Would you be as emotionally connected or responsive to your favorite TV show if you only had the standard descriptive text to rely on? Robert Pearson explores emotional accessibility in ICTs and digital media.
When considering the need for the provision of accessibility, the idea that the lack of it potentially constitutes a denial of rights, in some sense, is always present, even if it is not directly referenced. However, a simple denial of access to the web, media or some other ICTs is only the beginning of the issue. What if, because of some technical inaccessibility or lack of standards compliancy, an individual was unable to experience an emotion? Let me explain.
Would you say audio description or alternative text is adequate enough to elicit the same emotional responses in viewers who might be deaf or hard of hearing, in comparison to someone who relies on his/her hearing?
From an access to media perspective, there may be many examples of a common experience shared by humanity that elicits an emotion. Images of celebration, such as a wedding or a gold medal hockey game, but also images of war, conflict and local issues commonly present on the late night news are all deeply emotional experiences. Even elections, a television series finale or an episode of a reality TV show elicit strong emotions in viewers. Would you say audio description or alternative text is adequate enough to elicit the same emotional responses in viewers who might be deaf or hard of hearing, in comparison to someone who relies on his/her hearing?
Put yourself in the seating couch of a deaf viewer, watching a documentary on bullying, for instance. Imagine how s/he would respond to the play of scenes that would focus on emotionally vulnerable children in school, sharing their tragic stories or the determination in the voices of the school authorities who want to tackle bullying. A deaf viewer would only have descriptive text to get a sense of the emotional subtext within the documentary.
Take an extreme example of another form of digital media typically lacking in accessibility - casino games. The interest in and action of gambling is one that can drive extreme emotions. A common slot machine no longer offers an arm to pull to set the reels of numbers and other images in motion. The standard machine now contains a series of buttons to operate the turnstiles and a requirement of vision to know how much is being wagered, and potentially how much is being won. As with all things, card tables are being digitised, thereby removing the need for the dealer, and being replaced with a machine. That machine will tell you that a card laid is a card played and maybe that the one you played may not have been appropriate, even if you didn't know what it was. Even the standard deck of cards has its own level of inaccessibility, creating a barrier to the participation of some who may then be unable to experience an emotion that others can.
Bottomline: users who don’t have access to descriptive text and web accessibility are unable to access media content and in turn, the experiential aspect of emotions. Can standards compliance find a way to weave in emotional accessibility into its policy? This was one of the considerations in the development of the recently completed Described Video Best Practices for the Canadian broadcasting industry for the description of music and other nuances. As of now, it is unlikely that the consideration and adoption of digital accessibility will progress to a point of compliancy beyond technical adherence to the guidelines. However, we must also begin to assess the additional effects of what may result in not doing so.
Robert Pearson, Director of Accessible Digital Media at Accessible Media Inc. (AMI), based in Toronto, Canada.