provisions on accessibility in public tender requirements. They forced accessibility or at least asked how a potential grantee would implement the accessibility provisions, e.g. in a digital realm. Suddenly, it turned out that everyone had to guarantee accessibility to some extent or... at least, they had to declare that they would do so in order to receive funding. I must admit that the time just before the closing of the calls for proposals was very intense for those dealing with accessibility. This shows that this is still a narrow group of people.

Looking at this problem in a broader sense, it should be noted that, fortunately, there are people in Poland who have extensive experience and have worked for decades for the benefit of people with disabilities. They are often the ones who were ‘patching up’ accessibility gaps in institutions during their visits. Therefore, there are organisations that provide training, e.g. the Fundacja Kultury bez Barier Foundation, the Katarynka Foundation or the Polska Bez Barier Foundation. In some local governments, there are experts who are responsible for accessibility in infrastructure or in activities financed by these governments, for example in Łódź, Warsaw and Gdynia. Experts can also be found at universities or academies – such as teachers working in the field of typhlopedagogy and surdopedagogy, constantly interacting with people with disabilities. I think that the whole environment of support for people with disabilities, not necessarily in the cultural aspect, are great people to learn from.

There is no school formally training students to become a cultural accessibility coordinator. This is a school of life and… trial and error. However, it is necessary to give credit where credit is due and mention the activities of some organisations, such as the National Institute of Museology and Monument Protection (NIMOZ) or the National Centre for Culture, which for years have been building training programmes increasing knowledge about the accessibility of culture in Poland.

EPALE: Speaking about accessibility in cultural institutions, what kind of educational activity, aimed at adults, is particularly memorable to you?

R.L.: It seems to me that there are many institutions in Poland that do interesting and accessible things, therefore I will only mention selected examples. I am very inspired by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews - POLIN. This institution has an interesting way of looking at accessibility coordination. The accessibility coordinator employed there does not carry out activities on her own (for example, she does not write audio description), but coordinates the work of a large museum team. The way Wioletta Jóźwiak thinks about accessibility, for example, by organising the Sensory-Friendly Museum for people with intellectual disabilities or on the autism spectrum, is an example of comprehensive thinking about an accessible event. For instance, during a concert organised there, people with disabilities sat on stage, on a par with musicians. There was no electronic transmitter to process the sound, which in return meant that the music was much easier to receive. The comfort of people who may have sensory hypersensitivity was taken care of - there was a muffled blue light, places to sit, headphones that could be worn when someone wanted to take a break - thus such participants did not disturb others and did not have to leave the concert ahead of time.

Similar things are done by the Labyrinth Gallery in Lublin. It is an institution dealing with contemporary art, which carries out activities of a self-advocating nature. They produce exhibitions or events during which people with disabilities tell others about their perspective and experiences. For 3 years they have been working closely with a deaf person, who is currently employed there, and who conducts sign language classes translated into phonic language. In addition, Agata Sztorc, who is the head of the education team there, produces many events for blind and partially sighted people. An example of this is the exhibition where the visually impaired visitors could experience tactile art (art aimed at a perception by touch) prepared by blind or partially sighted artists. I had the pleasure of co-curating such an exhibition in the Labyrinth. They also recently started organising city strolls there, during which visually impaired people talk about their experience of a particular part of the city. These are important events, because they demonstrate what we have spoken about at the beginning of this conversation, i.e. that not everyone can see the world around them the way we expect them to.    

EPALE: How should the accessibility of an institution be assessed? How should an audit in this respect be conducted? What points should be considered?

R.L.: This is a very difficult question. Accessibility affects absolutely every element of the institution's activity. According to the legislation that entered into force last year, the institutions should also be adapted to the needs of its potential employees with disabilities.

Architectural accessibility includes the communication inside the building, access to the building, transitioning between levels, signage, etc. Digital accessibility is also important. It is based on an accessible website and accessible announcements, reliable information on whether the institution is or is not accessible.

I like to tell people that accessibility is not scalable. You can't say that your institution is 50% accessible. It is either accessible or not. However, you can also honestly say that as an institution you are ‘in the process of change’.

Accessibility is a very complex issue, therefore in a cultural institution, there should be a person who will be able to advise the HR department when a blind person turns up during staff recruitment, as well as tell the PR department about how to communicate about the accessibility of events and institutions. Of course, the support of external experts and people with disabilities themselves is beneficial too. Fortunately, when it comes to issues such as architecture, an institution’s programme or website - some audits can be conducted by external companies or NGOs.      

EPALE: So how should we inform the world about the fact that our institution is accessible? How to encourage people with disabilities to come to us and actively participate in our offer?

R.L.: It seems to me that accessibility must be communicated honestly and objectively. This is because at this point in time it is difficult to find an institution that fully meets the objectives, the standards of accessibility. Similarly, there are no examples of inclusive events that are 100% accessible to everyone, taking into account individual needs and abilities. That is why it is necessary to reliably inform what architectural and communication barriers may occur during the visit and know the standards or procedures that will allow us to react on an ongoing basis.

For large events, the way in which the participation of the public is recorded is also crucial. It is important whether the enrolment form includes a question about the needs of the person who wants to come to us. Participants can be asked if, and to what extent, they need support or if they can come with an assistant, who can also be helped by the institution in several ways.

Let us not forget about - what I call - the ‘path of accessibility’. Accessibility starts in the apartment of a person with a disability. A person who wants to visit a given institution may have architectural barriers in their immediate surroundings. The accessibility of an institution starts in a private home. We often miss those recipients, because they are trapped in a block of flats without a lift and deprived of support. An important question arises here: should cultural institutions meet the needs of their recipients to such an extent? Or is it a task for another local government unit?

It is also very important to properly diagnose needs. If we ask the recipients in advance, "Is what I want to do interesting for you?” and we get the answer to this question, only then can we expect someone to come to us. I would like to take a moment to recall the situation. We started to assess what kind of activities might be interesting for deaf parents and children in Lublin. It turned out that they generally liked our educational activities, however, they would have liked to take part in activities that would explain to them the concept of music, to help them understand what music is. This particular group did not have a lot of activities related to vibration, music and rhythm in their school education programme. When we subsequently prepared such a meeting we had a record level of attendance. It was then that we established cooperation with a charismatic drummer. Thanks to the vibrations produced by the instruments, she was able to tell the deaf what music, sound and rhythm are. What is also important, all of this took place in an inclusive setting as both deaf and hearing children participated in the classes.

It is my personal opinion that people with disabilities are more likely to take part in something that will not be dedicated only to them, but will be open to anyone and everyone will be given equal opportunities and comfort during participation.

I must confess that I very much dislike the way of implementing accessibility which entails creation of a small cultural institution within a large one, i.e. a gallery for the deaf or a theatre for the blind within a cultural institution dedicated to all. In such a situation, someone who conducts classes must decide what will be available for people with specific disabilities and individual classes are dedicated and conducted for a specific group of people with disabilities only. Every year dozens of events and performances takes place there, but only one with audio description and one with subtitles. Of course, I am speaking with a dose of irony and I want to emphasise that I understand the position of the cultural institutions, which do not have budgets that would allow them to offer 100% accessibility. None of the institutions have an audience built in such a way as to have a satisfactory attendance (as far as the organiser is concerned) while maintaining an extensive accessible programme. Unfortunately.   

EPALE: You are an art historian, you do audio descriptions of works of art. Do you think that every work of art can be described?

R.L.: Yes, absolutely! All objects and works of art can be audio-described, with regards to expressing what is ‘seen’ about them.    

EPALE: How do you learn to do that?

R.L.: Audio-description is an activity close to the field of translation studies. You translate what can be seen in what can be heard. Therefore, I never delude myself that it is 100% possible. But humans are creatures who like stories, storytelling. I am fortunate to have studied the history of art. It is quite a niche discipline, which on the one hand teaches an individual to look and see, and on the other hand, grants them knowledge about how to talk about what is visible. Students of this programme learn how to describe objects on a professional level. Indeed, it will be easier for them to audio describe an object because they appreciate a certain rigour in describing sculptures or architecture. They can stick to a certain order, e.g. describing from the most important details through to the less important, or if it is not possible (because the object is, for example, abstract) they can find in it a certain order or scheme to facilitate the story. Of course, the description of works of art is not yet an audio description.

Audio description, as a tool or service, has a certain formal framework as to the length of the text, the duration of the recording, and the method of constructing a narrative. But I guarantee that anyone can learn it.

I am most often and most willingly involved in live audio description. I feel very comfortable doing it. I hope that the recipients feel the same way, too. It allows me to read the reaction of the audience through their body language or I can just simply ask if they follow my line of thought, if they perceive the object the same way or in a similar fashion as I do. Of course, audio description must be objective - there is no room for my personal impressions. What is important to me is that during a live audio description I can talk about how a work of art ‘is being seen’, i.e. how the process of viewing and analysing an object is carried out. Because in art, especially contemporary art, the artist often plays with his or her own perception and that of the viewer.

My favourite example is one of the pictures of an artist - a frame for an open mouth, with the bottom section of the face only. But there is a twist! Only after some time, when the viewer gets closer - it turns out that it is not a face at all, but a part of a plastic cast of the dummy's head. When I was writing an audio description for this object, I constructed it as if it was a human face in the picture. Only when the narrative has reached the moment of describing the details of the teeth - the whole illusion fell apart. It is tricky to describe. The photographed jaw had all its teeth of the same size and shape, which looked very artificial, and so the viewer would then realise that it was not a human face. Nevertheless, you had to look at the photo more closely to see it. So, I led the narration towards the detail of the teeth and only then did I reveal that it was a dummy. I wanted to provide the same experience that I had myself. If I had started as some descriptors recommend, it would have sounded like this: "In this picture, we see the lower jaw of a dummy." End of audio description. Of course, I am saying it with a degree of humour. The artist - in my opinion - was trying to achieve this element of surprise, that it is not a female face in a certain grimace, but that of a dummy.

It is worth noting that audio descriptors can be used not only for people who are blind or partially sighted. It can be used for any person who, for whatever reason, is unable to look at the specific point we are referring to. Such descriptions often support the education of those who can see.

An audio description is also an interesting tool for working with people with intellectual disabilities. It is used to speak in an orderly manner about what is presented in a complex picture or installation. It is not uncommon for me to have situations in which the viewer called out during my audio description: "Indeed!". Sometimes, I would audio describe an object in the company of the author. It's quite stressful because the process is largely stripped of all this gallery-museum-curatorial narrative. However, no painter has fallen out with me as yet.

When talking about accessibility, we inevitably categorise people into groups - those who can't see, those who can't hear, those who have difficulties in understanding and acquiring information. We dedicate specific tools to them. When we start dealing with accessibility in practice, it turns out that tools working for the benefit of one group can be helpful to others. And it is also worth saying that what works for people with disabilities also works for the benefit of non-disabled people too. Furthermore, for every tool that supports people with disabilities you can find another group of beneficiaries who will find comfort and safety in the institution by sharing and using something together.       

EPALE: Is there anything you would like to add from yourself?

R.L.: I strongly believe that the role of an educator is to tell the truth about the world, so I try to do so myself. I try to point out that there are people among us who are being disadvantaged and excluded from social life. I also make sure to include self-advocating elements into what I do. I try to give voice to people with disabilities as often as possible.

To conclude, I would like to emphasise that I have learned a lot about life and about myself thanks to the fact that I have people around me who cannot see, that I know sign language, that I have worked a lot with people with intellectual disabilities or on the autism spectrum. When I consider the person I was before starting activities related to accessibility and compare that to myself here and now, I feel like I am just a much better human being. This is something that I wish for you all.      

EPALE: Thank you for your time.


Rafał Lis - Art historian, trainer and social activist. He currently works as a Volunteering Officer and Accessibility Coordinator at the Emigration Museum in Gdynia. He is an activist for accessible art and culture, and one of the first accessibility coordinators in Poland. He implemented processes related to accessibility in cultural institutions and business support institutions. He began his activities in terms of accessibility by collaborating with deaf and hard of hearing people on projects concerning art in public spaces & domains.

He is an author of audio descriptions of works of art and architecture; whose passion is live audio description. He is the co-author of publications in easy-to-read and easy-to-understand texts, including guides to cultural institutions and public spaces. He is an educator specialising in cooperation with people with intellectual disabilities or on the autistic spectrum, as well as an assistant to people with disabilities, and coach of an amateur soundball team. He is a Member of the Network of Accessibility Leaders at the Fundacja Kultury bez Barier. Winner of the 1st edition of the Bogna Olszewska Scholarship. He has cooperated, among others, with the European Foundation for Urban Culture, Gallery Labirynt in Lublin, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, CSW Łaźnia in Gdańsk and Entrepreneurship Incubator STARTER in Gdańsk.

(photo: Marcin Pietrusza)




EPALE interviews.
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Żeby kultura stała się dostępna potrzeba przede wszystkim wsparcia w przygotowaniu i podniesieniu kompetencji pracowników wszystkich szczebli ale też (a może przede wszystkim) organizatorów instytucji kultury. Za edukacją muszą iść również finanse. I to zarówno w małych jak i dużych instytucjach. Czasami wydaje się że instytucja z wielomilionową dotacją może pozwolić sobie na wszystko - a to jest mrzonka - jak się popatrzy na prowadzone działania, ilość pracowników (z i tak bardzo niskimi wynagrodzeniami) i np. wydatki związane z opłacaniem siedzib, materiałów etc.. to wyjdzie, że nie ma nawet złotówki na dodatkowe usprawnienia (pomijając już fakt, że efektem pandemii jest masowe obcinanie budżetów instytucjom kultury.). Potrzeba rozwiązań kompleksowych i systemowych, które wesprą instytucje w przygotowaniu programów dostępnych. A w kulturze jak to zwykle bywa - postawimy wymagania a pracownicy staną na głowach aby im sprostać.
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Rzeczywiście wciąż dominuje sposób projektowania wydarzeń dostępnościowych polegający na tym, że do gotowego "produktu" edukatorzy usiłują "dorobić" nakładkę dostępnościową. Brakuje myślenia projektującego wydarzenia dostępnościowe od podstaw, wraz z reżyserami, artystami i innymi twórcami. Edukatorka/edukator powinni być współproducentami bądź koordynatorami działań w instytucji, a nie osobnym działem. 
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