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‘The only thing worse than blindness is having sight but not vision.’ Helen Keller

A siginifcant body of disability research has documented that blind and partially sighted (BPS) people experience higher rates of unemployment and of underemployment than those found in the general population including other disabled people (Andrare et al., 2019; Goertz et al., 2010; O’Mally and Antonelli, 2016; Royal National Institute of Blind People, 2017). Furthermore, people without disabilities, if not otherwise personally involved in the life of someone with a disability, know little about the difficulties that BPS have to deal with on an everyday basis (Szubielska, 2018). Also, despite opportunities for BPS people have increased, employers’ perceptions are still a barrier (McDonnall, 2016). Although, many jobs previously unavailable to BPS people are now accessible thanks to advances in technology, still, studies of the effects of the arts and design education of students with visual impairments have remained a limited, underinvestigated field (Hayhoe, 2000; Chambel et al. 2009). For example, a study exploring spectators’ opinions on ceramic sculptures made by deaf-blind artists reported that after finding out about the artists’ disability  spectators attributed all the imperfections of the art pieces to the ineptness of the disabled sculptors (Niestorowicz, 2017).

Although disability arts have gained more public visability, relatively little research has identified inclusivity in creative design and how it can be addressed as an opportunity rather than an obstacle (Chambel et al. 2009; Urbanek and Guldenpfennig, 2017). Improvements are being envisioned to introduce more inclusivity into both creative design and architectural education – for instance enable the blind and partially sighted aspiring architects to contribute through tactile drawings and 3D printing – still, licensing exams are a barrier (Bartlett School of Architecture, 2019). Thus, other design fields i.e. prop design may offer faster solutions to support people with visual disabilities into creative employment. Recently, there has been an increased focus within Human-Computer-Interaction research to understand the importance of inclusion of people with disabilities in the context of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture and associated makerspaces.

“Do-it-yourself”, abbreviated “DIY”, emerged in North America after World War Two initially referring to the “making” and “crafting” associated with the spread of hobbysm as a social practice (Gelber, 1999). From that perspective, DIY was at first identified with the physical activity of making, trait that we find again today with the spread of the Maker Movement (see e.g. Chen & Wu, 2017).

Beyond self-taught manufacturing, the expression was progressively appropriated in the language of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, this time also implying a moral critique to the formal education systems, and more generally the consumerist society (Smith, 2014).

Today, recent technological developments (among which mobile computing) are allowing even newer practices, unimaginable just two decades ago: a 2017 Nature article entitled “The DIY electronics transforming research” (Cressey, 2017) described how the impact of low cost microcontrollers and single board computers is changing the way research is nowadays conducted, in computer engineering particularly.

The European Maker Week is an initiative promoted by European Commission that aims to attract European citizens to the “Maker world”. In its website it is stated that “the Maker Movement is the name given to the increasing number of people coming from different backgrounds, who are employing do-it-yourself (DIY) and do-it-with-other (DIWO) techniques and processes to develop unique technologies and products as well innovative solutions”.

Despite access improvements in mainstream makerspaces, formal and/or informal places usually equipped with tools, materials, machines, technology, and expert human power, work is still needed to make the environment and resources better suited to people with accessibility needs, especially those without or limited technical and/or design background. Moreover, very little is known about makers and designers with disabilities and their craft needs and experiences in the context of responding to a professional design brief. A key debate here is how to enhance participation, playfulness, design creativity and employment opportunities for BPS makers through an accessible game-based prop development process. Tactile objects and audio tools are the centre of BPS people’s everyday lives. When integrated as specific assistive technologies they can trigger social inclusion, rehabilitation and occupational engagement.

Moreover, BPS people have been previously involved in creative industry as writers, directors, producers and performers, however, their scenic or prop design participation has been poorly reported or absent. Theatre and TV industry are currently more open towards inclusivity and are working towards opening up new creations and new job opportunities for people with disabilities. Moreover, the Seven Inclusion Principles for arts organisations (endorsed by the British Council, British Film Institute, Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Museums Association, Royal Philharmonic Society, Equity and UK Theatre) have been created:

  • Disabled people should be consulted when organisations develop bespoke operating or reopening plans.
  • Organisations need to provide clear information about Covid-19 measures to enable disabled artists, employees, audiences and participants to assess their own levels of risk.
  • The customer journey for disabled audiences should be “thoroughly mapped”, and organisations should prioritise free companion tickets.
  • Disabled artists should be recognised as “an important cultural asset” and their work should be prioritised.
  • All organisations should comply with the requirement of the Equality Act (2010) and make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled people are not unlawfully discriminated against.
  • All actions relating to disabled people should be undertaken in accordance with the social model of disability and aim to combat and eliminate ableism.
  • Organisations should celebrate diversity, embed anti-ableist principles to protect disabled people, and should demonstrate due care for the disabled workforce when making decisions about redundancy, restructuring and new ways of working.

Michèle Taylor, director for change at Ramps on the Moon, said: “Disabled and deaf people play a vital role in a flourishing theatre industry, both front and back of house, and this has become increasingly evident in the last five years.”

New technologies such as haptic tools, AR and VR environments, digital fabrication, audio and voice interfaces, and accessible games may be of help, thus the present study is an attempt toward addressing inaccessibility of the theatrical property design education and jobs, and an opportunity to introduce Tinkerprop, a low fidelity audio game prototype to enable BPS novice designers to learn prop design concepts by creating design documents and using creativity to craft a prototype prop model in response to a professional prop design brief.