On an Equal Basis with Others: Deaf Community Access to Emergency Broadcasting Through Bushfires and a Pandemic – Part I: Advocating for Access – Shirley Liu


In 2019, as bushfires raged across the lower east coast of Australia, emergency broadcasting became a lifeline to those in affected areas. Australians watched in horror as families huddled on beaches waiting to be rescued and skies turned from smoky grey to red. However, not everyone was able to access the information they needed to stay safe. Press conferences concerning the fires were frequently conducted without Auslan interpreters, and where interpreters were present, they were often cropped from the screen or too small to understand. Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which Australia has been a party since 2008, states that States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to information and communications provided to the public, including emergency services, and shall eliminate obstacles and barriers to accessibility. With climate change and globalisation ensuring that the emergencies will keep coming thick and fast, it has never been more important to ensure that everyone has equal access to information. This post sets out the civil society and legal framework around the rights of deaf individuals in Australia, the issues with access to emergency broadcasting, and a call to action for greater awareness by the mainstream media and political decision makers about the needs of the deaf community. Part II of this series considers how international human rights law deals with access to emergency information for people with disabilities.

Civil society organising for deaf individuals’ rights in Australia

There are several organisations advocating for the rights of deaf people in Australia and internationally. World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is the peak organisation of deaf people globally. WFD currently has 125 Ordinary Members, representing the same number of countries, is a member of the International Disability Alliance and enjoys a strong relationship with the United Nations. WFD’s remit is to advance the human rights of deaf people and to facilitate recognition of sign languages with the CRPD underpinning its endeavours. National governments which have ratified the Convention have a responsibility to enhance the access of deaf people and WFD works with Member States to ensure that deaf individuals’ rights are realised including the right to education, language, participation in society and access to information with sign language crucial to each of these areas.

Deaf Australia, which is a member of WFD, is the peak organisation of deaf people in Australia. Deaf Australia has responsibility for advocating for access, exemplified by access to captioning and Auslan interpreters, including in the health sphere and the National Relay Service (a government initiative that allows people who are deaf, hard of hearing and/or have a speech impairment to make and receive phone calls) and more generally to ensure provision of funding support for the Deaf Community.

The 2019-2020 bushfire crisis

In October 2019, when the bushfire crisis started to be a concern within Australia, access to information was critical, particularly the televised messages from the Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, the Minister for Emergency Services and the Premier. Deaf people were no different in needing and wanting to know the latest developments but they were excluded from this critical information because Auslan interpreters, whose job is to relay information between English and Auslan, were absent from the broadcasts. The role of Auslan interpreters is to convey meaning and are not simply delivering a word for word “English on the hands” translation. 

common misconception is that captions are sufficient to meet the information access needs of deaf people when applied to television. This is certainly one component of access but it doesn’t adequately meet the needsof the deaf population as second language users of English. Auslan interpreters are the most effective medium to ensure life-important information is conveyed and fully understood. For example, during the bushfire crisis similar sounding locations were captioned incorrectly on at least one occasion with the alternate location substituted. At best, this led to confusion by the viewer and at worst could have resulted in devastating consequences for individuals who were making life and death decisions based on this information.

After extensive advocacy, the television networks finally came to the party. This was primarily as a result of representations to politicians initiated by an Australian Deaf protagonist and a social media campaign through Facebook and Twitter. Concurrently in January 2020, I established Auslan Media Access. Initially involving like-minded individuals, membership of the group soon snowballed with more than 3,000 individuals, frustrated by the barriers to media access, uniting to participate in the viral online campaign. The result was a major shift to the approach by the television networks with interpreters then starting to be shown on-screen. This was particularly the case on the ABC as might be expected, given that it is the national broadcaster and subject to Government regulation. Unfortunately, however the commercial television networks at least in the first instance, frequently excluded the interpreters from being seen in-picture when the information was broadcast, despite an interpreter being filmed at the time of the briefing.  During the editing process, the interpreter would be cut from the picture. States were very variable in their provision. This arose because there is no harmonisation of state laws across the country. As an example, Victoria is to be applauded for most often including the interpreter in-shot whereas NSW were slow to respond. After representations, NSW came on board with Channel 7 followed by Channel 9. 

After much agitation, interpreters started to be featured on the TV screen from February/March 2020. Whilst many were engaged in the campaign, some also felt uncomfortable about involving themselves in advocacy, particularly when it involved political representation. Nevertheless, the outcome was that considerable profilewas accorded to deafness and interpreting. Deaf service providers are to be particularly commended for their ongoing provision of teams of interpreters to facilitate interpreting services during this period.

The legal framework

Auslan was recognised by the Australian Government as a language in its own right, a community language other than English, in 1987. However, Auslan is still to achieve the status of an official national language. This is not particularly surprising when one considers that Aboriginal languages have not yet been officially recognised. 

Despite the outcry by deaf people, commercial television networks were actually under no obligation from a national legislative perspective to include the interpreter on-screen. The Australian Broadcasting Services Act 1992, whilst encouraging networks to include interpreters on camera, contains no mandatory requirement. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 is also silent on this issue and needs to be reviewed to ensure its currency. Deaf Australia continues to lobby for changes to these laws as two key pieces of legislation.

The fact that Auslan is not an official language is in stark contrast to the situation in New Zealand in which New Zealand Sign Language has been accorded the status of an official language. Consequently, there has been extensive support for the provision of interpreters from the top down with provision mandatory during emergency broadcasts. More than this, Deaf Aotearoa, the NZ equivalent of Deaf Australia who negotiated with television channels to ensure that that Picture In Picture provision is made so that the interpreter projected is a reasonable size relative to the screen and can be easily seen and understood by deaf viewers. 

International human rights law

From an international viewpoint, the lack of interpreter provision in emergency broadcasts would appear to be a breach of human rights based on Articles 9 and 21 of the CRPD which relate to freedom of expression and opinion and access to information, irrespective of platform. Yet despite Australia being a signatory to the Convention, the rhetoric hasn’t necessarily translated into practice. Part II of this series will consider how international human rights law deals with access to emergency broadcasting.

In the absence of a legitimate legislative foundation, WFD and WFDYS and their national Australian counterparts have played a critical role in disseminating information about the importance of interpreters being evident during life-important televised events – after all such provision has the potential to save lives! 

The “new normal”

As every Australian knows, the bushfire crisis was closely followed by the Coronavirus pandemic. This served to reinforce the importance of featuring interpreters on television broadcasts with provision typically better than had been seen previously despite some recurring issues particularly with regard to the size of the projection of the interpreter on-screen. One can only hope that when the current crisis is over that Auslan interpreter provision on television continues as a part of the “new normal”.

The current Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability also provides an opportunity to alleviate discrimination experienced by deaf people in regard to media access. Through consultation with the people with lived experience, deaf people can submit their experiences of missing out due to the lack of interpreters on television with the intention of creating positive change and high levels of recognition elevating Auslan to the rightful place that it deserves.

On a final note, in seeking to resolve this issue, the Deaf Community needs allies. We don’t want to be ignored, we need people to assist in our fight for equal access – it is not about political agendas, it is about access to information for an important section of the community. Captions are important and certainly are the panacea for some but not all, so the significance of the representation of Auslan interpreters in the media should not be under-estimated. As a linguistic and cultural community, we are calling for greater awareness by the mainstream media and political decision makers about our needs – it needs to be a collaborative effort with review and revision of policies and laws to ensure compliance with UN Conventions. 

This series is continued in Part II, authored by Stephanie Triefus.

Shirley Liu is Vice President of the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section and one of the founders of Deaf Youth Australia. Shirley is a proud Deaf person: she has been profoundly deaf since birth and Auslan is her preferred language. Shirley has a Bachelor of Design and a Diploma of Interpreting, and is the founder of Creative Mint Digital

2 thoughts on “On an Equal Basis with Others: Deaf Community Access to Emergency Broadcasting Through Bushfires and a Pandemic – Part I: Advocating for Access – Shirley Liu

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