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Video-streaming platforms are failing their impaired customers

Say what: not all streaming services cater for the disabled.

When it comes to video streaming, the hearing- and visually impaired can only dream about the technology that’s passing them by.

Occasionally, I get a blunt reminder that not everyone is able to enjoy the marvels of technology the way I do. There I was, sitting with my 86-year-old partially deaf father-in-law, taking him through the new Vodafone TV platform to which I’d encouraged him to upgrade when he changed his broadband plan.

Vodafone TV packs impressive functionality into a small box. It gives you access via your broadband connection to the Freeview channels, Sky TV – if you are a subscriber – and streaming video apps such as Netflix, TVNZ OnDemand and YouTube.

But it lacks one feature that is crucial for many – closed captioning. Sitting in front of his fancy new entertainment system, my father-in-law, for the first time in years, was unable to follow the stories on the six o’clock news.

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I’d assumed the new Vodafone service would be more advanced than the old one, which ran captions on numerous TV shows. Its TV menu has an option to turn on subtitles. But it doesn’t work.

It’s a problem that’s symbolic of the issue an estimated 70,000 vision-impaired and 700,000 hearing-impaired New Zealanders face as technology marches on. Our online entertainment and streaming options are opening up considerably, unless you have a disability, in which case they may be going backwards.

There is no regulation in New Zealand requiring broadcasters and video-streaming platforms to provide captioning on TV programmes for the hearing-impaired or audio descriptions that give a verbal summary of what’s happening on screen in between the bits of dialogue to let the visually impaired follow the action.

“Subtitles on Vodafone TV are due to be delivered in a software update to all Vodafone TV boxes in the next couple of months,” a spokesperson told me. But the service has been around since 2017. It clearly isn’t a priority. Nor has it been for Spark’s video-streaming service, Lightbox, which only last week announced it would start running captions on a selection of popular shows. Lightbox launched in 2014.

Customers of Sky’s Neon streaming app have been bombarding its Facebook page since 2016 with complaints about a lack of subtitles. Neon blames their absence on technical challenges “such as the different tools and formats needed for Apple and Android”. TVNZ OnDemand does better, captioning hundreds of shows. But you’d expect that from a state broadcaster.

NZ On Air gives not-for-profit organisation Able $2.8 million a year to create subtitles for news bulletins and the most popular shows broadcast on free-to-air TV. But there’s nothing to compel companies to make their platforms caption- and audio-description-capable.

Thanks, no doubt, to their size advantage, the international streaming services do much better on accessibility. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV provide captions on many, if not all, of the shows and movies they stream.

YouTube uses speech-recognition software to automatically caption videos. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Video content is increasingly embedded on websites, but most of it doesn’t carry captions. You can usually tell by looking for a “cc” symbol in the bottom right-hand corner of the playing window.

We need to reward the tech companies and service providers that take accessibility seriously. It goes beyond entertainment. I was recently given a demo of some of the features coming in the new Apple operating systems, including VoiceControl, which allows a Mac, iPhone or iPad user to navigate their device entirely using voice commands. Microsoft has had a long-term focus on accessibility in its Windows operating system, too.

It is local companies that need to up their game. That may require legislative change, which is what the National Foundation for the Deaf is pushing for, and more funding for captioning and audio descriptions on a wider range of programmes.

Visit able.co.nz to see which services offer closed captioning and audio descriptions and how to enable them.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.