The Observatory

Accessibility and the pursuit of equality

Jonathan Craig, Policy Advisor @ Vision 2020 Australia

I recently had the privilege of representing Vision 2020 Australia at the Roundtable Conference on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. With this year’s theme being “Universal Access: Pathways to an Equitable Future”, I reflected on my travel from Melbourne to Sydney that, as a blind person living in Australia in 2023, I have access to more information than ever before.

And yet, I still regularly experience situations which leave me feeling helpless and frustrated, with aspects of society still not equal for people who are blind or have low vision. I was eager to spend my few days at the conference exploring these contradictions, and how we might resolve them.

CEO of the DAISY Consortium, Richard Orme, delivered the keynote address and began his career in accessibility by transcribing textbooks for his friend Mike, a blind pig farmer he met at agricultural college. Recently when they reconnected, they reflected in amazement on how much had changed. Today, Mike can access millions of books and a vast amount of online material, via the smartphone in his pocket.

The screen reading software and accessibility standards which allow this are more recent stepping-stones in the journey that have led us to the present. But Orme reminded us that people who are blind or have low vision have inspired (and actively co-designed) innovations that benefited all of society. Long-playing vinyl records, digital newspapers, eBooks and audiobooks were all originally developed to help us access printed materials.

And innovation continues, particularly with technological advances. Sonification, the representation of images through audio is an example. My head recognised its utility for delivering important information like graphs in news articles, but when I experience the solar system represented through sound, my heart recalled the awe and wonder I felt as a child, imagining the vastness of space.

Additionally, the Telstra 5G Touch and Track prototype is aiming to make AFL games more accessible by presenting the movement of the ball through a tactile interface in near real time. While there are still some technical challenges to overcome, it could have many applications beyond the football field.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was a recurring theme throughout many of the presentations, though the vision sector was exploring it well before it entered the public consciousness. A range of smart devices like the Envision Glasses are already using AI to describe images and recognise text with increasing context awareness. Personally, I’m looking forward to being able to ask my device to read me only the chicken dishes on a menu, rather than having to search the whole document for what I want.

Vision Australia CEO, Ron Hooton, who described himself as “the world’s oldest digital native”, outlined how they are exploring the potential of AI, with three pilot projects investigating how ideas like prompt engineering could make the vision sector more efficient.

He recalled Australia’s first blind Professor, Ron McCallum, saying a decade ago that there’s never been a better time to be blind. Ron suggests that a better time is right now, given the progress of technology since.

Yet despite all the advancements, there are still participation barriers that stubbornly persist, including employment opportunities. EverAbility Group’s Anna Presser highlighted that as of 2018, ABS figures showed that only 53.4 per cent of people with disability were actively engaged in the workforce, as compared to 84.1 per cent of the general population.

Ron Hooton said that there are now few practical barriers preventing us from doing many jobs, but the attitude barrier is still keeping us out of workplaces. Recent Vision Australia research found that 85 per cent of potential employers were “not confident” in hiring a person who was blind or has low vision.

NextSense CEO, Chris Rehn, agreed that one of our sector’s key challenges is convincing corporate Australia to adopt better employment practices. But he also echoed John Mulka, CEO of Blind Low Vision NZ, in noting that sometimes not all users are considered when new products are developed, such as ensuring websites are fully accessible.

Both Europe and the US have legislation requiring accessibility of certain products. “We’re yet to have that degree of standard here,” Rehn said. “I think those are principles we need to work towards.”

The extreme difficulty we still face attending TAFE and university remains a major concern, given nine in 10 new jobs currently being created will require a tertiary qualification. This difficulty is mostly caused by the adoption of systems that weren’t designed with accessibility in mind.

Last year saw the release of an Accessible ICT Procurement Guide for Tertiary Education providers. Neil Jarvis, from Intopia, who helped develop the resource, recalls interviewing a student who completed his assignment, but couldn’t hand it in, because the “submit” button on the online portal couldn’t be seen by his screen reading software. Similarly, Darlene McLennan, from the Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training, received an email about a PHD student who couldn’t watch the live stream of their graduation ceremony. The live stream provider said that screen reader users were too small a market to justify changing their interface for improved accessibility.

Clearly, not much has changed since my time on campus, but this guide represents a step in the right direction. It has received positive feedback and there are some early adopters, however with many things legislation reform may be the quickest path to widespread change. It’s an issue Vision 2020 Australia continues to advocate for.

Audio Description is another area where change is slow, particularly when compared to closed captions, which have been legally required on free-to-air TV for decades through the Broadcasting Services Act. There is no such requirement for any Audio Described content. In 2018, disability advocate Lauren Henley, with assistance from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Blind Citizens Australia, took the issue to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Since Henley lodged her complaint, the Federal Government has announced implementation funding for the ABC and SBS to each provide 15 hours of Audio Described content per week. There has also been a commitment to further funding for Audio Description in the latest Federal Budget.

But as Henley indicated, this funding remains time limited, and therefore its longevity is tenuous. Without the right to Audio Description being enshrined through legislation, we face the fear of losing it in each budget cycle.

In September last year, the UN Committee upheld Henley’s complaint, finding that by failing to take steps to secure the future of Audio Description, Australia was in violation of Articles 9 and 30 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In their reply in March, the Government continued to deny any wrong-doing, but also noted that Communications Minister Michelle Rowland had written to the free-to-air networks, asking about their plans to introduce Audio Description through live and catchup TV.

Vision 2020 Australia’s members appreciate Minister Rowland’s interest in addressing this issue, however there is still no incentive or mechanism for voluntary roll-out across the commercial networks. As is the case with accessibility in tertiary education, legislation may be what is required to make TV accessible to everyone. We are certainly a ways behind other parts of the world in this instance.

In her presentation on access to financial products, Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) President and Vision 2020 Australia Director Fiona Woods described growing up in a world of paper documents. When she first moved out of home, she had to rely on others to understand the most basic information about her bills and bank accounts. These days, she can quickly view all her transactions with her screen reader via a website or app.

Some Kafkaesque situations are still to be had, though. Fiona recalled a phone call with her bank where she was asked for her driver’s licence details before being transferred to a virtual assistant.

As I read over my notes and reflected on the stories I’d heard on the plane home, I felt inspired by the important work ahead for Vision 2020 Australia, supporting the exciting initiatives that are in train, and facilitating collective problem-solving throughout the sector.

But I also contemplated the importance and power of awareness to realise a truly equitable future. Governments and businesses often don’t consider people who are blind or have low vision, as customers, citizens, audience members or employees. Most people are unaware of the awesome technologies that allow us to work and play more freely than we ever have before. Without this understanding, we will not be fully seen us as potential loyal colleagues, excellent students, or paying consumers.

Just like Richard Orme, when he first realised his friend couldn’t read textbooks, people often become our allies when they recognise the barriers we’re facing and how easily they are overcome with the right technologies and policies in place.

Raising awareness and building allyship I feel are critical to overcoming the accessibility obstacles that still exist for people who are blind or have low vision.

One of the biggest challenges for our sector is also our greatest opportunity to accelerate progress. I look forward to more conversations about how we can all play a role in creating positive change.