11 May 2017

With Senator Carol Brown, Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers.

The Prime Minister certainly wasn’t speaking for the 357,000 Australians who are blind or vision impaired when he said “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.”

Despite the fact that the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand and Japan all provide audio description, blind and low vision Australians are missing out on the service on free-to-air television.

Audio description is a verbal narrative track that can be switched on to describe key visual elements in a television program, such as facial expressions, scenery and action sequences during natural pauses in the dialogue.

Blind and low vision Australians face another year of waiting for audio description on television as the Turnbull Government drags its feet with the recent announcement of an Audio Description Working Group not due to report until the end of 2017.

Audio description for people who are blind is the equivalent of captioning for people who are deaf.

Without audio description, it can be nigh on impossible for a blind or visually impaired person to work out what is going on.

For a blind child, audio description means knowing what happens during a 90 second sequence in the hit movie Frozen when the only word uttered is ‘hello’.

For a vision impaired adult, it can mean the difference in being able to participate in discussions with work colleagues about a program on television the night before.

It is ironic that if you switch on a television in the UK today, audio description is available for home-grown Australian TV shows such as Home and Away and Neighbours. Switch on a TV in Australia, however, and it isn’t.

Without audio description, people who are blind and vision impaired miss out.

 In the 21st century it is unacceptable that Australia lags so far behind the rest of the world.

No one argues that deaf people should consume TV simply by watching visuals. Indeed, in 2012, the Labor Government legislated for captioning so deaf and hearing impaired citizens and consumers can follow the audio component of television via text on screen.

Why then, should blind people be expected to consume TV simply by listening to audio? Why is there no equivalent regulation mandating audio description for blind people?

The idea that blind people can consume TV simply by listening to the audio track ignores the fact that so much content and meaning is imparted visually.

What’s more, by the time we see any regulatory response for audio description on TV almost a decade will have elapsed since the Labor Government initiated an investigation into ‘Access to Electronic Media for the Hearing and Vision Impaired.

As part of its response to that review, more than five years ago, Labor kicked-off a Government-funded 13-week technical trial of audio description on the ABC in 2012. Since then, the Government commissioned another trial, with the ABC iView trial beginning more than two years ago in April 2015, and concluding last July 2016.

The two Government-funded trials of audio description prove that the technology exists for audio description to be provided on television, however progress for introducing it is moving at a glacial pace.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes disability discrimination unlawful,  but relies on individuals to make complaints and take action in court.

It is an incredible burden on individuals to have to mount a David and Goliath battle to secure basic human rights, and not the optimal way of securing systemic change.

Increasing media access is consistent with Australia’s international obligations under the United National Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

However based on the Terms of Reference for the Audio Description Working Group, the extent to which the Turnbull Government is committed to actually achieving access remains unclear.

We acknowledge the technical complexity and cost associated with implementing audio description.

It is, therefore, incumbent on Government to show leadership on this issue and to work with industry to progress the implementation of audio description as a human rights issue.

As Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Alastair Mr McEwin, said recently: “Blind people, like anyone with a disability have the right to information on the same basis as anyone else. If that means it needs to be provided in a different format then that is what human rights are all about.”

There is a discriminatory divide when it comes to media access in Australia and 2017 is set to be another year of talk with no real action on audio description.

Blind and low vision Australians deserve better.

Michelle Rowland MP is the Shadow Minister for Communications and Senator Carol Brown is the Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers. This article first appeared online in The Mercury newspaper on Friday, 12 May 2017