News is the most important source of knowledge, it is supposed to be factual ipiece of nformation about current events. We learn about events happening around the globe and come across interesting stories. There is no doubt that, to catch-up with the ever-changing world, one has to keep up with the news. There are various reasons why it is imperative to read and go through the news.
Despite the importance of news, news media houses still haven’t taken steps to make it accessible to everyone. The largest form of news consumed today is via television, print and the internet. All of these are mostly incompatible with people who have hearing or visual impairment. Since news is the quickest way to connect to the world, inaccessibility and subsequent exclusion isn’t just from a platform, but from the opportunity to connect on a global scale.
Why Do We Need Better Accessibility To The Media?
Media houses often question the discriminatory policies and demand physical accessibility. Ironically, they themselves don’t take the same steps. It’s about time that Indian media brings a change in its functioning. Not only because of the significance of news but also because media houses are an efficient tool for social change. Currently, there are approximately 1 billion persons with disabilities in the world. India is home to the highest number of people with visual and hearing impairment. If the media takes active steps for being sensitive towards the needs of the PWDs, its impact will reflect in society at large.
Exclusion of Person with Disability (PwD) from mainstream news houses is not just unkind but also in contrast to the legal provisions, Section 41 and 42 of the Rights Of Person With Disability (RPWD) Act 2016 which states that all electronic content should be accessible and focus on inclusion for PwDs. The Act reads that it is government’s responsibility to ensure that all contents available in audio, print and electronic media; and that persons with disabilities have access to electronic media by providing audio description, sign language interpretation and close captioning.
So What Steps Can The Media Take For Direct Accessibility?
Caption or subtitle refers to the text sentences displayed at the bottom of the screen, which are used to describe the scene or a transcript of the dialogue exchanged. We often come across them while viewing a foreign movie. While it makes the experience of viewing better for everyone, it is one of the few ways that a person with hearing impairments can understand what is going on the screen. Providing the news with features like close caption could be an effective way to make news accessible for everyone.
For people who are born with hearing impairment, sign language is one of the requisite for understanding news. Sign language comprises the use of manual gestures, facial expression and body language to convey meaning. At the beginning of lockdown, the English teacher of the National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) took the initiative to deliver news in sign language for her students. Similar steps should be taken by media houses. Reporting in sign language should be normalised and accepted.
While the persons with vision impairment can always access news with the help of reading aloud, what they often miss out on are the visuals attached to the article/news. To make their experience holistic, there should be a description attached to the images of articles. So when the person refers to an article, they can enjoy them too. And while the reporters are presenting a visual image regarding the headline, the same image must be described. This method can be used to describe the changes in location, actions, and facial expressions, gestures and so on to give the context of the situation.
While the said steps would provide immediate access, there is a bigger issue to resolve, which requires inner work. Media houses have to take steps that would implement inclusivity in a true sense in the long run.
The Approach of Media Houses
As allies to any marginalised community, the first step is the shift in our approach towards them. Disability Rights Activist Shampa Sengupta explained that news does not view the disabled as an audience for their news, or people who consume news, but instead as someone that is meant only to be subject of the news. This inherent bias is what leads to discrimination because the media house no longer considers making an effort, as they do not consider them to be potential viewers.
Portrayal of Persons with Disability
Media often portrays the persons with disability as either ‘sufferer‘ or as superheroes, and both these projections are harmful. They are treated as victims of their disability. This tactic gains sympathy from the audience – rather than genuine compassion. While ‘superhero’ has a positive connotation, it is still problematic because it patronises them. This oscillation between these two portrayals shows how the media doesn’t choose to look beyond their disability and doesn’t view them as regular people.
Representation on Screen
Representation in media, the most powerful tool to uplift any community, that is watching people from a marginalised community on screen, always provides confidence, security, comfort and role models from their own community. Activist Shampa Sengupta talks about the underrepresentation in news media. The only time they are on screen is during disability day.
This is a form of token representation and not real inclusion; media houses should also invite PwDs for panel discussions over topics ranging from sports, entertainment, finance. Inviting PwD only to talk over disability and not over other topics, does not give them space to express their knowledge and opinion, and also reinforces the norm of restricting their personality only to their disability. It also comes off that media houses don’t deem them intelligent enough to contribute to general topics like politics, sports, fashion.
Employing Persons with Disabilities
Hiring persons with disability is a genuine step towards ensuring definite change. Only the person belonging to the community can understand all the struggles and the gaps that exist. Holding a position of power gives them the opportunity to implement changes that could be beneficial. Their presence in the industry also ensures a sensitive and friendly language. This could also give them the platform to talk about their issues and problems, and prevent discriminatory behaviour.
Steps Taken Towards an Inclusive Future
There are initiatives taken up by activist and NGO’s. Among them is Barrier break, it is a not for profit social enterprise. It has been doing commendable work and made the life of persons with disability easier. The company has designed an app called Newz Hook in 2016. The daily reports are in sign language specifically for people with hearing impairment. It covers the headlines regarding current affairs, technology, business, entertainment, sports, and health. It is also vital to mention that persons with disability account for 65% of the staff hired.
As a society, the onus of making it safe, inclusive and accessible space is on us. The inability to provide means of access is only the surface projection of deep-seated bias and judgment towards persons with disabilities. As allies, it is also our job of being aware and sensitive to the needs of PwDs. In the current era of dynamic technology and the internet, no modification is impossible. It is only a matter of a shift in perspective. It’s our responsibility to demand accessibility and work towards an accepting and compassionate society.