Improving access to entertainment content

Every disabled citizen must be able to enjoy entertainment content on the platform of their choice on the same terms as their non-disabled fellow citizens

Every disabled citizen must be able to enjoy entertainment content on the platform of their choice on the same terms as their non-disabled fellow citizens

AAs a cricket fan, I was dying to “watch” the film. 83. I’ve been blind since birth. When the film became available on a streaming platform, I was disappointed to learn that it had no audio description, making the film inaccessible to me. As a blind Indian citizen, I have often been excluded from many life activities including consumption of entertainment content. Going to the cinema helps us relieve stress. But what happens when entertainment content isn’t accessible?

Untapped potential

Two important tools that help make entertainment content accessible are audio description and closed captioning. Audio description refers to the visual aspects of content spoken for those who cannot see. Closed Captioning refers to the auditory components of content presented in text form for the benefit of those who cannot hear. In India, the potential of these two tools to make entertainment content accessible has largely gone untapped.

The Disability Rights Act (RPwD) provides guidance on how to address this issue. Section 29(h) of the Act requires the relevant government to take steps to ensure that “persons with hearing impairments may have access to television programs with sign language translation or closed captioning”. In addition, Section 42(ii) requires the relevant government to take measures to ensure that “persons with disabilities have access to electronic media by providing audio description, sign language interpretation and closed captioning”.

In October 2019, the Union Department of Information and Broadcasting (I&B Department) issued a letter to the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) calling on the board to motivate and persuade its associate members to make audio description a part the production and distribution of a film. In a panel discussion co-hosted by the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy and the Billion Readers Initiative, which I moderated recently, Sonali Rai from the Royal National Institute of Blind People, UK, and Dipendra Minocha from Saksham spoke about the practical barriers to dealing with they are facing urges for more audio description. You would know. Saksham pioneered audio description for films in India. It has developed an app called XL Cinema that syncs audio-described tracks with movies. Upon purchasing an audio ticket for a film that has been provided with audio description, a user can hear the audio description of the film in a movie theater at the same time the film is being shown. Films that have been described as audio in this way include: Sanju, Andhadun and Romeo Akbar Walter. Saksham began the film with the audio description Black. “However, most production houses are unconvinced of the need,” said Deepti Prasad, co-founder of XL Cinema.

Steps to Inclusion

Firstly, as Mr. Minocha said, film producers do not believe that there is a great demand for audio description in India. Disabled users who ask for an audio description will still have their voice muted. Until a critical mass of users puts pressure on platforms to provide audio description and subtitling, this issue will be pushed down the priority list of those in power. While production houses are inclusive by design, their behavior effectively excludes disabled people. When it comes time to release a film, accessibility for the disabled takes a backseat to all the responsibilities film studios have to fulfill. Studios need to realize that creating accessible content is the right thing to do – morally, legally and economically.

Second, production houses may lack the expertise, human resources, or adequate lead time before releasing new content to make it accessible. User organizations need to take targeted action to raise awareness of filmmakers and engage in capacity building initiatives.

Third, civil society groups need to use the court system to translate written legal guarantees into improved outcomes in practice. The main body established under the RPwD Act at central level to deal with complaints is the Court of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD). In reading the CCPD’s recommendations over the past 12 months, I have not been able to find a single recommendation that relates to making entertainment content accessible. Citizens with disabilities must hold the government, filmmakers, streaming platforms and others in the entertainment ecosystem accountable through legal processes. We need legal precedents that underscore the notion that it is unacceptable not to consider disabled people in the production of entertainment content.

Finally, the Department of I&B has been reluctant to notify accessibility standards for television programs for the hearing impaired for the past three years. These need to be reported promptly and similar standards need to be set for the visually impaired. Every disabled citizen must be able to enjoy entertainment content on the platform of their choice on the same terms as their non-disabled fellow citizens.

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