How to Reduce Barriers in Digital Space for PwDs?

By Dewi Amira Dania

Recently, an Associate Professor from the Department of Communication of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Dr. Aida Mokhtar and Chairman of Communications and Multimedia Content Forum (the Content Forum), Kenny Ong, appeared on the RTM2 talk show Fresh Brew on Sunday (18 September 2022) to advise on the approaches that the society can adopt to reduce barriers in digital space for persons with disabilities (PwDs). 

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ‘Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’

As explained by Ong, “The Content Forum is an organization under the purview of Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) that consists of…content creators, content publishers, media, broadcasting and many more. The Content Forum self-regulates together with MCMC to create its own rules and guidelines with the advice of MCMC. Hence, everything that you see and hear today via TV, radio and digital in Malaysia is actually regulated through the Content Code.”  

He also mentioned that while conducting a research study in the past year, one of the main ways that the Content Forum has tried to improve the Content Code in Malaysia and the standard of content brought to Malaysians is by informing content creators and broadcasters of new guidelines to follow when creating content so as to include more PwDs. This is to ensure that those with disabilities will not miss out on vital information that is spread through platforms such as live broadcasts. 

When asked about Malaysia’s progress in including PwDs, Dr Aida believes that more can be done to ensure that content creators and broadcasters improve access of PwDs to their programs and content. She added, “There is always something to do, you need to have sign language people coming onboard and they said it costs money.” Many broadcasters have complained about the lack of funds and the high cost of paying for sign language interpreters. 

From an educator’s point of view, Dr Aida has encouraged her students to include sign language interpreters or captions in their webinar assignments. Although she recommends as a more affordable alternative that her students include captions instead. She presses on the importance that captions on her students’ webinars must be correct and accurately written as closed captions can come across as gibberish and this can be insensitive to use and it can also be a nuisance for those with disabilities to read. “They (broadcasters) have to make that effort because if not, you are excluding PwDs and it is not fair. How would you feel if you were excluded from anything? It doesn’t feel good,” she said. It is a very noble act to include them in this way so that they can access different content easily. 

She also said that another critical matter to remember is that we will not all be able-bodied forever. As we age, we can become disabled ourselves. Therefore, it is essential to include those with disabilities in our content in any way we can.

According to the programme’s host, Nabil, as people without disabilities, we may not understand the challenges and discrimination that people who are disabled go through every day.  Many large corporations have tried to improve accessibility to those who are disabled. For example, some Google devices have an auto caption feature where whatever audio produced by the gadget will be subtitled. Even sounds like train noises will be captioned as ‘train noises’ and this is especially good for those who have disabilities. 

When Ong mentioned about other provisions that the Content Forum is concerned about, there are two major keywords that the Content Code has specified with regards to PwDs; first, neutrality and second, accessibility.

Neutrality means that the content itself must refer to PwDs in a neutral manner. For instance, a lot of content creators on digital platforms use offensive terms when refering to PwDs. Thus, in the Content Code it states that you cannot use these offensive terms in your content. All content creators must abide by this rule in order for content to be neutral for all so that when PwDs are represented there is no bullying taking place and no terms that make them feel offended or out of place. The second important keyword in the Content Code is accessibility. Important programmes like the national news should be made accessible to everyone including those who are disabled. News about the COVID-19 pandemic and the national floods must be made aware to everybody as well, and this is particularly crucial because they affect lives. 

For Dr. Aida, other than providing subtitles, audio transcription and video transcription, a key way to make content more accessible to PwDs is to involve them in the content creation itself. She mentioned that broadcasters and content creators should actively involve PwDs in the industry by making them journalists, TV program hosts and the like. Getting PwDs involved in the content production process also makes us automatically aware of the level of sensitivity we must have as we work with them and they can share their experiences through the content they hep to produce because they know best. 

An approach from the educator’s perspective was adopted by Dr. Aida to increase people’s awareness surrounding PwDs. She encouraged her Communication students to approach PwDs, parents who have children with disabilities or experts on disability studies for their webinar assignments on the theme ‘Care for Disability Inclusion’. She highlighted that the format of the webinars was in the form of engaging conversations with these people so that they can share their experiences and knowledge while using sensitive language, to others. 

She also underscored that with all things considered, the whole idea is that we as a society have a moral obligation to include PwDs in all of our endeavors. Students in Communication have created awareness of disability inclusion and the students of various departments in IIUM’s Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design (KAED) recently proposed five designs for the IIUM’s upcoming Community-Based Rehabilitation Centre, which she evaluated. Everyone should contribute to creating awareness or helping PwDs in their own capacity.

While many believe that it is a challenging to include them when broadcasting, especially from a financial point of view, we have to understand that anybody can become disabled at any point in time and that we will not all be able-bodied forever. Hence it is crucial that we form a mutual understanding with those who are disabled and try to relieve the burden of everyday tasks that we take for granted such as watching the news or listening to the radio. 

The RTM2 Fresh Brew programme on PwDs-How Do We Reduce Barriers in Digital Space? could be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3Eokt1GBg0 ***

(Dewi Amira Dania is a student from the Kulliyyah of Medicine, IIUM. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)

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