Access by Various artists

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The Problem with the Greens’ Disability Policy – A Description

by Jonathan Mosen

Here’s a challenge you’re unlikely to have been given before. Watch the last 10 minutes or so of the movie Fatal Attraction with the screen switched off or with your back to the screen. If you’ve never watched it, I challenge you to tell me how it ends.

That’s just one example of a movie that I, as a blind person, have found impossible. When TV first entered the picture, script writers and producers treated it as radio with pictures. In the US, many popular radio shows moved to television, and largely retained their radio-style dialogue. As a kid in the 1970s and 80s, I found it fairly easy to watch TV, with the possible exception of a few cartoons.

It’s a different world now. Each time a season of House of Cards has appeared on Netflix (yes, bite you Sky, I use Netflix) I “watch” an episode, then I have to Google a catch-up on-line to get a written summary of the episode, since a lot that goes on is visual. I would have been totally in the dark about that naughty three-way in season two had it not been for a textual summary.

There is a solution, and it’s called audio description. Audio description is to blind people what captioning is to  deaf people. Enabling it on a DVD or digital television gives you additional narration describing what’s on the screen.

TVNZ to its great credit is now audio describing a little content.

That brings me to the election. The right will of course stick to its talking points about the unwieldy multi-headed monster that would be a coalition of the left. As someone who believes in the role of the state to equalise opportunity, I feel like I’m spoiled for choice, and I’m loving it.

I’m a true swinging voter. Not like that House of Cards episode I mentioned previously I hasten to add, but in the sense that I genuinely do listen to all arguments and take my little votes seriously.

The Green Party announced its Disability Policy on Friday, and there is much to applaud. Many parties still seem fixated with medical issues which, while important, belong in a health policy. The Greens get it. Disability policy should be about participation, socialisation and inclusion.

On their Disability Issues page, you’ll find a summary of their top three priorities. Priority one as listed on that page reads:

Amend the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act to require targets for phasing in 100 percent captioning for Television New Zealand by 2017 (TV1 and TV2) and TV3 by 2020. Other broadcasters will have targets and timeframes set on a case by case basis.

I don’t for a single second begrudge deaf people their captioning, and applaud the Green Party for appreciating that full participation in society includes things such as being able to enjoy a TV show with your family. But television is an audio and visual medium. Where’s the reference to audio description?

I expressed my disappointment about this on Twitter last Friday to the @NZGreens account, and was directed to the full policy. I downloaded it. It was in Microsoft Word format, poorly structured without the use of styles so it was impossible to navigate from section to section with a screen reader. That’s not what I’d expect from the Green Party.

But finally, on page nine, I did find a one-sentence reference to the Green Party wanting to set quotas regarding audio description. No specifics were offered, a marked contrast to the clarity on captioning.

Not surprisingly, all the coverage I came across in the media mentioned the Greens’ commitment to captioning, with not a word about audio description.

It feels like the Greens have prioritised the needs of one deserving disability group over another, and it could have so easily been avoided. What if the priority as listed on its Disability Issues web page had read like this:

“Amend the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act to require targets for television to be universally accessible. This includes phasing in 100 percent captioning for Television New Zealand by 2017 (TV1 and TV2) and TV3 by 2020. Other broadcasters will have targets and timeframes set on a case by case basis. It also includes the audio description of x% of content by 2017.”

Why is this important, given that the Greens are highly unlikely to be leading a government after 2017? At best, they’ll be a junior coalition partner, and this policy could well get lost in the negotiation shuffle anyway. It’s important for two reasons.

First, it’s not often that people who aren’t deaf or blind give any thought to how those with either sensory disability consume television. The media attention, modest though it may be, helps to raise awareness.

Second, this policy just feels like capture to me. It’s not consistent with Brand Green, which I thought tried to be fair, considerate and inclusive.

Fifteen years ago, I completed a Master of Public Policy thesis at Victoria University on benchmarks that might be designed to measure equality of opportunity for disabled people. In the first section, which summarises the story so far, I made the point that public policy in the disability sector has evolved not as a result of any coherent agreement about the role of government in the sector, but because of a series of accidents and squeaky wheels.

And yes, in a number of respects, the blind have benefited from this lack of a clear public policy framework. The blind organised early, in 1945, to form their own advocacy organisation founded on union principles out of the sheltered workshops of the Institute for the Blind. They have reaped the rewards of that in some areas including social security. But despite being a beneficiary of that success, squeaky wheel politics is not a sound basis for quality public policy, particularly when it comes to people so vulnerable and marginalised as disabled people.

The blind sociologist Peter Beatson once drew a compelling analogy between disability and Maoridom. He compared each disability type with iwi, (Ngati Blind, Ngati Deaf etc), but also expressed the view that there is a series of underlying challenges that unite us, just as there are policy issues that unite Maoridom.

I have vacillated about whether the so-called “disability sector” is more for the convenience of public policy makers who want to lump us into one big homogeneous group rather than consider each disability’s unique needs, or whether good public policy can come from a cross-disability approach to public policy. The UN Convention has proven conclusively that the latter is both possible and useful. But for it to work, those drafting policy have to be careful not to prioritise one disability over another.

The election is still a month away. I call upon the Greens to make the minor tweak required for it to be equitable, for it to treat with equal prominence the needs of those with sensory disabilities who require intervention to fully enjoy television.

Oh, and Fatal Attraction? I’ve seen it audio described now. Finally, I know how it ends!

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