Legislation & regulation

This section is written largely from an Irish perspective. However, the delivery of television services in Ireland occurs not only in a national legislative and regulatory context, but within European and international contexts. A lot of this information will therefore be relevant to countries outside of Ireland, particularly other European countries.

An international basis for promoting Universal Design in television services is provided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention puts the universal design of information and communication technologies, including electronic services, on the same level as that of transport and the built environment. Article 30 requires signatory states to ensure that people with disabilities can access television programmes in accessible formats. The Convention also requires states to consider accessibility mandates for media, culture and leisure; to promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems; and to promote Universal Design in the development of standards and guidelines. Ireland has signed but not yet ratified the Convention. The European Union has ratified it.

At a European level, in the Universal Service and Users’ Rights Directive, Article 31(1) allows Member States to impose a requirement on broadcasters to include content access services (subtitles, audio description and sign language). It also states that these requirements must be regularly reviewed. The accessibility of digital television receivers is covered under the requirements on terminal equipment in Article 23a(2) (Recital 8 of the Telecoms Framework Directive makes this clear). This requires Member States to encourage the availability of terminal equipment offering the necessary services and functions for disabled end-users.

The Audiovisual Media Services Directive, adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in December 2007 and replacing the Television Without Frontiers Directive, is the European framework for broadcasting content. In addition to traditional broadcasting, it also covers internet television, mobile television and on-demand services. The main provision concerning accessibility is Article 3(c) under Chapter IIA, Provisions Applicable to All Audiovisual Media Services, which states: Member States shall encourage media service providers under their jurisdiction to ensure that their services are gradually made accessible to people with a visual or hearing disability. The directive does not cover equipment requirements. Nevertheless, recital 64 states: The right of persons with a disability and of the elderly to participate and be integrated in the social and cultural life of the Community is inextricably linked to the provision of accessible audiovisual media services.

It only goes as far as to require Member States to encourage media services providers under their jurisdiction to ensure that their services are gradually made accessible to people with a visual or hearing disability.

The EU Disability Strategy 2010-2020 also recognises the role that the EU has to play in television accessibility and refers specifically to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The main piece of Irish broadcasting legislation, the Broadcasting Act 2009, gives a general direction to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to provide a regulatory environment that will facilitate the development of a broadcasting sector that is accessible to people with disabilities. It mandates the BAI to administer and report on the Access Rules, requiring broadcasters to meet specific quotas for subtitling, audio description and Irish Sign Language, expressed as percentages of total broadcast time. Apart from the Access rules, there is little of direct relevance to Universal Design in the Act, aside from the ‘must-offer’ and ‘must-carry’ obligations in Section 77 which can be seen as requiring broadcasters to deliver content access services to network operators (e.g. Sky satellite and UPC cable) and requiring those operators to then pass on those content access services to viewers.

The Disability Act 2005 requires public bodies (e.g. RTÉ) to ensure that their services are accessible for people with disabilities by providing integrated access to mainstream services where practicable and appropriate.

Another general piece of legislation covering television services is the Equal Status Act 2000-2004 which prohibits disability discrimination in the provision of goods and services to the public, whether free or charged for.

Internationally, the exemplary piece of legislation in this area is the 21st Century Video and Communications Act in the United States which was signed into law on 8th October 2010. This is the most progressive piece of legislation yet enacted anywhere concerning television access. It instructs the Federal Communications Commission to define regulations to make Advanced Communications Services (including broadcast and online services) accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. This will include setting deadlines for the delivery of closed subtitling and audio description by audiovisual media providers.