Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Speaking notes for presentation at CRTC accessibility hearing (2008.11.19)

I’m Joe Clark. I’m a writer here in Toronto. I’ve been involved in the field of accessibility for people with disabilities for 30 years. I wrote the book Building Accessible Websites, about accessible Web development. I volunteered on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group and the PDF/Universal Access Committee.

I’ve written audio-description scripts for movies. The Atlantic Monthly called me “the king of closed captions.”

You should all take a look at an important article of mine that was just published yesterday in the leading magazine for Web developers, A List Apart. It explains why Web captioning is going to have to be regulated. Look for it at

I’ve been following the CRTC’s reign of error in the world of accessibility since the ’80s. I am the only person in the country who has ever had the temerity to call bullshit on the CRTC, and I am proud to uphold that tradition today.

We should consider this hearing a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I would be happy if it just ended up with truth and reconciliation at the Commission.

Ostensibly this proceeding is about accessibility, but really it’s about a closed-door deal between the CRTC and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the CAB. But first, what’s the central question about accessibility of the broadcasting system? It’s a simple one: Who’s the biggest liar?

Is it the CRTC?

You people at the CRTC have put decades of effort into blocking the rights of people with disabilities to receive broadcasts they can actually understand. The single biggest impediment to full accessibility is you people at the CRTC.

You’ve consistently imposed accessibility requirements on broadcasters that are negligible or a joke.

The CRTC has bought the lie from French-language broadcasters that French is a special, highly complex, unique and independent language.

These broadcasters want us to believe it borders on impossible to caption TV shows in French. French broadcasters almost never have the same captioning requirements that English-language broadcasters have. And you bought the lie that captioning of live shows in French was impossible. But not only is it possible, French broadcasters were doing it in 1996.

You’ve only barely figured out that the minimum standard for captioning is 100%, which really means 99.999%, as I’ll tell you about in a minute. It took a long time for that message to travel from the tail of the brontosaurus to the brain.

That level of captioning isn’t just theoretically attainable, it already has been attained by numerous broadcasters. You just haven’t required everyone else to hit that level. So nobody else is.

And you can’t even apply your own standards consistently. We’re now at the stage where that nifty new Canadian hetero-porn channel, Northern Peaks, has to caption all its porn during the broadcast day, but other channels, including TQS and the educational broadcaster TFO, do not have to caption everything.

Your decades of experience in shortchanging the deaf came in handy when you suddenly realized that blind people can’t understand TV shows without audio description.

You’re much too chummy with the broadcasters who are your former and future employers. And, fundamentally, you agree with everything they do. And there’s no enforcement whatsoever.

So: Are broadcasters the biggest liars?

It’s a plausible case. They’ve claimed for decades that 100% captioning isn’t even necessary. Then they changed their tune and started saying it wasn’t even possible. There’s always a laundry list of items that should never be captioned – shows that aren’t in English or French, anything that runs after midnight, commercials, promos, kids’ shows, porn.

Broadcasters act as though absolutely any electronic impulses that they stuff into Line 21 of the vertical blanking interval are enough to be considered “captioning.”

Broadcasters have finally figured out that the Internet exists for some purpose other than running their BlackBerrys and Microsoft Outlook and now they’re confronted with online video. And they want you to think that online video can’t be captioned and shouldn’t be captioned, despite the fact that online video already is captioned and it’s perfectly possible technically.

And I really have to give broadcasters credit for their ingenuity in continually crying poor while still managing to buy each other out for billions of dollars at a time, and buy the rights to a hockey theme song for seven figures, and buy a news helicopter, and generally spend money on anything other than meeting the legal rights of people with disabilities.

What about the CAB? Aren’t they a pretty big source of lies?

I’d say so. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters would really like you to believe they’re an innocuous “nonprofit organization.” In reality they’re enforcers. They are fierce backroom lobbyists who act like a miniature Motion Picture Association of America.

Twice now they’ve tried some behind-the-scenes nonsense under the guise of writing a captioning “standard.” They don’t know the first thing about standards. They’ve never written a standard in their lives.

Their first attempt at a so-called captioning standard was carried out totally in secret. It’s easier to cross the DMZ into North Korea than it was to get my hands on that document, and when I did, I wrote 10,000 words of commentary that was just ignored.

The first CAB captioning standard was nothing more than a statement of ideology. It was pretty much ignored in the marketplace. And even Jim Roots of the CAD didn’t like it: He told the CRTC it was merely “adequate” and “not completely satisfactory.”

Now, captioning is all about doing what we already know doesn’t work over and over again, so this time the CAB and you people at the CRTC cooked up a secret deal to write another so-called captioning standard.

This won’t be a standard either. It’ll just be the opinions of the people invited on to the secret committee. A lot of them have serious financial conflicts of interest. It won’t be backed up by research, it won’t be user-tested, and it’s gonna be a complete failure too.

Like the first so-called standard, no two captioners will produce the same kinds of captions. It happened before and it’s happening again. And that proves you don’t really have a standard.

In reality, the entire purpose of the broadcasting side of this accessibility proceeding is to ram this secretly-created nonstandard down everybody’s throats.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the most important document we all needed to read for these hearings isn’t done yet. You and the CAB are so hell-bent on secret closed-door processes, you’re so intent on getting an inside job, that you won’t even show us what you intend to impose on us.

I thought 2008 was the year when industry self-regulation was finally proven not to work. Asking the CAB to write a captioning “standard” is like asking the tobacco industry to write a standard for cigarette safety. Putting a bunch of industry lobbyists in charge of captioning is like letting the fox guard the chicken coop. And the chickens are disabled.

What about consultants?

I’ve written quite a few consulting papers in my time, and I’ve published all of them. I don’t work in secret. I also don’t twist the facts to suit my clients’ agenda.

Have a look at the report that the CAB commissioned from Connectus Consulting about audio description. Connectus didn’t even bother to talk to the largest single provider of audio description in the country, Galaviz & Hauber Productions. They do more description than anyone else.

And Galaviz & Hauber has no trouble doing things the report says are impossible, like quick-turnaround jobs. I’ve personally confirmed that not only can they do next-day delivery of a described show, they can do same-day delivery in some cases.

So: What’s the solution?

The solution is full accessibility of the broadcasting system. Full accessibility really means full accessibility, not partial accessibility.

It means 100% captioning, which really means 99.999% captioning. The term used for that number is “five-nines.” You can never hit 100% captioning over prolonged periods, because some little thing is always going to go wrong. But you can hit five-nines-percent captioning.

So: Whenever a broadcaster or a lobbyist or a consultant or just somebody else who works at the CRTC tells you 100% captioning is impossible, they’re correct. It isn’t. But 100% captioning means five-nines captioning, and not only is it possible, it’s being done right now.

But then there’s the question of quality

I am appearing before you as the head of the Open & Closed Project. We’re an independent research project. When I say “we,” I mean me and my researcher friends.

We want to independently research and test a set of standards for captioning, audio description, subtitling and dubbing. We want to do the whole thing out in the open. We want to use the existing research and we want to commission or carry out our own research to fill in the cracks.

Then, when the whole thing is done, we want to test it in the real world for a year to make sure it works, because theory and practice are two different things. Then, finally, we’ll train and certify practitioners, so that captioning and audio description, for example, finally become professional fields with real standards backing them up.

The cost for this is peanuts. Our first-year costs are a half a million bucks. That would barely pay for Ivan Fecan’s bodyguards. We need $5 million to $7 million for the whole project. That’s barely a rounding error in broadcasters’ budgets.

We’ve applied over and over again for funding under social-benefits spending, but of course those are actually backroom deals cooked up by an old boys’ network, so that went nowhere. And you people at the CRTC refused to require broadcasters to fund our project.

We’re the only prospect for an adequate captioning and audio-description standard and I’m tired of waiting around for funding. So I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.

I’m suggesting we almost completely deregulate broadcasting in Canada

Of course the Broadcasting Act authorizes the CRTC to regulate broadcasting in all its forms. I’m saying you should forebear from regulating in most areas.

So: I’m suggesting that only broadcast channels be regulated. Digital channels would be completely unregulated. All they’d have to do is comply with the Criminal Code.

In return, the entire Canadian broadcasting system – absolutely everything, broadcast, digital, and online – would have to be accessible. And the accessibility would have to be done according to independent standards that were developed out in the open and tested to prove they work. In other words, according to the standards my research project would create.

Of course this a naked ploy for funding

This is the most blatant ploy for funding in the history of the country. But it’s based on principle. People with disabilities have a legal right to accessibility and only the broadcast airwaves are a limited public good.

So let’s give broadcasters a nice shiny new licence to print money – just in time, since the old ones are running out. And in return, we ask for a pittance of an investment up front in real standards for accessibility.

If you’re worried about CanCon and French and minority languages and whatnot, you can concentrate all those regulations on the broadcast channels. Companies choose to use the broadcast spectrum and they know what they’re getting into.

Now, the CRTC is all about putting up objections to anything that doesn’t come from the broadcasting sector itself, so let me just tell you up front that this proposal is somewhat out of the scope of this hearing. But once you get back to CRTC world headquarters in Hull, check your fax machine, because this morning I submitted a petition to hold a hearing to consider this deregulation plan. I’m sure it will be popular with the new Minister of Heritage.

Time is up

for you and your broadcaster friends. For 30 years you’ve been doing everything you possibly can to give us no accessibility or not enough accessibility of low-quality accessibility. That isn’t working. And I’ve got a plan to fix it.

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