Introduction by Croakey:
While the high profile presence of Auslan interpreters alongside politicians and health officials at COVID-19 updates is welcome, we should not conclude that this alone meets the needs of most of the 3.6 million Australians with hearing conditions, writes Dr Caitlin Barr in the article below.
Barr is CEO at Soundfair, a national non-profit committed to hearing equality, and a leading researcher in the social and emotional impacts of hearing loss.
She writes that closed captioning should also be mandatory — and done properly — on all TV broadcasting, especially all emergency announcements, but should also extend across cinemas, stage performances and live performances, to online meetings and to address big unmet need for live-caption supported video conferencing for mental health support.
Croakey readers may also be interested to watch the Disability and Disaster Resilience Forum, hosted recently by Victoria’s Disability Advocacy Resource Unit (DARU), which also produced this fantastic and funny video: How to have more accessible online meetings
Caitlin Barr writes:
As we stare at our screens for COVID-19 updates, we have collectively become familiar with the presence of Auslan interpreters alongside our politicians and health officials.
The inclusion of Auslan interpretation has been a long-time coming, and a much-needed change. The credit for this goes to Deaf advocacy groups, including Deaf Australia, Expression Australia and the Deaf Society, for their consistent and sustained campaigning for Auslan interpretation in government and emergency broadcasts across Australia.
Why changing the environment is critical
Contemporary conversations about disability highlight that one’s experience of disability is not solely due to an individual’s condition, but rather due to the social and physical environments are created around them. The way we create society can be disabling or enabling to the diverse people living therein.
When it comes to communication and participation in activities that require audition, listening and hearing, in Australia we have created a physical and social environment that is disabling for more than one in six of us.
People with hearing conditions in Australia make up a large percentage of the population and face daily barriers to equal social participation. For some, the barriers may be an inconvenience, for others they may create long-lasting economic and social exclusion.
Just a few weeks ago, it was International Week of the Deaf – an opportunity to celebrate and share the diverse stories of people who are Deaf, celebrate Deaf culture and languages. It was also an opportunity for some misinformation to be shared, as well as the problems arising from the lack of accurate, up to date data.
For example, Prime Minister Scott Morrison highlighted in a public address that ‘the 1 in 6 Australians who are deaf and benefit from Auslan’ conflating the number of people living with a hearing condition with those who use Auslan– and numerous media outlets and organisations proclaimed that 20,000 and in many cases 30,000 people across Australia use Auslan as their primary communication method.
The challenge here is that the most contemporary data (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census, 2016) reported that 11,682 Australians use sign language as their primary mode of communication, noting that this number is likely an underestimation due to the intrinsic inaccessibility of the Census survey for people whose primary language is Auslan.
This is an important language and culture in Australia and these numbers do not diminish their right to equality. However, it is critical that the needs of one population are not used to minimise the needs of another. In this example, the likely overstatement of use of Auslan, and the conflation of being Deaf with the full spectrum of living with hearing conditions is problematic.
The solutions to overcome inequality for Deaf people are not necessarily the same as for those who live with or identify as having a hearing loss. The majority of the 3.6 million people in Australia living with hearing conditions do not use nor know Auslan. There is certainly a valid argument that this should be addressed; however, presently, it means that providing Auslan interpretation does not overcome the communication barriers for people who experience hearing loss.
The ultimate solution is to have quality captioning and Auslan interpretation together. This exact thing was recommended by at the Parliamentary Inquiry into Emergency Communication (2010-2013) by Ms Danielle Fried, Disability Policy Advisor, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN):
“ACCAN would like to see all state emergency communication strategies include Auslan-English interpreters in public broadcasts and all broadcasters include the interpretation on air. Broadcast emergency information also needs to be … captioned, and any written information on the screen…has to be read out audibly.”
The missing piece of the puzzle: Closed Captions
In 2011, many of us were surprised to learn that more than 6.5 million Australians were using closed captions some of the time while watching television. In a survey undertaken on behalf of the ACCAN and Media Access Australia (MAA), few programs offered captions, despite the huge appetite for them. Results indicated that upwards of 33 per cent of the general population chose to use captions, when available – especially young people.
Since 2011 there have been various reports, agreements and parliamentary inquiries (including the Parliamentary Inquiry into Emergency Communications (2010-2013)) which have all indicated the need to increase the frequency and quality of captioning. There have been several wins, for example there is a requirement of all FreeTV that they provide captions between 6-10.30pm, but only on their core channels.
The world has changed since 2011 and we access news and entertainment at different times, in different forms and for different reasons. However, the inclusion battle sadly remains the same.
YouTube, with 15 million unique Australian visitors per month in 2019, has recently removed the community caption feature that allowed viewers to upload captions for videos that would otherwise be inaccessible and there are no standards for content shared on social media to meet accessibility requirements.
In fact, in many cases the organisation responsible for broadcasting official messages is responsible for financing captioning rather than the organisation distributing the message. We have seen across recent Government broadcasts where the same media conference broadcast on Facebook via one organisation is captioned, and not via another.
Time and time again the same argument is offered by broadcasters and distributors – the cost of captioning is prohibitive. This argument should no longer stand. In an age of equality, accessibility and disability advocacy, it is not acceptable to say ‘it’s too hard’ when there are multiple innovative ways forward, and that the solutions are beneficial to the entire audience.
For example, the highest quality captioning available is live captioned (a highly qualified person creating the content); however, like many industries, there is increasing availability of automatic or AI-based captioning (which with greater use will increase in quality quickly). Nothwithstanding that, it is inappropriate to put a dollar figure on your audience’s ability to engage with content. Keep in mind that some media outlets report huge annual profits.
Captions should be mandatory on all FreeTV broadcasting, especially all emergency announcements. But that is just the beginning. Captions need to be accurate, which is entirely possible. Broadcasters need to ensure the face of the speaker is visible and the delay between spoken word and caption needs to be minimised to be meaningful.
Minimum standards and guidelines are needed. We call on ACCAN and MAA to work with the hearing sector to develop such guidelines.
So, captions on TV should solve it?
Widespread and mandated use of captions across TV broadcasting would be an excellent start but is not enough. Use of captions across cinemas, stage performances and live performances generally are critical to ensuring inclusion and accessibility for the one in six Australians with hearing conditions.
Most recently, as daily life has moved online during lockdown, the challenges people with hearing conditions have faced in participating in online meetings, both socially and for work, have been astounding. We have seen huge growth in the accessibility of auto-captions in video-conferencing software and yet many organisations don’t use this as standard.
Having a hearing condition means you are more likely, in general, to experience reduced mental wellbeing. COVID has amplified this because of increased isolation, with distancing making it harder to hear. Face masks have also made communication more difficult for many. There is, therefore, a far greater need for mental health support in this population group, but the government’s response to increased community mental health needs has been to provide additional funding for a range of helplines.
Phone lines can be inaccessible if you have a hearing condition or are Deaf. Therefore, people with hearing conditions are far less likely to call a helpline. When people with hearing conditions do seek mental health support via helplines, this population’s needs are not met.
Many people with hearing conditions, especially tinnitus, find that the people on the call are not knowledgeable or experienced with the consequences of these conditions. Mental health helplines are not able to offer appropriate support for people with hearing conditions. There is a huge unmet need for live-caption supported video conferencing for mental health support, with hearing-condition aware counsellors.