The media has a tough job to do. And it does it, by and large. Sometimes falling short, sometimes rising to the occasion. One of the areas where it has fallen short – consistently – without even considering the possibility of making amends, is in being inclusive; in including persons with disability, finds Shamya Dasgupta
Radio, by its very nature, cannot attract the hearing impaired. Similarly, the print media – except for the speciality publications – cannot do much for the blind. And so on and so forth for the other mediums. This brings us to the one truly audio-visual medium: television. And more specifically, for the purposes of this discussion: television news channels vis-à-vis the large visually-impaired population of the country.
Let’s take a look at an average Indian news channel: there will be an anchor reading out the news (more often than not with visuals running on the screen); there will be a news-ticker running at the bottom of the screen, flashing important and less important news items of the moment; there will be a little box somewhere near the ticker flashing either the temperature in various parts of the country or the ups and downs of the stock market, or the score at a cricket match India is playing in. Often, the anchor will be reading out news in conjunction with graphics on the screen instead of visuals, as is usually the case with business channels or business segments in mainstream news channels. This is the ordinary day, when no tsunami has hit South Asia or the US troops haven’t dug Saddam Hussain out of a rat-hole and started shaving his beard off.
Who follows this news? Everyone who falls within the demographics of the news channel we are discussing. Demographics, worked out according to the economic background, education, social standing and, technically, including blind and visually impaired viewers. Yes, it is the audio-visual media, and the visually-impaired fit only half of this definition.
Therefore, the role of the anchor is vital. The anchor’s there to bring in the ‘audio’ part of the audio-visual factor. And that brings visually impaired viewers into the picture. Blind viewers can’t see the tsunami waves hitting the Indonesian coast, but when the waves wreak their havoc, the anchor explains it, painting a comprehensive enough picture for blind viewers.
But what happens to the ticker running at the bottom of the screen? Or the news flashes? Or the scroll that is played out to loud music or showing the viewer what the big news items of the day are? Are blind viewers not supposed to know what’s going on apart from the news the anchor is reading out?
“Definitely the blind suffer a great deal. It’s not just about news flashes and the ticker, because sometimes, much later, the news items from the tickers are also analysed. But what about graphics and charts during business news? It’s assumed that everyone can see the details, and only a fraction of what is on screen is read out. What about helpline phone numbers that appear at the bottom of the screen? What about cricket scores? We are aware that a lot of the information is excluding us. And it’s not like the number of blind people with access to televisions and interested in the news are less,” says Kanchan Gaba, Calcutta-based advocate and Head of West Bengal Branch of the National Association for Blind. Incidentally, also blind.
What’s the industry’s take on the matter?
A few – exactly 10, to make working out the percentages easier – television news professionals were approached to answer on the matter. [We won’t take their names, because of their affiliation to different channels.]
- 80% felt that their medium didn’t include the blind as far as partaking of information is concerned; 20% felt there was no problem.
- 40% felt the biggest area where the blind are excluded is in the weather bulletins; 40% said it was the ticker, stocks update, cricket scores, etc; 10% said that the visuals might not be explained comprehensively at all times; 10% said all the important news is eventually read out. [We would like to ask here: Who defines what is important?]
- 100% felt that the reason why news channels can’t be more inclusive than they are at the moment is because of the time factor.
- 70% felt that if the time factor could be compromised with – at least for an hour every day – visually impaired viewers can be included almost entirely; 30% said it was not logistically possible.
Not encouraging at all, really. “It’s somewhat inclusive, but that’s incidental,” says Anita Ghai, advocate for the rights of disabled women, and Lecturer at Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi. “There’s no attempt at including the blind. It’s the whole social construction, and that’s not about to change.”
Staying with television news channels, we come to the other part of the discussion: to do with what Ghai refers to as a social construct, and an identification of disability. Of people with disabilities who are invited to be part of the panel in discussions and debates. Seldom will you see a person with a disability – who is as qualified as your mainstream alternative when it comes to speaking her/his mind on her/his topic of specialisation – being invited for a talk that isn’t concerned directly with disability rights. The only time persons with disability are seen, for instance, on ‘The Big Fight’ on NDTV or on game shows such as ‘Antakshri’ on Zee, is only when the topic has something to do with disability Why can’t we see disabled participants or panellists when the topic is on anything else? When a disability-related issue is being discussed, however, all these names are ticked out from a notebook and brought together, and with tears in their eyes, the anchors ask, “How does it feel?” This blinkered view assumes that disability is the only topic about which persons with disability are knowledgeable about; it assumes that persons with disability do not have opinions on, or are not interested in, other aspects of life and living.
Let’s use a sporting example to put the example into perspective: the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore wins silver in the men’s double trap shooting event, does the country proud, is invited everywhere to give discourses on everything to do with Indian sport. A month later, Devendra Singh breaks his own world record to win the javelin throw gold at the Athens Paralympic Games. [The Paralympics are traditionally held exactly a month after the Olympics at the same venue.] No one knows about him. He is not invited anywhere for his views, nor is he an automatic choice for all the other perks that sporting heroes usually are entitled to.
Singh is, eventually, called for a discussion on a news channel. Months later. The topic for discussion: How disabled-friendly is India as a nation? Why Singh? Why not Rathore? Couldn’t he have given his views on India’s disability-friendliness or -unfriendliness? And why couldn’t a Paralympic world record-breaking gold medallist be part of a general discussion on Indian sports? “Evidently, they (the television news media) feel the Paralympics is not important. It’s considered a field where the ‘abnormal’ are just given a chance to play about. If you do well, a pat on the back for encouragement is enough. It is like, ‘Be happy you’ve been given a chance; don’t expect anything else’,” Singh says.
To go back to our little research with 10 television news professionals:
- 100% accepted this as a reality, and felt something had gone wrong somewhere.
- 100% felt that professionals or practitioners or achievers should be invited to debates irrespective of their disabilities.
- 70%, however, felt that it’s improbable that people with disabilities will be considered for a discussion on a topic that doesn’t deal with disabilities; people like senior Congress member Jaipal Reddy being the exception; 30% felt it shouldn’t be a problem, and things will change.
“For the longest time,” Ghai tells us, “I used to be invited only for programmes on disability, because of my own disabilities. That’s stopped, because I started refusing. The problem is that disability is often linked with deficiency. It’s assumed that people with disabilities have reached where they have because of their handicap and various benefits. So the approach, right from the beginning, is negative.”
“Also”, a regular at some news programmes on disability tells us on condition of anonymity, “you’ll see lobbies working there as well. You will find the same set of people at programmes on disability in news channels, and there’s not much scope for others to be invited.”
To round off this discussion, we go back to Gaba. “The problem is that even after all these years, we are still at the stage where we are talking about awareness. We are still looking for acceptance. We can do a PIL [Public Interest Litigation] on it; there are enough laws. But that’s not the solution. As for the news media, I agree that 100% of the content can’t be duplicated for the benefit of the blind, but 75% to 80% can be. Commercialisation has to be compromised with, simply because the media has to learn to be more responsible.”
To that, we add, the media has to learn to be more inclusive. It’s, after all, within the demographics they work in. Who will take up the challenge?