The importance of real time audio descriptions for the news

I have been thinking about something for a while now, and I finally sat down to write an article about it. Why don’t television stations offer real time audio descriptions for blind and visually impaired viewers  during live broadcasts like they do real time subtitles for those who are hearing impaired? It seems like this should be a service that should be available out of fairness and accessibility for all.

Real time

When an important breaking news story happens, or a premiere sporting event like the Super bowl etc. Provisions are made for viewers who are hearing impaired, but not for those who are visually impaired. As recently as 2019, the FCC is debating the importance of real time closed captioning especially for news programs, something that they state benefits the general public. In an article from tvtechnology.com:

Citing a recent study that noted that 80% of viewers who use captioning are not hearing impaired, Suzy Rosen Singleton, chief of the CGB Disability Rights Office for the FCC, noted that “captioning really has become ubiquitous and is a huge benefit for the general population.”

Here is a link to the article from tvtechnology that talks about the FCC and real time closed captioning. 

https://www.tvtechnology.com/news/fcc-debates-evolution-of-live-captioning-for-news

Since such a large number of viewers use closed captioning, it makes monetary sense for media companies to consider the cost of hiring employees dedicated to real time closed captioning. I fear that this is not the case for real time audio descriptions for those of us who are vision impaired. This is a disheartening fact because the importance of real time news is as important to the visually impaired community as it is to the hearing impaired community. What would be involved in offering real time audio description to news programs and live events? Infrastructure change and cost.

The cost

Adding real time audio descriptions for blind and visually impaired viewers to news (especially breaking news) would of course include media companies bringing on the staff who voice the content, just like they would the staff to do real time closed captioning. The real problem is the dilemma of where the content would be delivered to the viewers. Most televisions in households today only have one Second Audio Program per channel (SAP) and that is generally utilized for non-English languages. This means that media companies would likely have to utilize a dedicated channel for the foreseeable future until industry-wide changes could be made. I don’t work in the television industry, so I am unsure if changes could even be made to allow channels to carry more than one SAP. Adoption would need to happen across the board from media companies which broadcast and produce the content, to cable providers and television and set-top box manufacturers. This all seems like an insurmountable amount of change that would need to happen to provide valuable content to blind and visually impaired viewers, but they made these changes for the hearing impaired, it just took time and a loud voice to advocate for change.  

What is happening?

First and foremost, when a national disaster or large breaking news event happens, blind and visually impaired viewers will not be restricted to what the news anchors are saying. I’m not going to make this political in any way, but I will reference the latest major breaking news event, the January 6th riots at the capitol. As I watched the news that day and listened to the anchors talk about what was going on, it was crystal clear that they were not delivering the moment-to-moment happenings as they were saying “look at that” and “can you believe that” because they were delivering the commentary based on the assumption that their viewers could see the content on the screen, This leaves blind and visually impaired viewers out in the cold in terms of knowing what is happening on the screen. Again, I’m not making this political which is why I am not mentioning the stations I was watching the events unfold on. The capitol riot is only the latest example, I can remember back to 9/11 listening to the anchors gasping in disbelief when the towers fell, and me wondering what was going on.

Benefits

As I mentioned earlier, since the infrastructure is not there on the televisions and set top boxes in people’s living rooms, it would likely come to media companies to secure another channel for delivering audio described content. Media companies have to lease the space for each channel they utilize on a service so a dedicated channel for audio described content is not likely. This is a sad truth even though the new channel would give the media company a targeted audience for advertisement. It is unlikely the delivery of real time audio descriptions would be seen as useful to the general public. 

Solutions

It seems like the only way to get this sort of service offered would be for companies like Apple or Roku that are content providers and also offer streaming boxes which have an audio channel for audio described content when available to step up and offer some sort of news programming with real time closed captioning and audio descriptions. Those of us who are disabled and would value such content would certainly support the additional charge for such a service. The problem with companies like Apple offering real time news programming is lies with the politically charged climate and division over news programming, it would likely have the negative consequence of seeming to align the company providing the content with a political party.

Inventers like Amir Mujezin who is visually impaired himself are also a good place to look for a solution to adding real time audio descriptions to content. He recently debuted a tool which will allow audio descriptions to be implemented into movies at a much-reduced cost compared to traditional methods. Innovate individuals like Mr. Mujezin will I am sure eventually be able to create a device which can give real time descriptions to on-screen content, it is just going to take time. Here is a link to an article which explains the new tool  Mr. Mujezin has created.:

Amir Mujezin designed a Tool for visually impaired People to better experience the Content

We can do it!

To get the ball rolling on the needed change, the blind and visually impaired community need to find a member of congress who would be willing to pick this up as a pet project. The overwhelming amount of change to have a viable audio described content solution implemented is staggering, but just because the problem is large doesn’t mean it is impossible. If the media companies hear from their subscribers in large enough numbers, they will sit up and start to take notice of the situation. This is a valuable service and it has already been implemented industry wide for the hearing impaired, so why should we think that with that president in place that they would not be willing to implement the same convenience for the visually impaired community.

Your opinion?

With a problem that requires a large solution like this I am sure that I have missed some important points on the topic. I’d love to hear what you think. Drop me a message here or on social media links below and let me know your thoughts. I’m willing to help get this started if I could get help.

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