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I’ve just spent a few rather lovely days in Caen, which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend as a place to visit – there’s plenty to see and do in Normandy, and we had lovely weather for it.

I’m just going to briefly review my visit to the Bayeux Tapestry Museum here. I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to see the Tapestry, which is said by many to be the culmination of opus Anglicanum or “English work”, Anglo-Saxon embroidery being highly prized (although, as with many other cultural artefacts, its origin may depend on which side of the Channel you are on . . . )

I tootled up to the desk and asked for two tickets in my best French – I didn’t ask for a concession as it was only 1€ 50 off anyway and the price list didn’t specify who was eligible for the concessionary rate. So we were a bit surprised to receive two concessionary tickets. I don’t think either of us looks quite old enough to be drawing our pensions, so I can only assume that the man at the desk realised I was deaf and gave me a concession + companion concession, which, if true, is a nice thought and that disabled people do qualify for the reduced rate. I’m still none the wiser as all the ticket said was réduit tapisserie (“reduction for the Tapestry Museum”) and the website gives no clue as to who qualifies, either.

Concessionary price ticket for the Bayeux Tapestry Museum

I do think this is an important bit of information for disabled people who may not be aware they qualify (this is quite an important issue to get absolutely right – it’s an entitlement and one people with disabilities don’t always feel empowered to ask for, but it’s quite right if they can’t fully enjoy the museum on a par with everyone else).

So it proved here. Included in the ticket price was an audioguide. The Bear was quite happy to take one en anglais, while I explained to the lady behind the desk that I was sourde. Before I could proceed further to ask for a transcript, she beamed, raised her hand in an “Ah-ha!” kind of way, trotted off and rootled around in a locker, proudly bringing out a pair of headphones. There’s always that perception that amplification or blocking out of sound helps – which is fine for some people with mild to moderate hearing loss, but doesn’t meet the needs of all. I explained I was sorry, but as I could not benefit from it a transcript would be helpful, to which the answer, inevitably, was “Non” and an unhappy and embarrassed Gallic shrug.

We entered as the Bear articulated my thoughts that it was a good job we hadn’t paid full price for the tickets . . . The tapestry is displayed just as it is without any commentary in the form of labels. The conservation lighting, and the need to keep people moving, clearly motivated the use of audioguides, which, in itself, is not a bad decision for the needs of the majority of their visitors, it’s just that accessibility hadn’t been factored into the equation.

The Bear’s review of the audioguide was that it was pretty much a basic, no-frills narrative, which went through the tapestry scene by scene. It did not allude to the language of the tapestry at all, nor discuss the borders, apart from those under the battlefield, in which birds peck at dismembered corpses. One of the chief pleasures of the tapestry is the multitude of mythical beasties disporting themselves in the margins, but the Bear was left none the wiser as to what they were.

An embroidered commentary in Latin summarises each scene, and it struck me that, if I had not known Latin, I’d have found it pretty inaccessible, akin to watching the action on 1970s telly without subtitles, able to get the gist but not the full depth of meaning. Surely the makers cannot have anticipated that their decision to embroider their narrative in Latin, the neutral lingua franca of the Church and the educated classes on both sides of the Channel, not in the vernaculars of Old English or Norman French, would have made their work accessible to a deaf woman 950 years later. It’s arguable that their work has endured all the more for it, as the everyday languages of the time are now largely fossils of a forgotten feudal time which have retreated into academe (this subject would deserve a blog post by itself).

As I always point out, access solutions don’t necessarily have to be invasive, labour-intensive, or expensive. It’s a solution that requires no further work at all – the existing script documents can be put to further use in hard copy format: all it costs is a few sheets of A4 paper and some laminate. Audioguides were available in a number of languages, meeting the needs of their multilngual visitors: how cool would it have been to have equally multilingual transcripts or even palm pilots in LSF or BSL (as the Bear remarked, he could hear that most audioguides and most visitors were English, so BSL would fit the target market very well).