A New Push for Audio Description

By Angela Jaeschke

Audio Description (AD) is a service that facilitates access to film, television, live performances or other live events for people who are blind or vision impaired. It involves providing verbal narration during natural gaps in dialogue to communicate information about visual elements such as scenes, settings, actions, costumes and on-screen text.

There is currently no Audio Description service available on Australian television. In the absence of this service, audience members who are blind or vision impaired are left to simply guess what is happening, or are forced to rely on friends or family to access information about the events that are unfolding on-screen. This continues to compromise the social inclusion of people who are blind or vision impaired nation-wide.

It is important to note that Australia is the only OECD country which doesn’t have AD available on TV – with comparable countries the UK, US and New Zealand all providing an AD service on free to air TV. Australia does “describe” many home-grown films, and popular shows such as “Home and Away’ and “Neighbours” have an Audio Description track when shown in the UK. The commitment to Audio Description from subscription TV services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video shows that the service has the demand, and it continues to develop through these platforms.

Over many years, there have been a number of AD trials conducted by the ABC, and numerous complaints to the Free-to-Air TV networks directly, as well as to the Human Rights Commission. In April 2017, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield announced the establishment of an Audio Description working group. In December of that year, the final report of the working group was handed to the Minister.

The report was published on the Department of Communications’ website on 22 May 2018, along with a brief statement from the Minister, advising that further policy work is being done. Frustratingly, more than 12 months after the report was completed, this process has not resulted in a commitment from the current government to introduce a permanent Audio Description service on Australian television.

On 3 December 2018, Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John marked International Day of People with Disability by asking a number of questions in the senate, one of which related to Audio Description. Whilst the Government’s response was as evasive and inconclusive as ever, we welcomed the question and appreciated the attempt to put pressure on the Government to act.

In the same week, the Greens also tried to introduce a bill to legislate for the provision of Audio Description on Free-to-Air TV, however the Government moved to resume debate in the Senate before the bill could be formally introduced. We are appreciative of support from the Greens and hope that in the lead-up to the next federal election, all sides of politics will support our right to watch TV.

Also on 3 December, BCA launched a stand-alone campaign to encourage the general public to contact their local Federal MP about Audio Description on Free-to-Air TV. We have created a short video for sharing on social media which explains what Audio Description is and directs the general public to a new website we have created for this campaign, www.tv4all.com.au.

The website contains further information about AD and a postcode search function to identify your local Federal MP. This function brings up contact details and links to a pre-populated email which is sent to the user’s MP directly from their own default email address. The user can also choose to add their own thoughts, or make changes to the message. The email reminds the MP of the need for Audio Description and that Australia is the only OECD country not to have AD on TV. It reiterates that it is relatively inexpensive to provide AD on television, as we import many programs that are “described”, and we already produce description for many of the programs we export. The email concludes by asking the MP what they intend to do to address this issue.

The campaign has recently received some media attention, including stories on ABC’s “AM” and an interview for Network 10’s “The Project”. This rare interest from a commercial TV channel is a positive sign, and we intend to capitalise on our momentum as much as possible. If you can, please help the campaign by following our Facebook and Twitter pages, and sharing far and wide, using the hashtag #TV4All.

If you’re not on social media but would like to get involved, you could email your family and friends and ask them to share the campaign video on their social media. And, while this campaign is primarily targeted at the general public, we strongly encourage you to visit www.tv4all.com.au and send a personal message to your local MP.

The Audio Description blindness sector working group has been developing a number of plans to further the public and political awareness of Audio Description. An Audio Description event in Canberra, where politicians were invited to meet with representatives from the sector working group, was held on the first parliamentary sitting day in mid-February. Thank you to WA Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John for hosting this event. This was an important opportunity for awareness raising to politicians ahead of the progression of the Broadcasting Services Act, and in the lead up to the federal election. It was also great to have SBS News report on the event on the same day.

We will keep you updated on outcomes of the work of the sector working group, and of any further responses we might receive from the minister or other influential politicians. In the meantime, we encourage you to engage with the TV4ALL campaign, at www.tv4all.com.au.

Editor’s Note

Audio Description will be discussed in more depth in a workshop at this year’s National Convention. As part of the workshop, you’ll have a chance to talk about your personal experiences of Audio Description, and offer suggestions about how you’d like to see the practice change and improve. We’re looking forward to a great conversation about the past and present of AD, and hopefully a glimpse of a better future.

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