Media Access Services:
What is so important about them?

By Areti Papanikolaou

Every day, we listen to music, enjoy our favorite shows, watch the news, listen to audiobooks and podcasts while driving or going to work. Sounds and images are there, and we take them for granted.

However, they are not accessible to everyone.

This is where accessibility and media services come into play. Thanks to the evolution of technology and the development of software tools, there are several services that cater to the specific needs of viewers so they can obtain information, educate themselves, enjoy a show or a movie, and take part in cultural events. Media access services play a crucial role in allowing people who would otherwise be unable to do these things to access audiovisual media. It’s more than worthwhile, then, to examine some of the legislation that covers the accessibility field, the recipients of these services, and the image of the media industry.

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The notion of accessibility and its services

According to Grego (2016), media accessibility is a set of theories, practices, services, technologies, and instruments providing access to audiovisual media content for people that cannot, or cannot properly, access that content in its original form. Audiovisual translation, in turn, works as a bridge between the audiovisual content and its recipients. As Díaz Cintas (2005) puts it, whether the barrier is a language or a sensorial barrier, the aim of the translation process is exactly the same: to facilitate access to an otherwise hermetic source of information and entertainment.

Audiovisual translation is a broad and relatively new branch of the translation field that incorporates numerous different types of media access services in accordance with the needs of the audience. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Audio description for the blind and visually impaired
  • Subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Sign language interpreting
  • Live subtitling
  • Surtitling
  • Audio subtitling
  • Audio description
  • Voiceover
  • Braille transcription.

The legal framework

Over the years, many attempts have been made with the aim of protecting the rights of people with disabilities and help them become active members of society. At an international level, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issued by the United Nations provides a solid foundation for promoting, protecting, and ensuring the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities. According to the Convention, individuals with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with everyone else.

At a European level, in 2000, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was declared, and it came into force in December 2009 along with the Treaty of Lisbon, bringing together the fundamental rights of everyone living in the European Union. With regards to accessibility, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) states that: “The right of persons with a disability and of the elderly to participate and be integrated with the social and cultural life of the Union is inextricably linked to the provision of accessible audiovisual media services.” In 2019, the EU also adopted the Accessibility Act which seeks to improve the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services by removing barriers created by divergent rules in the member states.

However, despite the importance of laws that are in place, in some cases, providers fail to meet their obligations by not providing the necessary services. For example, in 2010, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) issued a lawsuit against Netflix stating that they didn’t provide closed captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing people streaming Watch Instantly content. Similarly, in 2017, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and the Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB) filed a lawsuit against Hulu for not providing blind and visually impaired people with access to the streaming service; online videos didn’t have audio descriptions included.

The image of the media industry

In a streaming-heavy world, more and more providers are trying to keep up with the law requirements and the viewers’ demands. In the UK, BBC is leading the way by providing 100% subtitled programs and constantly enhancing the quality of live subtitling, while, in 2021, BT Sports became the first UK broadcaster to offer AD on the live broadcast of a football tournament, the Disability Cup 2021. In Spain, according to the Spanish Center for Subtitling and Audio Description (CESyA) 2019 report, 83.53% of programs on digital terrestrial television has subtitles, a figure that is reduced to 7.07% in terms of audio description for people with visual impairment, and 4.74% regarding sign language interpretation. In Greece, a certain number of television shows are provided with subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, while there is no provision for audio description. However accessibility measures can be found in a number of theatres and film festivals.

When it comes to streaming platforms, more and more platforms invest in access services in order to make as many shows and movies accessible as possible. A typical example is Netflix. After the settlement with the NAD, Netflix agreed to provide closed captions to all of their movies and TV shows. In another settlement with the American Council for the Blind (ACB), Netflix agreed to provide audio description for many popular titles.

The importance of access services

A larger and more diverse audience

The most obvious benefit of media accessibility is that it helps people with disabilities access multimedia content. These viewers might have hearing or visual impairments, or they might have cognitive impairments, such as dyslexia, autism spectrum, audio-and/or visual processing disorders, seizure disorders, or attention deficit disorders. Usually, people with disabilities are thought of as a minority whose needs tend to be overlooked and ignored. However, if we look at the numbers as recorded by the World Health Organization and the European Blind Union, we will soon realize that reality is a different story.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 5% of the world’s population, that is, 430 million people, require rehabilitation to address their ‘disabling’ hearing loss (432 million adults and 34 million children). It is estimated that by 2050 over 700 million people — or one in every ten people — will have disabling hearing loss. At the same time, the prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, among those older than 60 years, over 25% are affected by disabling hearing loss. As for the people with visual impairments, globally, at least 2.2 billion people have a near or distance vision impairment. The majority of people with vision impairment and blindness are over the age of 50 years; however, vision loss can affect people of all ages. In Europe alone, according to the European Blind Union, 30 million individuals, which translates to an average of one in 30 citizens, are declared as blind or partially sighted.

Apart from people with disabilities, there is a significant number of viewers who also use these services for various reasons. People in noisy environments or people watching a video on mute use closed captions in order to understand the content of the video without audio. At the same time, people learning a foreign language, whether they might be students or immigrants, use subtitles to facilitate the comprehension of the foreign language. In a study conducted in 2006 with Action on Hearing Loss, Ofcom reported that 7.5 million people had used subtitles to watch television, although 6 million of them did not have hearing loss. At the same time, according to BBC, around 10% of broadcast viewers use subtitles regularly, increasing to 35% for online content. The majority of these viewers are not hard of hearing.

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The educational value

Studies have shown that audiovisual services have a great educational value since they help viewers to familiarize themselves with language and improve their reading and writing skills. More specifically, subtitles accompanying a video can improve reading skills, boost written and spoken vocabulary, increase college students’ attention to lectures, enhance second-language learners’ pronunciation, and also improve literacy rates in developing countries. Specifically for children, research shows that turning on subtitles in the same language as the TV show or film can indeed improve children’s reading skills. As a result, the children’s ability to use their existing knowledge of letters and sounds to correctly recognize and pronounce words can be improved.

Raising awareness, erasing barriers

In terms of society, it is safe to say that accessibility helps to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and people without disabilities by supporting the social model of disability, according to which the term “disability” is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication, and social barriers. The aim of the social model is to change society so as to accommodate people living with impairments; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. The existence of access services gives the opportunity to people with disabilities to improve their quality of life, have equal rights and opportunities to media access content, and enjoy and educate themselves without barriers.

Conclusion

Despite the rapid development of technology and the evolution of the audiovisual world, access services are not as widespread as one might expect. And there are many people that are not aware of the media access services that are available to them. Additionally, the importance and added value of access services are often overlooked by people without disabilities. Given that 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and one-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities, a large number of people are excluded by the audiovisual world. So, media access services are here to work as a “mediator” and transfer the messages across to these people. Of course, a lot must be done to remove the barriers encountered by disabled people in their everyday lives. However, the first step is to acknowledge the existence of media access services and then realize that access to the media by persons with disabilities shouldn’t be regarded as a “privilege” but as a “right.”

Areti Papanikolaou is project manager at Haymillian, a global media localization and access services company that provides timed text services in more than 40 languages and voice services in 20 languages. It serves a wide range of clientele including TV channels, VOD platforms, production, distribution, and elearning companies.

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