Did you watch Television New Zealand’s Sunday programme last Sunday (20 June 2010)? One segment took an interesting look at the Chinese economy and asked if the current growth rate is really sustainable and whether the bubble could be about to burst.

Did you watch Television New Zealand’s Sunday programme last Sunday (20 June 2010)? One segment took an interesting look at the Chinese economy and asked if the current growth rate is really sustainable and whether the bubble could be about to burst.

As documentaries go, I suppose there was nothing really outstanding about it but still the topic was interesting. It was a pity though that some of the people invited to comment spoke their comments in a Chinese language. Now I, like most New Zealanders, am basically monolingual. My school French would probably be sufficient to get me into serious trouble if I relied on it in a city the likes of Paris, and my German is worse. As for other languages, I’m running on empty. Probably we could all make more of an effort these days with languages but I’m sure that in this respect I am like most people living in New Zealand. We just haven’t been exposed to lots of languages down in this part of the world.

Of course, it’s not as if people were expected to understand the comments made in Chinese. Sighted people were given the benefit of subtitles. So if you could see and read, and were not doing something else like the dishes, then you could know something about the views of the Chinese people who were interviewed. The rest of us were excluded from that information.

In the past, the more common approach in documentaries like this was to “voice over” such passages in English. But I’ve noticed that practice seems to have fallen out of favour in the past few years. I don’t know why.

I suspect the thinking these days is that societies around the world are becoming more cosmopolitan. So nowadays there are a good number of people living in New Zealand who do speak Chinese languages. It is probably argued that these people also have needs to be catered for, and to voice over someone’s comments in another language denies these people the opportunity to hear someone speaking in perhaps their native tongue. So subtitles are seen as the best option.

But it frustrates me as a blind person when this happens. In this documentary on the Chinese economy, I think we were able to get the gist of the issue even though we couldn’t understand half of what was said. But I recall another Sunday documentary some time last year I think which looked into the possible causes of the accident in which an Air France plane went down in the Atlantic ocean. That documentary had considerable comment from people in French, and my schoolboy French couldn’t cope. I recall I just gave up on that documentary as a waste of my time.

I’m not campaigning here to bring back voice overs. One strategy I suggest, perhaps in jest, would be to treat us all the same and do nothing; let us all take our chances with whatever language someone is speaking in. But for obvious reasons, I doubt that that would be acceptable. However to take the specific action of broadcasting this information using subtitles, a visual medium only, is inherently discriminatory and ultimately could violate New Zealand’s human rights law, particularly because there is a solution.

Today in this digital age, the solution is to broadcast an extra audio channel that can carry additional audio in these situations. Since the introduction of FreeView, the Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand has been advocating for the introduction of audio description into New Zealand television. Slowly but surely, progress is being made towards this goal.

Audio description is to blind people like captioning is to people who are deaf. You get an additional audio commentary to tell you what’s happening on the screen. Of course, someone has to go into the studio and create that commentary, but that’s the same as captioning; someone has to produce the captions, it doesn’t happen by itself. The extra audio goes out on a separate channel so it doesn’t interfere with what everyone else is listening to. But you’ll find on all standard Freeview remote controls a button that switches on the additional audio so you can hear it.

Documentaries like these that have subtitles could easily be handled by audio description, where the audio describer could just read the subtitles. Then, anyone with the new digital technology could push that button and voilà!

And it’s not as if it’s just blind people who benefit from audio description. There are lots of people who can’t see the screen clearly enough or who can’t read who can benefit from audio description, and anyone who wants to just listen because they are doing something else, well they can benefit too. I know television is a visual medium but can we always assume people are able to focus their eyes on the screen? I doubt it.

Oh, and while we’re on this subject, let’s not forget Sky Television, even though they seem to have forgotten about blind New Zealanders. I’ll expand on that in another entry, but for now it suffices to say that the Sky system also has a button for other languages. I recall experiments some years ago in which Warriors games were broadcast in English and Maori simultaneously, and you could push that button to switch between them. So potentially, Sky also has the capability to broadcast programmes with audio description.

The developers of these technologies have put these systems in place to respond to today’s cosmopolitan societies that need multiple languages, and perhaps also to meet the needs of people who can benefit from an audio description. It’s time for broadcasters to get their act together and start using these new technology features.