A Major Breakthrough for Blind and Vision-Restricted Canadians: "The Accessible Channel." Coming Soon...
To explain the need for a TV channel that will serve people who are blind or vision-restricted, Geoff Eden tells the story of watching Fatal Attraction years ago. His wife had been gamely trying to describe the action in the gripping thriller when suddenly, at an especially tense moment when Glenn Close appears to drown in a bathtub, she fell silent.
"What's going on," asked Eden, who is blind.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute..." his wife replied breathlessly.
Finally, after Eden had listened in frustration to dramatic music and sound effects until the scene ended, his wife told him what had happened.
"Naturally she found it difficult to watch the movie and at the same time describe to me what was going on," explains Eden, who lives at Welland, Ont. "Not everyone's wife or son or daughter or friends can think quickly and are good at describing a show. And why should we have to rely on them?"
That's why the recent approval by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for The Accessible Channel, a national, English-language digital specialty service that will feature only "described" as well as "closed-captioned" programming, is a major breakthrough for Canadians with diminished vision or hearing.
Description is a process in which a narrator describes the visual elements of a movie, documentary or TV show. That narration is added to the soundtrack. For vision-restricted and blind Canadians, it's the equivalent of closed captioning, which has long been available for people who are deaf or hearing-restricted. At minimum 90% of the programming on The Accessible Channel will be closed captioned.
"Description versus no description is like the difference a sighted person would experience watching an NHL game on TV versus listening to a play-by-play sportscaster call the game on local radio," says Rob Sleath, chair of Advocates for Sight Impaired Consumers (ASIC), who lost his vision in 1992. "The radio broadcaster provides a much more vivid ‘visual' picture of the on-ice action, as he is aware of painting a picture for his listening audience. The TV broadcaster only provides snippets of information, as he leaves much of the action to visual interpretation."
"With The Accessible Channel, people will know that just because they're blind or vision-restricted, they're not excluded from programming that everyone else has access to."
The Accessible Channel is the latest barrier-breaking idea from The National Broadcast Reading Service (NBRS), a registered charity created nearly two decades ago with a mandate to enhance media access for millions of print- and vision-restricted Canadians so they can enjoy the same information and entertainment programming as people with sight.
NBRS currently has two operating divisions. The first is VoicePrint, the country's 24/7 audio newsstand, available on cable TV, satellite and at http://www.voiceprintcanada.com/, which is broadcast from a variety of studios across the country into eight-million Canadian homes and features a corps of 800-plus volunteers who read and record current articles from more than 600 newspapers and magazines. The second is AudioVision, a description pioneer and still a leader in providing quality described services and products, some of which could end up on The Accessible Channel.
The Accessible Channel will broadcast a range of programming - including news, information, drama and entertainment - for everyone, from children to seniors. It will seek to acquire top-rated shows seen on CTV, CanWest Global, CBC, BBC and other networks. Some of the programming it will air currently is offered in described form, but much more will be available for the first time.
It's possible today to see some first-run movies in described format, via headphones, in a small number of theatres for a brief time. And certain programs on existing cable or satellite services are described. But, for example, on basic cable, people who want to access description must change the audio settings of their TV sets to S.A.P. (Secondary Audio Programming), a process that can be difficult, if not impossible, for people with vision impairments since it usually works via a series of on-screen menu prompts.
The Accessible Channel, which could be operating as early as next spring, will be in "open format," eliminating the need for elaborate set-up procedures - the first time described programming will be available in one place and at all times.
"That will be significant," says Gerald Weseen, chair of NBRS's volunteer board and also general manager, communications and public affairs, at Nova Scotia Power Inc. "If you're blind or vision-restricted and you're in the workplace, people are talking about last night's episode of whatever popular program. We refer to it as ‘water-cooler talk.' If you aren't able to watch it, or you missed the visual gags they're talking about, you feel out of the loop. With The Accessible Channel, people will know that just because they're blind or vision-restricted, they're not excluded from programming that everyone else has access to."
The potential market is huge. The 2001 Statistics Canada Census data put the number of blind Canadians at 611,000, considered a conservative figure. It is generally accepted by service agencies that many more people need assistance accessing traditional media.
A more recent, and dramatic, 2004 report by the Canadian Association of Optometrists (CAO) found that 2.1-million Canadians aged 43-75 are experiencing blindness and irreversible vision loss as a result of Aged-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) alone. This is equal to the number of Canadians with diabetes (2 million) and 20 times the number suffering from Parkinson's Disease. According to the study, 78,000 Canadians are diagnosed with AMD each year, and that number will triple during the next quarter century, making AMD the leading cause of blindness in North America.
The CAO study further reports that, by age 75, one in four Canadians will experience vision loss, defined as being no longer able to drive, read, watch TV and movies or see the faces of loved ones.
Says Jim Sanders, president of the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB): "The sheer numbers and buying power of that potential audience should force broadcasters, producers and advertisers to make programs and commercials accessible."
The Broadcasting Act is clear about Canada's responsibility: "Programming accessible by disabled persons should be provided within the Canadian broadcasting system as resources become available for the purpose." The CRTC has long identified the need to improve access to TV for those with perceptual disabilities, noting that TV is "a key tool in social integration...[allowing] Canadians to participate in a shared culture and shared social values."
As the ASIC's Sleath points out: "It was not my loss of vision that made me disabled but rather the environment around me. Change the environment and you minimize the disability, to a mere inconvenience at times."
Recent technological advances now make producing described programming easier, and The Accessible Channel has provided a cost-effective way of reaching the largest possible audience of vision-restricted and blind Canadians. Cable companies and satellite providers will be required to add The Accessible Channel to their basic digital package at a cost per month per household of 20 cents, or $2.40 annually, a small price to ensure that all Canadians have access to TV.
"People with vision loss often feel like second-class citizens," says Betty Nobel, an NBRS board member and chair of its National Program Committee, who is blind. "Because although we are always told that we have the same rights as all citizens, this is not true in real terms. We do not, as an example, have full access to television programming."
For instance, she adds, with The Accessible Channel blind viewers will no longer, "be wondering what is happening during the tense music on CSI or when the bullets are flying and you don't know who has been hurt."
The Accessible Channel will ease those frustrations and, as a result, will be a destination channel for increasing numbers of blind and vision-restricted viewers plus their sighted friends, families and companions.
"And once broadcasters and producers see the potential market, more and more current programming will be made available," says the NBRS's Weseen.
"Our goal is to have first-run programming described as it's done, by producers, and carried by broadcasters and cable companies. So, if tonight is the premiere episode of the new season of CSI, both sighted people and blind people can watch it at the same time."