The Australian government’s failure to roll out technology that enables television access for 450,000 blind or visually impaired Australians appears to breach anti-discrimination laws, according to the disability commissioner.
Australia lags well behind the rest of the world in its deployment of audio descriptive technology, which narrates television to blind and visually impaired audiences to improve equal access.
Blindness groups have been campaigning for the technology for 20 years, and a government report recommended it be introduced a decade ago.
Trials were held on the ABC in 2012 and a working group has since mapped a way forward but the government is yet to make any firm decision about its rollout, saying only that it is conducting further policy work and is “committed to finding a viable pathway”.
On Thursday, the disability discrimination commissioner, Alastair McEwin, said the absence of the technology was likely a breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.
“In terms of the Disability Discrimination Act, it appears it would be,” McEwin said in Senate estimates, responding to questions by the senator Jordon Steele-John.
“If you are not providing, for example, broadcast services in formats that are accessible to certain groups in the community, then that would constitute discrimination.”
Blind Citizens Australia policy and advocacy coordinator Lauren Henley said the absence of the technology was “frustrating” for the blindness community. Henley said the government appeared reluctant to regulate broadcasters to compel use of the technology, an approach at odds with text captioning, which is required under Australian broadcasting law.
“This is not earth-shattering technology, it’s something that’s existed in every other developed country for quite a while now, and Australia is lagging behind,” Henley told Guardian Australia.
She said there was a tendency to view equal television access as a “first-world problem”. But she said television played a critical role in social inclusion, education and office work, as well as entertainment.
“I was sighted for the first 20 years of my life and then I lost my sight,” she said. “I don’t think I realized how vital the role of television is in today’s society.”
“Think about when you’re going to school and you’re doing English classes, and you’re asked to critique films, that’s a part of the curriculum. A child who doesn’t have access to that is greatly disadvantaged.”
Steele-John, the Greens’ disability rights spokesman, described the lack of the technology as a “profound failure” of both Liberal and Labor governments.
“The absence of this service prevents 450,000 blind and vision-impaired Australians from enjoying television with family, friends and colleagues and is a result of political laziness, not availability of technology,” Steele-John said.
“This is infuriating but not surprising, given there are nine government ministers and two shadow ministers whose website contact forms still use discriminatory Captcha security challenges that can’t be read by screen-reading technology.”
The communications minister, Mitch Fifield, directed Guardian Australia to a recent departmental statement on the issue following the working group’s report.
“The government is grateful to the working group for its deliberations and is undertaking further policy work to determine the appropriate next steps,” the statement said.
“Screen content is an audiovisual medium and the government is committed to finding a viable pathway for much greater access to audio description technology for those Australians with blindness and vision impairments.”