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29 March, 2016

Tactile learning experience

Jo Weir is helped by a National Museum of Australia staff member to get into a mining bucket

National Museum of Australia staff undertake training

The ability to describe the size and scale of an object, its texture and the material it is made from to a person who is blind or vision impaired was a skill staff at the National Museum of Australia learnt last week.

Over two days, representatives from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, the leading supplier of Guide Dogs and other services that enable people with impaired vision to get around their communities safely and independently, conducted staff training.

Guide Dogs Public Relations Speaker, Jo Weir, who is vision impaired and travels with her Guide Dog, Wiley, and Community Education Coordinator, Jennifer Moon, explained the best way to offer assistance, how to identify a Guide Dog and the most effective language to use when describing exhibits.

Staff were also challenged to think about activities in the museum that provide a tactile experience rather than a visual one.

The session was mostly practical with some fun problem solving involved.

"A couple of years ago when I conducted the training, I climbed into a mining bucket. The staff brainstormed how they could get me in and out of it safely," Jo said. "They decided the best way to do this was for someone to climb in with me."

The National Museum of Australia has been very proactive in staff training.

National Museum of Australia Diversity and Wellbeing Support Officer, Scott Grimley, who is vision impaired and uses a long cane, created the museum's Assistance Animals and Disability Aids Guidelines and Procedures in 2010 following changes in legislation, which has since been used as a resource by other institutions.

"As a result of this Guide Dogs NSW/ACT conducts regular training every two to three years," he said.

Scott said the museum had a lot to offer those who are vision impaired with many tactile objects such as a telescope, tiles from the Sydney Opera House and a Balinese xylophone.

"There are also braille maps and a braille guide to the Garden of Australian Dreams."

The museum also hosts specialised tours for groups of people who are blind or vision impaired.

Jo said her main message to staff during the training will be to provide effective communication.

"Everyone is an individual so it is important to find out what they want. Try not to make assumptions or judgements and speak to the person," she said.

Jo Weir with staff from the National Museum of Australia who took part in the training exercise with her Guide Dog, Wiley

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT frequently runs training sessions for new bus and taxi drivers on how they can best assist their passengers that are blind or visually impaired.

"Guide Dogs NSW/ACT advocates on behalf of people with impaired vision to ensure the community is a safe, accessible and easy place in which to live and work," Jo said. "Our Community Education programs help organisations and the public understand the consequences of vision loss and how to assist a person with impaired vision."

Along with training, Jo also gives talks to school and community groups on her experiences with vision loss and working with a Guide Dog.

There are about 300,000 Australians with uncorrectable vision loss, 100,000 of whom live in NSW and the ACT. These figures are predicted to increase by more than 50 per cent by 2030.