The debate about equal access to online content has been going on for many years. By ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted on 13 December 2006, most states have committed to ensuring access for persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, to information and communication technologies and systems.
In the Netherlands this was established in the policy known as “apply or explain”, whereby an organization has to make sure all content is accessible or explain why it is not. On 1 July 2018 this obligation was made law in an order (Wet- en regelgeving) implementing EU directive 2102 of 26 October 2016. This directive aims to approximate the laws of member states relating to the accessibility requirements of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies, thereby enabling them to be more accessible to users, particularly persons with disabilities. All public sector bodies should provide and regularly update a comprehensive and clear accessibility statement on the compliance of their websites and mobile applications with this directive.
Accessibility of online videos of debates
The directive distinguishes between pre-recorded time-based media and live time-based media. Time-based media is defined as media of the following types: audio only, video only, audio-video, audio and/or video combined with interaction.All pre-recorded time-based media published after 23 September 2020 should be accessible. There is an exception for live time-based media. In some cases it might be justified not to make specific content fully accessible because it would impose a disproportionate burden – for example, an excessive organizational or financial burden. Providing live subtitles for every debate is such an example; it involves high costs, and only very few companies or individuals are able to provide live subtitling.
Live subtitling in EU parliaments
In January 2018 we asked European parliaments through an ECPRD request whether they provided real-time subtitles for debates. Of the parliaments that responded, those in the following countries did not: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden. Portugal provided sign language. Only France, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom (partially) provided live subtitling of debates.
Although, according to directive 2102, parliaments are required to make information accessible, specifically to the deaf and hearing-impaired, very few parliaments chose to do so by offering live subtitling. The questions asked via the ECPRD at the time were primarily intended to learn from other parliaments how to set up a subtitle service in practical terms. We did not ask why a parliament did not offer subtitles and cannot, therefore, make a conclusive statement about this. Possible reasons for not doing so include the cost, the hours involved and unfamiliarity with the applicable directive.
We cannot make conclusive statements about future developments. We do, however, expect more and more parliaments to offer subtitles in the future, because parliaments will likely follow the good example of others and because the software is getting better and cheaper every day.
History of live subtitling at the Dutch House of Representatives
In 2002 live subtitling was discussed at the Dutch Parliament. Secretary of State Cees van Leeuwen declared that the national broadcast company, NOS, should be ordained to subtitle a certain percentage of the material broadcast, because of its importance for deaf and hearing-impaired people. If the broadcaster refused to co-operate, budget cuts would be considered. Over the years the significance of subtitling for the hearing-impaired became more apparent and Parliament realized that it should offer subtitling itself, so in 2013 it started thinking about ways to offer this service. It considered its Parliamentary Reporting Office the most logical actor to take on this job, as its employees are familiar with parliamentary jargon and are available during sittings.
In January 2014 two PRO employees visited the national broadcaster to receive their first subtitling instructions. Shortly after this visit, the two employees started exercising with a provisional set-up. By fall 2014 a team coordinator was appointed to be responsible for the subtitling service. He informed Parliament’s management of the first outcomes of the subtitling trial, which led to a presentation and live demonstration by the two PRO employees during a Parliament management team lunch in June 2015. It was a success: the management team was enthusiastic about the project.
Between October 2015 and March 2016, subtitling of the Dutch Question Time on Tuesdays was discussed on various levels of the Parliament organization. After two Members of Parliament, Linda Voortman and Otwin van Dijk, asked the Government to remove the obstacles to disabled persons actively taking part in democracy, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Reporting Office started training two more reporters to become subtitlers.
During the annual Budget estimate in June 2016, the President of the Parliament said that Question Time would be subtitled from September onwards and that, if well received, subtitling would possibly be extended to other debates. However, it took until January 2017 for the live subtitling of Question Time pilot to start. In January 2018 it became standard practice to provide live subtitles during Question Time. Shortly after this, some 20 other important debates were also subtitled. More subtitlers were trained, and by 2019 the Reporting Office had 10 subtitlers. The subtitling facilities were consequently expanded, making it possible to subtitle various meetings simultaneously.
Live subtitling in general
The Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office produces subtitles via re-speaking. The speaker’s quality of speech – including logic, grammar, speed, fluency and intelligibility – has a large impact on the subtitler’s workflow. The subtitler is a real multitasker in this process. The work is comparable to that of a simultaneous interpreter: the subtitler has to listen attentively, store information, reformulate, summarize and pass on the information by re-speaking fluently at the same time. Additionally, she or he has to operate the software and hardware, taking into account the reading speed, general knowledge and error tolerance of the audience.
The process of live subtitling requires a specific skill set. The subtitler has to be able to choose quickly between passing on as much information as possible and correcting as many mistakes as possible, as making mistakes is an inevitable consequence of the speed of the process. However, the PRO subtitlers feel that many skills used in writing reports, such as editing and processing large amounts of information, are also useful for subtitling. Therefore, live subtitling is seen as an interesting and valuable addition to the regular reporting practice.
Michiel Haanen, Selma Hoogzand and Marleen Petrina-Bosch are parliamentary reporters and live subtitlers at the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office.
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). (2006).Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html#Fulltext
Directive (EU) 2016/2102 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 October 2016 on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies. Retrieved from: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32016L2102&from=EN
Wet- en regelgeving. (2018).Retrieved from: https://www.digitoegankelijk.nl/beleid/wet-en-regelgeving