Time to catch up on audio description for TV

hand holding a remote control, tv in background
Photo: Flickr/ Flash pro

Australia likes to think of itself as an inclusive country. In the last ten years, we have taken big steps toward greater inclusion for people with disabilities, including bipartisan support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

But on one important issue, we are way behind countries such as the UK, the US, Ireland, Germany, Spain and New Zealand. In Australia, people who are blind and have low vision currently have no access to Audio Description (AD) on either free to air television, or online catch-up services.

This means that people with low vision can enjoy an accessible version of Home and Away in England, but not in Australia. It means that blind people have to call sighted friends every time they watch Australian Story just to find out what the epilogue said.

Audio description is a second audio track, that can be turned on and off, which describes the important visual elements of a television program that a person who is blind cannot see – such as actions, scene changes, gestures and facial expressions. AD makes television accessible to people with low vision, just as captioning does for people who are deaf.

Accessing television is about more than just entertainment. It’s a way to learn, find out the latest news, and is often a point of discussion with friends, colleagues and family members. Television is part of our cultural life. It’s something we should all be able to enjoy.

And the technology exists for AD to be provided on television. It was successfully trialled on the ABC’s free to air television service in 2012, and iview in 2016. While many hoped that these trials would lead to a permanent solution, to date, no further commitment to AD has been made.

In early April, the long-awaited report by the ABC into its iview trial was released. The review concluded that ‘those who utilised the audio description service found it a valuable enhancement to their media engagement and their social interactions’. But to date, the ABC has not committed to introducing AD for either television or iview. Despite a budget of over a billion dollars, it seems the money can’t be found.

The Commonwealth Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield, has announced the formation of an Audio Description Working Group to look at options for increasing the availability of audio description services in Australia. The Working Group will comprise representatives from the broadcasting and streaming industries, audio description service providers and consumer representatives, and is due to provide a report to Government on its findings by 31 December 2017.

This is a welcome step. But the terms of reference seem to tilt towards non-legislative options for reform and provide no guarantee that AD will be provided by next year, or by any other time in the future. We need action.

AD has been the subject of trials and reports for years now. If they can do it over the Ditch, it’s surely not beyond us. As our national broadcaster, we should expect the ABC to lead the way. But if our broadcasters can’t get their act together, the government must step in.

The Commonwealth should introduce amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to make it a mandatory condition of television licences that broadcasters provide a minimum amount of AD on free to air and catch up services, as they did for captioning. The Government should also provide a dedicated funding stream to the public broadcasters for AD, so that they can develop sustainable, cost-effective models of service delivery.  

Next year, it will be ten years since Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention requires the Australian Government to take steps so that people with disabilities can enjoy ‘access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural products in accessible formats’. In an inclusive country like Australia, it’s time to make good on that promise.


Julia Mansour

Senior Solicitor


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