Saturday, December 31, 2016

Digital contents and media accessibility in Bhutan

With the advent of television and internet in Bhutan in 1999, the digital contents and audio-visual media have been providing an efficient way for the general public to access news, information and entertainment in the country. The publishing sector delivers most of its contents through their websites while the audio-visual contents are delivered mostly through the national television. Although the emergence of new technologies and innovative practices have revolutionized Bhutanese media over the years, the issue of media accessibility for persons with disabilities especially the visually impaired people still remains. Prior to the era of television and internet in Bhutan, the BBS Radio was the most popular source of information and since it delivered audio contents, accessibility was never an issue for us. However, with the advent of television and internet services, people began to give more importance to graphic contents and as a result, we the visually impaired people began to fall aside. Today, with some information delivered only in graphics and without audio description, we feel we are deprived of our right to access information and entertainment on mainstream media. However, the lack of media accessibility is no longer a technical issue today. We have all the appropriate technologies in place that have the potential to make our mainstream media fully accessible and inclusive. Now the issue lies only with those people who have those technologies in hand. If they have the will, they have all the resources to make their contents fully accessible for persons with disabilities without compromising the quality.

Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) is the only national television channel at the moment and the entire nation relies on it for authentic news, information and entertainment. While most of its contents are accessible for the blind, it’s sad that some key information are often completely graphic-based and with no accompanying audio description, it becomes impossible for us to access it independently. For instance, the graphics showing the weather forecast used to be accompanied by audio description until a few years ago and that used to enable even the visually impaired people like me to access the information without having to ask anybody else. But today, they have done away with the audio description and with only graphics, there is no way we can access it. Likewise, some key information such as urgent announcements and other messages that keep popping out at the bottom of the screen literarily make no sense to us. Therefore, it would be fully accessible for us if all the graphic-based contents have audio descriptions.

With the evolution of electronic formats, it has become much easier for the visually impaired readers to access newspapers and magazines today. Kuensel and a number of other media houses have already started delivering their contents in electronic formats which has significantly closed the gaps that existed between the sighted and blind readers when they only had hardcopy newspapers. However, digital reading is a complex process and there are still many things that need to be done to make the electronic newspapers fully accessible for the visually impaired readers. The process of digital reading largely depends on assistive technologies such as the screenreading software, apps and devices. I had once subscribed to E-Kuensel but for some unknown reasons, the screenreading software I am using was not able to read it in right order. I thought it was because of the large size of the paper that was converted to PDF. So I am wondering if there is any possibility for Kuensel or other media houses to create their electronic newspapers in ordinary PDF format (preferably in A4 size) which we can easily access with our reading software.

Web accessibility is still a big issue in Bhutan, not only with media houses but also with many government and private websites. With easy access to internet, most of us access news and other important information from websites like Kuensel Online. While Kuensel’s website seems more accessible for the visually impaired readers with distinctive headings and no visual capcha required for posting comments, it does not offer text description of the pictures published in the news articles. Like any other reader who can physically see, we also have the right to know what is there in the picture because this helps us get a better cognitive view of the story. In fact, when you upload a picture onto the website, there is an option to insert the alternative text description, but most people skip this option, not realizing how helpful it would be for the visually impaired readers who access it with the help of screenreading software. So if all the media houses who deliver their contents through their websites could briefly describe the pictures in the stories, they would be definitely more accessible for us. Moreover, an accessible website should also have distinctive headings for their articles because we have shortcut keys to navigate from one heading to another easily. The contents must also be properly organized so that we can read it easily with our software. The web contents of Bhutan Observer all appear jumbled up when we try to access them with our software. I don’t know what is wrong with it but even after copying it and pasting it in a word document, we have to literarily rearrange the words to make our software read it properly. It seems to have unusual spaces between the words and that is what makes us difficult to read. I think Bhutan Observer should explore the possibility of making its website as accessible as that of Kuensel and other media houses.

Visual capcha is another big hurdle to web accessibility. Most of the websites require you to insert the visual capcha to comment on their stories but it’s not possible for the visually impaired readers to recognize it. The screenreading software is not designed to recognize the visual capcha. Some websites offer the alternative audio capcha but that is as good as not having it. The BBS website does have an alternative solution. It requires us to calculate either the sum or difference of the numbers given and type it in the capcha field, but I have never been successful in this. So can we just do it without the capcha? This would certainly enable even the visually impaired readers to actively participate in the discussion forums and comment on the articles. As of now, we have not been able to do it easily. So on behalf of the entire community of persons with disabilities in Bhutan, I would like to request all the media houses, including both broadcasting and publishing sectors, to kindly incorporate our needs in their programs and services so that we can together build an inclusive society where we all enjoy equal privileges and rights.

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