Increasing accessibility

How an audio description policy could transform television

Katie Ellis

Government and governance, Science and technology, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

15 July 2015

Television is a medium many take for granted, but for some people with disability it is inaccessible and out of reach. An Australian policy for audio description could help audience members with vision impairment get the full picture.

Imagine sitting with your back to a television trying to follow a David Attenborough documentary about Africa. You can hear David’s dulcet tones but without the accompanying vision. The suspense of a wild animal about to strike relies on you seeing that action; without it much of the meaning is lost.

That is what television viewing is like for many people who are blind. We have policy in place for those who can see but not hear, through closed captioning, but policy in Australia has failed to catch up with the needs of those who are blind.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) published the 2013/14 annual captioning compliance results: free-to-air television last month.

Captions offer the audio component of audio-visual content as text on screen to provide an accessible television experience for viewers with a hearing impairment.

For the 2013/2014 financial year, free-to-air television services in Australia were required to meet a captioning target of 95 per cent of content aired between 6am and midnight and broadcast on their main channels across the year.

A 2014 update to the Broadcasting Services Act now requires 100 per cent of content broadcast on free to air television between 6am and midnight to be captioned.

According to Blind Citizens Australia audio description (AD), which offers a track of narration describing important visual elements of a TV show, is as important as captioning to the inclusion of Australians with disability.

While captioning requirements are now well established, audio description lags behind, particularly in Australia where no commercial or public broadcaster offers this narrative.

In 2012 the ABC conducted a 13-week technical trial of audio description, which the blindness sector described as offering blind and vision impaired Australians independent and meaningful access to television for the very first time.

Their report into the trial shows people with disabilities want better access to television, and the groups affirmed the importance of television beyond mere entertainment, presenting Lauren Henley’s experience as an example. Henley, a Blind Citizens advocacy and policy officer, told the Human Rights Commission she lost social inclusion with her sight.

The disability advocate said she, like her friends and family, wanted a choice in what she watched, and the ability to be informed about what was going on in the world.

In 2012 I argued digital television could potentially allow more viewers with disability to experience the leisure pastime and the opportunity to access information and entertainment.

I cautioned also that despite these inclusive benefits, if key issues of accessibility and usability are overlooked, digital television could further disable this group. I recommended a combination of government legislation, customisation and corporate innovation to ensure digital television was made available to people with disability.

In the United Kingdom, audio description is regulated by OfCom’s Code on Television Access. Section 8 of this code stipulates audio description targets of 10 per cent of content after five years of broadcasting, while still allowing for some exemptions if audience share is less than 0.05 per cent, or where there are technical or financial difficulties. However, following the introduction of this code, broadcasters began exceeding their minimum requirements, with some achieving 100 per cent.

As a result, audio description is available on some Australian television programming, such as Neighbours, in the UK but not in Australia.

It is disappointing that, rather than implement legislation and standards around audio description, the government commenced another trial.  This was despite the positive feedback from ABC viewers with vision impairment, and a complaint lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission against the ABC, claiming discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act and a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disability.

A 15 month trial of 14 hours per week of audio description on the ABC’s catch up platform iView began in April. The trial was initially available on iPhones and iPads and then extended to desktops in mid-May and Android devices in June. Audio description will become available on hybrid broadcast broadband TV, HbbTV, in July.

Vision Australia criticised the trial, estimating two-thirds of Australians with vision impairment did not have access to the internet.

When the trial concludes in 2016, the ABC will provide a report to the government on the delivery of audio description online, and how people access it. AD on TV note this report will provide the basis for further engagement with the ABC .

With subscription video on demand provider Netflix recently announcing a roll out of audio description on original programming, some argue industry innovation, not government legislation, is the key to more accessible television. Contrary to celebrations that innovations in digital technology will automatically lead to a more accessible environment, a report by the European Union found accessibility is more widely available on digital and online television in countries where legislation is in place.

Television is a medium many take for granted, but for some people with disability it is inaccessible and out of reach. The digitisation of television offers the possibility for better accessibility options for this group.

This is particularly the case as television makes a further transition to the Internet. Despite exciting industry innovation, it is vital the Australian government mandate the importance of television accessibility through legislation, such as amending the Broadcasting Services Act to include audio description.

Successive studies show blind people do in fact watch television and we now have the technology to support it. International regulations recognise its importance. It is time for Australia to implement a policy for audio description so audience members with vision impairment can get the full picture.

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