Inclusion and innovation for accessibility to the visual arts: the In-VisiBLe project

Micaela Antonucci, professor of History and Architecture, University of Bologna

In the last decades, the theme of accessibility has been the engine of a profound revolution that brought about a paradigm shift in society, particularly focusing on the rights of people with disabilities. Culture represents one of the many contexts in which accessibility is developed, but perhaps among all it is one of the most important, due to the centrality culture plays in the growth of the individual and of society. Nonetheless, the higher education level of people with disabilities continues to be significantly lower than that of the able-bodied people.

The “In-VisiBLe” (Inclusive and Innovative learning tool for Visually Impaired and Blind people) project, funded by the European Erasmus+ program (project code 2021-1-IT02-KA220-HED-000031139) and coordinated by the University of Bologna, proposes to respond to this need for inclusion, focusing on visual impairment: the purpose consists of providing support the visually impaired and blind people for accessing education and cultural enjoyment, particularly in the area that – by its definition – seems to exclude them without any remedy: the so-called “visual” arts.

A truly “inclusive” education should not be focused solely on teaching visually impaired students by means of dedicated teachers or special courses; on the contrary, education, especially higher education, should be the “school of all”, offering equal learning opportunities.

To achieve this goal, it is essential to create a link between the university world and civil society, establishing collaborations with museums and cultural institutions, organizations and public authorities for the blind, stakeholders and policy makers in the fields of education and inclusion.

For this reason, the project partnership consists of three universities (University of Bologna, Italy; Yedetepe University, Turkey; Akademia Humanistyczno-Ekonomiczna w Łodzi, Poland), a research Institute (Information Technologies Institute of Center for Research and Technology Hellas , Greece), a public authority for assistance to the blind (Center for Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind, Greece) and the Omero Museum of Ancona, which has brought the fundamental contribution of its thirty years of experience.

The In-VisiBLe project has also established numerous collaborations with Associated Partners, including the Unione Italiana Ciechi, the Cavazza Institute in Bologna, the MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome and many others.

How inclusiveness changes didactics

The project, began on 1 February 2022, is implementing inclusive teaching modules about the History of Architecture accessible to both able-bodied and visually impaired students, through a series of methods and tools (3D architectural models, tactile tables with architectural drawings, a system of artificial intelligence to recognize and describe architectural images) developed starting from available technologies but, for the first time, they are combined and used within “traditional” university courses. The project is also creating MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), accessible to the blind, in order to make the Modules usable even remotely and away from university courses.

The primary objective of the project consists of bringing inclusion and innovation to university didactics, but its ambition consists of widening its impact as much as possible, involving civil society, institutions and organizations supporting blind people. For this reason, in collaboration with all the other partners, the Omero Museum is preparing the In-VisiBLe Guidelines to make the educational and cultural activities related to architecture and the visual arts accessible to blind people.

Indeed, it is important to reach the largest number of potential users and make all the created tools freely accessible to all: for this reason, the project is creating a user-friendly and accessible to the blind web platform (In-VisiBLe Teaching & Learning Platform), where inclusive teaching modules and MOOCs will be available; a specific image captioning system capable of describing architectural images in a detailed and specific way (In-VisiBLe Image Captioning Dataset and System): digital files of architectural models accessible to blind people, accompanied by guidelines that will allow you to follow the entire construction process and modify it according to the different needs and technological availability of the users.

Degrees related to the visual arts: the coveted Architecture becomes accessible too

With the goals already achieved by the project that will end in July 2024, finally, is it possible to state that higher education courses, in particular degree courses related to the Visual Arts, will be accessible to all and therefore also to blind people? Let’s ask Prof. Micaela Antonucci, coordinator of “In-VisiBLe”.

“Our ambition is to demonstrate this is possible,” the professor replies, “and offering everyone tools and methodologies to build a truly inclusive education. We want to make a concrete contribution to cultural accessibility and give the word inclusion a tangible meaning”.