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Ever tried lipreading 'Happy Feet'?

By Michael Uniacke - posted Monday, 15 October 2007

If the Federal Government likes to live dangerously, there is a good example in the deal stitched up last month between the Democrats’ Senator Natasha Stott Despoja and Communications Minister Helen Coonan.

The deal came about after Senator Stott Despoja tabled a motion to call for an inquiry into the state of electronic media captioning for the millions of Australians who are deaf and hearing impaired. She will now get what she was after. Senator Coonan announced an investigation that will look at what has happened in captioning and other “essential access technologies”. It will assess where Australia is compared with the rest of the world, and look at access to captions in the light of the rapid technological change that has taken place in media. The Minister said the investigation will be completed by April 30 next year, with a report to be tabled in Parliament.

Had Senator Stott Despoja’s proposal been debated and defeated along party lines, the Government would have looked decidedly ugly.


It was already looking silly on this issue when the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs supported the production of a DVD called Raising Children. This will be distributed free to parents of newborns. It was touted as a world first: an interactive guide with information and short films for new parents.

The Deafness Forum and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission pounced on the DVD the moment it was realised it had neither captions nor an audio-description track. These omissions ensured the DVD was close to useless for new parents who were blind, deaf, or who had vision or hearing impairments.

As a result, the department contradicted its own disability action plan, of which one of the key themes was to “improve the accessibility of our information products for people with disabilities”. And for the inimitable, Monty Pythonesque touch, this defective DVD was launched by a hearing-impaired Prime Minister during Hearing Awareness Week.

In one piece of recent good news, the Film Finance Corporation has now made it compulsory for feature films it supports to have captions. To enjoy such films will require attending a cinema that will show captioned films. And the bad news? There are exactly ten cinemas in the entire country which show films with captions. The inquiry will be able to ask, why, with such commendable policy, is there such a miniscule number of cinemas in which to show them in the first place?

Senator Coonan’s press release announcing the inquiry commended the free-to-air broadcasters for approaching their 70 per cent captioning targets for programming between 6am and midnight. Prime-time FTA television captioning has already been guaranteed by legislation since 2001. Those wishing to view captions on television must purchase a television with teletext.

And this is the rub. Apart from deaf and hearing-impaired people, almost no one in business or government bothers. Very few of the thousands of televisions in hospitals, waiting rooms, hotels, offices, shopping malls, motels and other public places come equipped with teletext. Countless videos and DVDs used in hospitals, schools, TAFEs and universities do not have captions. A large number of television programs are not captioned, for example, daytime sporting events.


The news is hardly much better for those who might give up and rely on DVDs for the captions track. Media Access Australia monitors new-release DVDs, and in its last survey, found a mere 51 per cent included hearing access in the form of subtitles or captions.

Inaccessible DVDs like Raising Children continue to be churned out. A recent series of National Geographic DVDs on wildlife themes, promoted and distributed by the Herald Sun newspaper, have no captioning track, and no audio-description track for blind and vision-impaired people.

New technology and new services have left captions well behind. Unlike FTA broadcasting, there is no requirement for captions on prime-time subscription television. Digital multichannels are exempt from captions, and DVDs of television programs, or their downloads off the Internet, do not include captions even if they were on the originals.

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About the Author

Michael Uniacke is a freelance journalist who frequently writes on issues around disability, deafness and hearing impairment.

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All articles by Michael Uniacke

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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