From Analogical to Digital

by Rodolfo Cattani

New technology, old problems.

It is anticipated that between 2008 and 2012, the European Union will experience the change from analogical television to digital television. This represents an important technological event as well asPicture of a television a considerable change in this popular means of communication which can even be enjoyed by blind and visually impaired persons even if it means in a more limited fashion.
In various countries the tendency for digital television is taking place and in three experimental areas, the analogical signal is already off: in Berlin and in the towns of Ferryside and Llansteffan in WalesPicture of a child watching monitors.
The passage to digital television requires the purchase of a new television or the adaptation of the existing one through a special receiver of digital channels. People who are blind or visually impaired will experience some difficulties managing the new televisions because there will be so many more channels and navigation will have to be done on the screen with commands to move upward, downward, to the right and to the left. Operators will have more space to provide optional services and for that in every country measures will have to be adopted in order to guarantee users their right to access these services. In particular: an economic incentive, free help line, home installation by qualified technicians; tools for the selection of frequences and integrated digital televisions for receiving special channels for audiodescription; measures for the use of electronic guides of programs, teletext and interactive services.
As a matter of fact, visual impairment excludes spectators from a wide variety of television programs whether they are for information or entertainment. From the news, only verbal messages are received, the richest and weightiest visual content is not at all transmitted or only partially so, apart from the intervention of a few fortuitous prompters. Television is an instrument of communication conceived for those who can see. And, since we live in an environment which does not consider (or so little) the difficulties experienced by people who have sensory disabilities, the needs of this population are not taken into account eventhough fees are paid, acquiring therefore the right to fully enjoy the service. But they remain in fact largely excluded from it. Closed captioning on the televideo and interpretation in sign language are special solutions which have facilitated greatly those with a hearing impairment.

Images into words
As it was previously mentioned, a form of compensation of such exclusion exists even for blind people and it is called audiodescription.
Audiodescription is the insertion in television programs of a parallel narration which explains to spectators the images that they cannot see, taking advantage of the intervals free of comments or dialogs present in programs. In numerous countries, audiodescription is created in experimental or occasional form, in some others, like Germany or England, it is regularly practiced even in a limited fashion. Analogical television does not allow the broadcasting of the track for audiodescription on the same broadcasting channel of the audio program if not by incorporating it fully in it (an undesired effect for many) or using one of the stereo channels reducing however the sound quality. For this reason, for exemple, in Italy it was preferred to transmit the sound track of the audiodescriptionPicture of a person whispering in the ear of another person on a different radio frequency which can be listened to separately without synchronicity with the flow of images. It is truly a questionable solution because it marginalizes spectators who are visually impaired and prevents the use of the service from a wider public composed of sighted persons who could appreciate it.
The flourishing market of compact disks and DVDs audiodescribed in the USA, and rapidly growing as well in Germany and in France, demonstrates that the idea is not at all uncommon and that numerous people enjoy audiodescription.

New perspectives
With the arrival of digital television, providing an audiodescribed program will be much easier from a technical point of view because of the wide availability of additional channels. Audiodescription can be transmitted in synchronicity, leaving to the individual the possibility of regulating the intensity of the sound for each track, allowing a personalized listening experience or together with others. The digital television also allows a better use of closed captioning.
However, if for closed captioning the difficulties are only managerial, for audiodescription the technical feasibility of the service is compromised by the lack of European standards for receiving units, as it is illusory to believe that the new digital televisions will be equipped in an adequate manner for such a goal. While in England there already exists a legislation which requires public television to provide a growing percentage of audiodescribed programs in order to reach 100% in 2010, little is said in the other countries of the Union.
Not only that, there is also another important and pressing issue which is the accessibility for blind and visually impaired persons to guides toPicture of an LCD monitor television programs and interactive digital television through which, in the near future, will be managed numerous services, such as relations with public administration, telemedical services, electronic commerce, election procedures and more.

Our initiatives
The European Blind Union has moved at the right time to face these problems and already in 1996 the General Assembly, held in Italy in Giardini Naxos, approved a resolution which recommended the adoption of initiatives in this sense at the European level.
In spite of the important commitment in recent years particulary that of the English, results have not been satisfying since public directives regarding telecommunications and related equipment have not received the requirements of users with disabilities.
The main European legislative instrument on radiotelevision broadcasting is the Television Without Borders Directive which establishes minimal standards in various areas. This Directive concerns the common market and aims at the freedom of movement of television services beyond borders.
The Directive was published the first time in 1989 and was updated only once in 1997. Now, the Directive is about to be amended again and the European Commission intends to present a proposal in the coming year.
The main issues being discussed are in general to what extent audiovisual services have to be regulated within the Union, should the Directive be extended to include web broadcasting (web casting), radio broadcasting, and new media; how much flexibility should there be for regulations concerning publicity; the media commitment to promote and protect the European cultural heritage; the issue about minors; the principle of the country of origin on the basis of which is set what state member has jurisdiction.
The European Blind Union follows with interest the course of the Directive and intends, among other things, to obtain that the European Commission anticipate in Article 4 of the new Directive the predisposition of a relationship on monitoring accessibility by persons with disabilities in Europe. Such monitoring should be based on statistics compiled in member countries concerning the level of services on their channels, and action plans by individual states to increase such levels. The EBU considers very important the results of the survey by the Commission on accessibility of services and is preparing a questionnaire which will be sent to member organizations to learn the level of such services in respective countries.
In conclusion, it seems clear that the arrival of the digital television is of fundamental importance for blind and visually impaired persons, but if accessibility issues are not addressed they will remain even more isolated and excluded of the use of services available to other citizens. Television, whether good or bad, is an essential instrument and will be so more and more in our information society; blind and visually impaired persons do not want to be deprived of the opportunity that it can offer them.