Accessible entertainment is a work in progress

By George Abraham

In recent years, technology has considerably transformed the entertainment industry, redefining the ways of content consumption. In addition to the traditional sources of entertainment like radio, television and cinema, we now have a host of digital services available to us.

With growing internet penetration and the digital push by the government, content creators have access to a wider audience than ever before. This also includes persons with disabilities, and visually impaired people like myself.

Did you know that there are 5.4 million blind people in India as per Census 2011? Going by the World Health Organisation statistics, it’s actually over 60 million in India. That’s a huge potential audience, isn’t it? The million-dollar question is whether the entertainment industry is aware of this opportunity and whether they know how to be inclusive of this large section of society.

Like most movie buffs, I have seen Sholay at least a dozen times. Each viewing was equally engaging and enjoyable. The star cast, the characters, the music, the dialogue, the humour and the storyline are all very powerful. But when I recently saw the movie for the thirteenth time, using a smartphone app with preloaded audio description, the experience was a revelation. It was simply mind blowing to witness significant scenes that drove the story forward visually, parts easily lost on a blind viewer otherwise. Watching the classic Ramesh Sippy production with visual elements being audio described made the film even more memorable.

As per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, access to information and entertainment cannot be denied to anyone. Provisions have to be made for content to be made accessible for people with varied needs. Delegations comprising a consortium of non-profit organizations, industry representatives and the Producers Guild of India have repeatedly engaged with the Information & Broadcasting Ministry demanding that films and television content be made accessible to all persons with disabilities. In fact, the government has made a recommendation to the Producers Guild of India stating all films and TV programmes must be “born accessible”, meaning that audio description for blind audiences and captioning for the hearing-impaired people must be part of the production process. Using technology to make entertainment accessible to more people, the popular entertainment streaming service, Netflix, already features thousands of hours of “born accessible” content. All of their original productions have closed captions and most of them come with audio description, making for a delightful and independent viewing experience for the blind and the hearing-impaired people. I saw Sacred Games on Netflix, which is an intense and heavily visual-driven series. But it was the audio description that kept me hooked and informed of every minor detail. Netflix in India has so far launched over 30 series and films, with audio description and closed captions. Still a long way to go as an industry but it’s a start.

In countries like Canada, US, UK and some of the EU nations like the Netherlands, there is a large volume of entertainment content that is “born accessible”. Some of these countries also have television channels that air only accessible content. While several Hollywood productions screened in the US and Europe are accessible, for some reason, they are released in the theatres in India or aired on TV channels here with the accessibility features disabled.

Unfortunately, content coming out of the Indian entertainment industry has not quite taken on board the need to be inclusive and ‘born accessible’. NGO groups advocating for accessible entertainment have screened several accessible movies at platforms like the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and other esteemed events with large film professionals gathering.

Delhi-based NGO, Saksham, has engaged with the industry, managing to provide audio description to over 40 films. These include titles like 3 Idiots, Taare Zameen Par and Sanju. Aamir Khan has been quite sensitive and receptive to the idea, granting permission to make several of his movies accessible. Having said this, he is yet to come up with a “born accessible” film.

Technological advancements such as smart televisions, new-age set-top boxes and voice-controlled devices can make viewing accessible and inclusive in India as well. The moot question is whether content generating professionals and distributors acknowledge persons with disabilities as equal consumers.