How can recreational activities for those who are D/deaf in arts and heritage be improved?

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Posted 4th May 2022

How can Augmented Reality on mobile devices enhance recreational activities for those who are D/deaf in museums and galleries?

Read more about a project by Vanessa Cumper, PhD Student at University of Surrey, in partnership with Watts Gallery - Artists' Village.

Background of the research

An artist friend introduced me to the calm tranquillity of Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village. When I moved to Surrey, I know I wanted to volunteer at the gallery. Watts Gallery provides a wealth of information and training in all aspects of G F and Mary Watts’s art. There were opportunities to learn new skills, for example an introduction to British sign language (BSL), and research conducted by Prof Caroline Scarles from the University of Surrey. It was during a meeting with Caroline that I had the opportunity to discuss my intention to make arts and heritage more accessible for people who are D/deaf. Several excellent cakes, cups of coffee, and teas, from the Tea Shop and I found myself enrolled at Surrey University on a PhD course.

G F Watts was well known for his oil paintings with a poignant social message. For example, Found Drowned, confronted the suicides of destitute pregnant women who were reported in the newspapers of the time as ‘found drowned’. Mary Watts established a thriving pottery business which gave training and employment to local residents. Those values continue at the gallery in its reflection and support for the local community.

It was a natural progression for myself, the University, and the gallery to partner on this research and examine how people who are D/deaf can be included in tours and other events at arts and heritage venues.


There are approximately 3,200 galleries and museums in the UK, 150,000 globally, very few consider the accessibility requirements for people who are D/deaf. You may question why D/deaf is written in this way. The D represents people who are part of the Deaf community, this means their first language is BSL, not only do they have their own language, they have their own culture, and art including, visual, and poetry. The lowercase d is used as a representation of everyone else within the spectrum of being hard of hearing, deafened, a hearing aid wearer, or a cochlear implant wearer, it is also used to describe someone who is living with tinnitus. It may surprise you to learn that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in five of us are D/deaf, that means 466 million people struggle every day to hear clearly.

The social side of visiting Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village and other venues is acknowledged as an important aspect; we have all learnt to cherish after the global pandemic closed arts and heritage venues worldwide. The pandemic also highlighted, through the wearing of facemasks, how important clear communication is to all of us, but how it made communication for people who are deaf impossible.

There is a widely held opinion that arts and heritage venues are purely visual. However, consider purchasing tickets, tea coffee and cake etc. without the ability to hear. In addition, consider your frustration when visiting a gallery then being excluded, because you cannot hear the sounds coming from the video screen, from the audio tour, or what the tour guide is saying. My research is not looking at special arrangements for people who are D/deaf, what the research plans to do is to give people who are deaf equality.

I have only just started my second year and I am already receiving accolades. Inspired by G F and Mary Watts social conscience, I penned a piece of poetry which protested against the oppression of deaf people, which has happened for centuries starting with 1000 BCE when people who were D/deaf were denied the right to own property or marry. Building on the success of my poetry I went on to represent the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, which is one of five schools within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the festival of research at the University of Surrey, where I was the outright winner of the ‘research student poster competition’.

Author: Vanessa Cumper

If you have any questions about the project, please contact