Access to visual stories should be a right for all

 

SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses the opening scenes of season one, episode one of Killing Eve.

'It's fantastic, isn't it?' a colleague states in the tearoom. Another colleague chimes in: 'It's so good, and Jodie Comer, isn't she amazing?' Listening to the conversation, you decide you want to watch this series that's getting rave reviews. Killing Eve has been the source of many a discussion around the water cooler at work so you decide to sit down to watch it that evening.

Jodie Comer as Villanelle in Killing Eve, with grazes on her face and making a 'shushing' gesture.It's two minutes before the first dialogue occurs. Two full minutes of listening to 'Xpectations' by The Unloved. Although the musical interlude is pleasant, you are perplexed. You have been shut out of the narrative exposition and the first inkling of the personality of a lead character, although you aren't yet aware that you have missed crucial information.

Now let's rewind and play it again.

Motorcycle rides down a street in front a building which has large lettering on it reading Schlekaria Eis Café. People are sitting at tables and eating outside it. The word Vienna in large pink text appears on screen. A woman, Villanelle, is seen from behind sitting at a table, then a side view reveals she is eating ice-cream. She is watching a young girl at another table intently. The child stares back at her. Villanelle half-smiles at the child but she stares back stonily. The child catches the gaze of a waiter smiling at her behind a counter and smiles back. Villanelle watches the interaction closely and tries to mimic the man, smiling as well ... 

She gets up to pay and the waiter looks her up and down. She smirks as she walks past and puts money on the counter. She continues out of the café, walking past the small child. She reaches out to tip the bowl of ice-cream over the front of the girl. She exits the café to the street outside.

Suddenly, there is unwavering clarity. This is an antagonist, a woman who clearly doesn't understand social etiquette and appears to have impaired emotional capacity. In that crucial, silent interpersonal exchange, the audience develops the implicit understanding that this is a character with flaws. In this first, wordless two minutes, an expectation about the role the villainous Villanelle will play is set up, setting the stage for a cat-and-mouse chronicle that will play out across two seasons (to date).  

The second description here is audio description (AD), and it is a separate audio track added to film and television shows which describes all non-verbal interactions and physical aspects of a setting. Without AD, 357,000 Australians and counting are excluded from a world of social interactions that are continuously evolving around a plethora of drama, comedy and romance; from a pop culture language that stems from on-screen personalities and fictional characters glorified in sweeping epics like Games of Thrones and a multitude of other popular series.

 

"Yes, we are blind. Yes, we can and want to watch television, too."

 

It could be argued that it is a fundamental right for people with vision loss to be able to access visual media in the same way that people with hearing loss can access programming using closed captioning. Yet AD is still not available on free-to-air television services in Australia, though it is available for some series on streaming services like Netflix. It baffles me as an individual with both vision and hearing loss that I have been able to use closed captioning services with most television programs for at least a decade, yet I still don't have the same level of access which could be provided by AD to compensate for my vision loss.

There is a potential secondary market for AD. Imagine how much easier it would be to follow a complex plot with a large cast of characters, multiple locations and time shifts, with the clarification of AD. Or the benefits of AD to a young parent, trying to attend to their child without losing the thread of the program they are watching.

The ABC ran a 15-month trial of AD, which provided over 158,000 plays of audio-described programs on iView. The response to the trial clearly indicates that a market exists for audio description, and the report from the trial indicates that the participants who used the service 'found it a valuable enhancement to their media engagement and their social interactions'. 

The push for AD has resulted in legislative changes being considered through the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Audio Description) Bill 2019, which was introduced into the federal Senate on 12 February 2019 after extended campaigning by Blind Citizens Australia and advocacy by Vision Australia. That it has made it this far and is being presented on a national platform for public debate is a welcome development, however the final hurdles still need to be passed.

When Labor announced its support and funding for AD prior to the federal election, its statement noted that 'Australia is the only English-speaking country in OECD yet to provide audio description'. We are lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to accessibility in this respect and quite frankly, it's embarrassing.

I implore the LNP and all senators and MPs sitting in Canberra to step up and deliver for the more than 357,000 Australians who could benefit from this bill being passed into law, in addition to many others who could gain secondary benefits from it. Yes, we are blind. Yes, we can and want to watch television, too.

 

 

Jane BrittJane Britt works in various roles across the disability sector with background education in psychology. She is currently a business transformation graduate working for Vision Australia, a freelance writer/disability consultant for the Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training, and president of Achilles Brisbane.

Main image: Jodie Comer as Villanelle in Killing Eve.

Topic tags: Jane Britt, vision impairment, audio description

 

 

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