The fight for TV ‘closed captioning’ – optional subtitles for the deaf – was taken-up and led in the 1970s by a great New Yorker, the late Julius Barnathan, President of Broadcast Operations and Engineering for American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
Audiovisual media have come a long way since, and today there are many other ways in which we can, or could, help persons with disabilities to enjoy greater participation in modern media.
Just a few countries offer extensive subtitling services for the hard-of-hearing, and even fewer provide services to help the blind or vision-impaired receive and share TV programmes using audio descriptions. Despite their slow rate of adoption, a variety of means have been developed to improve audiovisual media accessibility: ‘spoken subtitles’, ‘signers’ that can be cut into the picture when needed, ways to make sound easier to hear, speech-to-text conversion for radio, and the myriad ways to ease the use of the Web and controls for TVs, radios and computers.
Fifty years on from Barnathan’s leading the charge for closed captioning, there is no one in the world who would not like to wave Harry Potter’s magic wand and say, “et voilà,” viewers and listeners with disabilities from all over the world will share in the experience of TV, radio and the Internet. But without the magic wand, it is taking a very, very long time.
What is between us and achieving Julius Barnathan’s dream of helping persons with disabilities to share in the media?
The proportion of the population with disabilities is, barring exceptional circumstances, roughly the same in all countries: 15%, and growing in line with aging populations. Countries’ economic circumstances are, however, far from the same.
First, a nation needs to equip its population with digital TV and radio sets and associated broadcast services, the pre-requisites for ‘access services’. They would also benefit from broadband Internet and so the first barrier is, essentially, the standard of living of the people.
Second, broadcasters and service providers need a ‘business case’ for providing access services. These services cost money, and ‘money out’ for no ‘money in’ does not work in market economies. We need good ideas for funding access services, ideas that bring us closer to sustainable funding models that incentivize investment and reward supply-side creativity, not just people who point their finger in the air and say ‘it must be done’.
Third, to realize the benefits of accessible media globally, access systems are in need of common technical standards. Standardization is the route to access systems applicable across the board, from broadcasting to cable, IPTV and Internet. Globally standardized access technologies will work all over the world; their manufacture and rollout will benefit from economies of scale; and their status as standards will do much to ensure that they are included in all sets routinely, so that there is no financial penalty for being disabled.
ITU has been an excellent advocacy platform in raising awareness around the importance of audiovisual media accessibility, and, as a global standards body, it is also the venue to build the standards needed to drive access services’ widespread adoption.
This is the purpose of the new ‘IRG-AVA’ group. IRG-AVA will develop draft global standards (ITU-T and ITU-R Recommendations) for access systems, coordinating related work across ITU-T SG9 (Broadband cable & TV), ITU-T SG16 (Multimedia), and ITU-R SG6 (Broadcasting service).
The group is starting its journey now, based on the strong foundation set by the now-terminated ITU-T Focus Group on Audiovisual Media Accessibility (FG-AVA). The first meeting of IRG-AVA will be held in Geneva, 25 February 2014, by which time the Technical Reports developed by FG-AVA will have been made available to the public.
IRG-AVA is inviting technical proposals on the technology composition of globally standardized access systems. Contributors who (though well-meaning) just argue that accessibility is important, and that more money should be spent on access services, are not really what we need at this stage. What we need is continued engagement and solid technology proposals for access systems that we can take to standardization.
Please join us to build a more inclusive society through accessible technologies. It is an engineering endeavour well worth the effort, and I am sure that Julius Barnathan would approve of what we are trying to do.
David Wood is Chair of the World Broadcasting Unions’ Technical Committee, ITU-R Working Party 6C, and several DVB groups. He is former Deputy Director for Technology and Development in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and currently Consultant, Technology and Innovation. David was Vice-chair of the ITU-T Focus Group on Audiovisual Accessibility (FG AVA), and he is currently one of the co-chairs of the Inter Sector Rapporteur Group on Audiovisual Media Accessibility (IRG- AVA).
For additional information on how to participate in the work of the new IRG-AVA visit the website or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Find out more about ITU´s activities in the area of ICT accessibility by visiting www.itu.int/accessibility.
 ITU-T FG AVA website : http://itu.int/en/ITU-T/focusgroups/ava/Pages/default.aspx