'It’s a game changer': a 690kg, cloak-wearing guide dog is making its Mardi Gras debut

This year audio describers, and one very large guide dog, are aiming to enhance the vision-impaired experience of the Sydney parade

“Colourful” is probably the first adjective you’d think of when it comes to describing Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade. The procession is certainly a kaleidoscope of rainbows, glitter and shine, but for Mardi Gras audio describers, it takes deeper thought to translate the experience for attendees who live with low vision or blindness.

“You get caught up in the crowd excitement and as a sighted person you don’t process, you bathe in it,” says Tully Arnot, an audio describer for the Museum of Contemporary Art who described the parade live for the first time last year, from an accessible viewing platform overlooking the proceedings. “But we’re trying to process and digest all of that information that’s coming in and tell them [people living with low vision or blindness] about it as quickly and as accurately as possible.”

Those descriptions might include the rapt expressions on the crowd’s faces; or the texture of the tinsel on a passing drag queen’s skirt. Cheers and roars must be quickly explained, “if there was fireworks going off, if someone just did an amazing dance move ... it’s not just information, it’s giving them a clear description but at the same time having fun.”

A drag queen in flame orange with a large feathered head-dress and a pleated chiffon cloak that looks like wings ruffles her costume in front of a group of other dancers, in similar outfits, in the middle of the road at night during Mardi Gras.
Participants at the 2019 Mardi Gras parade. Tully Arnot, who worked as an audio describer for the parade last year says, ‘there was a phoenix rising theme last year, so there were a lot of people dressed in wings.’ That observation formed a useful shorthand for his descriptive work. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/AAP

At the MCA, Arnot might spend hours preparing a script to describe a single artwork for visitors with vision-impairment. But at the parade, it all has to happen off the cuff. “It’s the most I’ve had to focus in a long time. It’s five hours of paying close attention to everything around you, so it’s incredibly draining.”

This year Arnot and fellow artist and audio describer Liam Benson won’t be talking from the sidelines – they will be marching alongside 58 LGBTIQ+ people with living with low vision and blindness, their friends, family, staff and facilitators. The marchers will follow in the wake of Gulliver, a 4.3m tall, 690kg guide dog, wearing a textural, flashing cloak designed by artist Nicole Barakat and the team at the MCA.

“It’s the first year that we’re in the parade,” says Jen Moon, who heads up accessibility at Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. “Gulliver, our giant guide dog, has been travelling the state. MCA have given him a little bit of a makeover.”

Nicole Barakat, Artist Educator at the MCA puts a textural ruffle around the paw of Gulliver, a giant guide dog statue.
Nicole Barakat, artist educator at MCA, works on the Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and MCA Mardi Gras float Feel the Love on 14 February. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Gulliver’s new costume serves a vital purpose. “Most people do have some remaining vision, so they might be able to pick up a flash of light or colour. Some might have enough residual vision to follow Gulliver and move through.”

Ingrid Barnes is used to working with a much smaller guide dog – Banna, “a complete goofball”, who just turned two – but she’ll be leaving him at home on Mardi Gras evening and marching with Gulliver instead. “For me, being a blind woman going out at night is quite a daunting thing, even with my guide dog and being among friends, it’s not my comfort zone,” she says. “Especially in large crowds.”

“Having the team available not just to provide audio description but a really safe space to be a part of the parade and feel secure and included, it’s a game changer for me.”

Barnes is a big fan of audio description – she uses it when watching movies. “It’s incredible how much it can enhance the whole thing. It communicates things on a really unobtrusive level.”

As a Paddington resident, Barnes has always felt physically close to the parade, but she has never had the opportunity to march in it before. Now it feels like the right time. “Last time I did a march in Sydney was for marriage equality,” she says.

A committed cosplayer, Barnes will be sewing herself a three-tiered skirt to wear on the night, in pink, purple and blue – the colours of the bisexual flag. “I can only see just an inch. But I still sew. Ball gowns are my favourite – the bigger the better.”

Benson is also thinking a lot about his Mardi Gras costume, and how it can help him as an audio describer. “I’m an artist that works with fabric – I’ll bring little pieces of that and share those with people to touch,” he says. “Here is some sequin fabric, and here’s what that feels like. It might be chiffon or spandex. I’ll bring some of those textures along to help elaborate on what’s happening, so it’s a well rounded experience.”

“I’ll just make it part of my costume, I’ll make an amazing swatch necklace or tutu. Maybe my whole costume will be swatches.”

Audio description won’t just be available to those marching in the parade, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and the MCA will also have facilitators at the parade’s accessible viewing area.

“To me Mardi Gras has always been about inclusiveness – and to be able to interpret that ... is an extension,” says Arnot. When he finished describing the parade last year, everyone who’d been listening “came up and gave us hugs. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my career.”


Alyx Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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