22 May 2023

Disability advocates are urging the Australian Government to commit to changing the law to require audio description be provided on Australian television, in line with a UN Committee recommendation.

Audio description gives verbal narration of important visual elements such as scenes, settings, actions, costumes and on-screen text.

Following a complaint from disability rights advocate Lauren Henley, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found Australia is in breach of its international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as audio description is not consistently available on Australian television and there is no clear Government plan to ensure it is.

In a response to the UN Committee, the Australian Government disagrees with the finding that Australia is breaching the rights of people who are blind or vision impaired.

The Government commits to providing ongoing support to increase audio-described content on the ABC and SBS, and intends to work with commercial free-to-air broadcasters and subscription television providers on a framework and timetable to improve the provision of audio description. However, there is no commitment to changing laws to introduce minimum requirements.

‘It’s disappointing the Government has failed to accept the expert finding and recommendations of the UN Committee,’ says Lauren.

‘While I’m pleased there’s a commitment to improve the availability of audio description on Australian television, it’s time for stronger action.’

‘The Committee made a clear recommendation: laws and policies should be updated to require audio description on Australian TV. The Government has the power to do that.’

‘Until audio description is mandated under the Broadcasting Services Act in the same way as captioning, Australians who are blind or vision impaired will not have equitable access to television.’

Blind Citizens Australia (BCA), the peak representative body for people who are blind or vision impaired, is joining Lauren in asking the Government to take stronger action.

‘The Government’s response falls short in upholding the rights of Australians who are blind or vision impaired,’ says Sally Aurisch, CEO of Blind Citizens Australia.

‘The Government’s intention to work with the television industry to improve availability of audio description is welcome but it can’t be left to the industry to self-regulate. BCA has been engaging directly with broadcasters about audio description since 2016. Their ongoing inaction shows that if it’s not legislated, it won’t happen.’

‘BCA is committed to working constructively with the Government and television broadcasters, to ensure audio description is developed in a way that meets the needs of Australians who are blind or vision impaired.’

Solicitors from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) supported Lauren to take her complaint to the UN Committee.

‘The UN Committee called on the Australian Government to change laws and policies to ensure audio description is provided on Australian television. The Government’s response fails to commit to these changes, and disappointingly says it does not agree with the UN Committee’s findings that Australia has violated human rights.’ says Michelle Cohen, PIAC Principal Solicitor.

‘With the Australian Government not bound to accept or implement the decisions of the UN Committee, the outcome of this complaint is further evidence that Australia’s human rights laws need an overhaul. People shouldn’t be forced through a lengthy complaints process, just to have the expert findings ignored by the government of the day.

‘Australia is the only liberal democracy without a national human rights act or charter. We support implementing a strong and effective federal Human Rights Act, which would improve mechanisms to make complaints within Australia and ensure governments can’t pick and choose which rights they want to protect.’

Media contact:
PIAC Media and Communications Manager, Danielle Buhagiar: 0478 739 280