Disability Sector in Political Battle for TV Audio Description Services
Tuesday, 22nd August 2017 at 8:33 am
Australia’s blind and vision impaired sector is engaged in a political battle to have permanent audio description services included in new broadcast reform legislation which is awaiting debate in the Senate.
According to blind and visually impaired Australians, while audio description has been available on free-to-air-television in all other English-speaking OECD countries for years, Australia continues to lag behind… and after years of ongoing discussion they say “it’s time for legislative action”.
However, the sector said it needed the urgent assistance of Senate crossbenchers to succeed and it’s having to navigate the Senate’s complicated political landscape to get consensus on any legislative amendments.
Advocacy organisation Blind Citizens Australia said the federal government was yet to strike a deal with independent Senate members on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 which will be debated in the September parliamentary sitting.
In the meantime blind advocacy groups said they were campaigning hard for support from One Nation, Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie and the Nick Xenophon team.
The Greens and the Labor party have indicated they are willing to consider an amendment when the legislation is debated next month.
“The Australian Greens consider the broadcasting legislation as an opportunity to progress the implementation of audio description services,” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said.
Policy and advocacy coordinator at Blind Citizens Australia Lauren Henley told Pro Bono News there was “still room” to negotiate with the other crossbenchers.
“It is now up to the sector to lobby the various parties to push for amendments that include permanent audio description services for Australian television,” Henley said.
She said the latest reform legislation “unfortunately failed to include any measures to introduce the service” which would deliver a second television audio track that could be turned on or off and described key visual elements of a television program.
“It isn’t really a surprise that this current reform legislation hasn’t included any mention of audio description services but the time is right for action,” she said.
“The bill is looking at abolishing licence fees for broadcasters so they are getting a significant cost saving and it is a perfect opportunity to require them to provide that service because they will have additional funds to enable them to do that.”
However, she said the government had so far made it clear that regulation around audio services was “off the table”.
“They are looking at a more industry-led response to this and they are expecting broadcasters to come to the table willingly. Given this has been on our agenda for the last 20 years, and we have lodged numerous disability discrimination complaints against broadcasters, they have shown no interest in addressing this,” Henley said.
“We need a regulatory approach to get it over the line. That’s the approach they have taken with captioning [for deaf people] so we don’t think it should be any different for the people we represent.
“Despite its importance, Australia’s broadcasters consistently argue that audio description is too costly to implement, and while the government has convened a working group to examine options for audio description services, they are yet to make significant progress in this area.”
Henley said it was difficult to get an exact costing on introducing the service because the Australian set up was slightly different to overseas services.
“But a conservative estimate is something like $12 to $14 million over four years for the ABC to provide it. The cost for audio description is a lot higher than it is for captioning for deaf people but this is exactly why we have been reasonable in our request to government,” she said.
“At the moment 100 per cent of content broadcast between 6am and midnight is captioned for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. We are asking for a minimum of just 14 hours a week. It’s not a lot.
“It’s very frustrating because we basically have the general support of everyone except the government.”
However, she said just how the crossbenches were prepared to deliver and vote on any amendments was still an issue and she called on the blind and vision impaired community to continue to lobby Senators.
“Lobbying the independent Senators has been tricky in terms of where funding should go and who should provide the services between the ABC and SBS and commercial operators,” Henley said.
Executive officer of Blind Citizens Australia Emma Bennison said: “As it stands, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 seeks to pour money into pay-television services rather than prioritise the rights of people who are blind or vision impaired.”
Bennison said the government had been exploring options for audio description on Australian television since 2010.
“Seven years and two audio description trials later, we are no closer to a permanent audio description service,” Bennison said.
In April 2017 the Australian government’ set up a working group to investigate how audio-described programs could be delivered on Australian television.
“Audio description in the broadcast reform should be a priority. Failing this, we urge the Department of Communications to use this working group as an opportunity to make a tangible difference in the lives of Australians who are blind or vision impaired by introducing regulated audio description,” Bennison said.
Peak body, Vision 2020 Australia, also joined the call for permanent audio description on free-to-air television.
“Without audio description it is impossible for people who are blind or vision impaired to fully engage with television content – or participate in conversations about programs with colleagues, classmates or friends,” Vision 2020 CEO Carla Northam said.
“‘It’s time audio description in Australia caught up with the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, and the broadcast reform package is an opportunity to do so.”
The Australian Blindness Forum, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, the Royal Society for the Blind and Vision Australia also supported calls for permanent audio description.