DISABILITY AND THE MEDIA
Roughly one in five Australians is regarded as having a significant form of disability. While disability in the media still passes largely unnoticed, some key moments can be identified.
Disability first gained visibility in the Australian media in the 1970s because of the provision of dedicated services. The leading example is Radio for the Print Handicapped (RPH): community radio stations offering alternative ‘spoken word’ access to print media for those with a print disability due to literacy issues, learning disabilities, vision impairment or physical disabilities. Less is known about other kinds of distinctive media forms and uses by people with disabilities in Australia—for instance, aspects of Deaf culture using sign language, or new formats such as audio tapes (used for speaking books, for instance).
By the 1980s, accessibility of mainstream media had become an important policy issue. Captioning of television for Deaf people and those with hearing impairment is a long-standing issue, provided for many years by the Australian Captioning Centre (est. 1982). The key lobby group, Media Access Australia (created from the wind-up of the Australian Captioning Centre), is the leading advocate for accessibility across all media forms.
John Byrne used the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) to advocate for better captioning services within Australian cinemas in the late 1990s. His success also highlighted the need for better captioning on television. Television captioning was addressed by self-regulatory codes under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA), and then reviewed for digital television in 1999. However, it took many years for adequate captioning rules to emerge; they did so in 2012 due to amendments to the BSA. These changes set new captioning targets for national (ABC and SBS) and commercial television broadcasters, and new obligations for pay television and narrowcasters. A captioning quality standard was also introduced in 2013.
Another key area of disability accessibility has been telecommunications, where consumer and disabled persons’ organisations have worked closely with technology companies (especially Telstra), the Department of Social Services and regulators to improve accessibility and promote universal design. Decisive change has also been driven by further test cases using the DDA. The important case Scott v Telstra (1995) resulted in the incorporation of accessibility into universal service via key amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1997 in 1999. Internet accessibility was driven by World Wide Web Consortium web accessibility guidelines; these were more often observed in the breach, as highlighted by the pivotal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) complaint taken by Bruce Maguire against the Sydney Olympics Organising Committee. In 2010, Australian governments commenced a national transitional strategy to address web content accessibility.
The representation of people with disabilities in the media shifted markedly with the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons. A high-profile awareness-raising campaign, with innovative information and advertising, challenged disability stereotypes and provided alternative representations. In subsequent years, disability media reform centred on guidelines for journalists to improve reporting and coverage, and to avoid offensive language and stereotypes.
A range of important figures and programs in Australian media made invaluable contributions, questioning discrimination. A notable example was the prize-winning 1991 episode of Andrew Denton’s satirical ABC program The Money or the Gun, entitled ‘The Year of the Patronising Bastard’. Also significant is the 1996 SBS series House Gang (set in a share house with three actors with intellectual disabilities). However, ‘miraculous cure’ storylines continued to dominate Australian television soap opera, such as Angel’s triumphant walk down the aisle to marry beau Shane on Home and Away in 1993.
Disability also offered a rich source of material for the Australian cinema renaissance.
By the 2010s, disability had became a staple on mainstream television. Stereotypical coverage and representation still abounded, as witnessed in news reporting on suicide and mental illness, medical cures for disability or coverage of charity fundraising. However, the media slowly changed to regard disability as an important area of Australian society.
Sports media made a high-profile, if sometimes problematic, contribution to media’s embrace of disability. The Paralympics, in particular, attracted steadily increasing coverage and audiences, if still on the margins of media sport. The Paralympics also afforded opportunities for new genres, such as Adam Hills’ The Last Leg, a chat show-comedy program broadcast during the 2012 Summer and 2014 Winter Paralympics (produced by UK Channel 4, and also broadcast on the ABC). Also important were the innovative media campaigns and coverage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Australia’s media industries were slow to provide career paths for people with disabilities on par with those for non-disabled people. Compared with initiatives on cultural diversity and Indigenous participation, disability languished. Instead, areas like disability arts, comedy and culture incubated talented professionals such as media personality Stella Young.
Elsewhere, major change has occurred through opportunities made available through digital media platforms from the 1980s. Blind consumers were pioneers in their use of computing and text-based internet interfaces—especially email (though they experienced a setback when Windows launched with inaccessible graphical user interfaces). Waves of innovation by Australians with disability have occurred in digital media, including mobile text messaging, disability blogs (by users, as well as the ABC’s Ramp Up disability blog), virtual worlds (notably Second Life), location-based technologies (offering better navigation and way-finding) and social media.
The advent of smartphones and tablet computers has brought new challenges for accessibility, but they have also served as a test-bed for developers to offer apps that have pioneered new forms of media interactivity for many people with disabilities. Digital media have provided a significant new tool for social participation as well as activism (evident in the DDA suit against the ABC to introduce audio description on the public broadcaster). It is not surprising that HREOC Disability Commissioner Graeme Innes described himself in 2012 as a champion for the National Broadband Network.
REFs: K. Ellis and M. Kent, Disability and New Media (2011); G. Goggin and C. Newell, Digital Disability (2003); H. Meekosha and L. Dowse, ‘Distorting Images, Invisible Images: Gender, Disability and the Media’, MIA, 84 (1997).
KATIE ELLIS and GERARD GOGGIN