Experts suggest virtual museums for PwDs

Experts suggest virtual museums for PwDs

Old mosques and ancient forts in the UAE are cultural institutions that are steeped in history and tradition, but they are not always readily accessible to everyone, especially for persons with disabilities (PwDs).

A game changer would be VRs (virtual reality) or augmented reality apps, according to experts and urban planners attending the 2nd Annual Future Accessibility and Assistive Technology Summit in Dubai on Sunday.

Last week, experts from various government organisations discussed ways to achieve Dubai's vision of transforming the city into disabled-friendly by 2020. The Dubai Executive Council has instructed developers to follow the new emirate-wide, disabled-friendly code for new public spaces.

"There are old houses or old forts that now serve as museums but some entrances to these places are not accessible or wide enough to PwDs in wheelchairs," Tina Merk, chairman of the summit and architect/engineer at Zayed Higher Organisation, told Khaleej Times.

"So what we can suggest is to create VRs that would approximate the interiors and other important facets of such historic places, which should be treated differently," Merk added.

"Sometimes, it does not matter what kind of standard or (building) code you use - Dubai and Abu Dhabi actually have different codes. What is more important is that you understand the concept and the need for more space," she said.

According to her, flexibility is important. 'Virtual museums' should be considered by urban planners since not all old structures can be retrofitted to make them aligned with international regulations on inclusive and universally accessible structures, she added.

Although there are debates on issues about recreation and representation, some cultural experts around the world are pushing for virtual museums to allow visitors access to places and experiences that would not otherwise be available to them. In some countries in Europe, drones are used to capture inaccessible cultural artefacts to create advanced 3D representations of them. 

In the UAE, an example Merk cited is to build an attached VR structure or exhibit area adjacent or near to a historical site. This way the original structure will not be altered but there will also be an on-site experience for PwDs or those called in the UAE as people of determination. 

Aileen Llagas, an architect at Fujairah Municipality's Urban Planning Section, echoed the same ideas. She said that in Fujairah, where some of the UAE's heritage sites are located, including Al Bidyah, the oldest mosque in the country, digital transformation is also being considered.

"Fujairah is aiming to become a smart city and accessibility and sustainability are part of the overall framework for Fujairah 2040 vision," she told Khaleej Times.

She added that access to historic places is also being revitalised to make them accessible to everyone. "Roads are retrofitted with interlocking tires, and streets are paved for better accessibility. Old forts and beaches too are being transformed into disabled-friendly."