David Blunkett: Broadcasters 'failing' blind and deaf people

David Blunkett David Blunkett claimed broadcasters worshipped younger viewers

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David Blunkett has hit out at broadcasters for "frustrating" subtitles that leave deaf people "scratching their heads".

The MP, who was born blind, also accused TV executives of failing people with impaired vision by not dubbing foreign dramas into English.

Writing in the Radio Times, Blunkett said TV executives were guilty of "worshipping the cult of youth".

"Broadcasters talk a good deal about equality, but preaching is not enough."

The former Labour home secretary said TV chiefs needed to have a "little consideration and forethought" to achieve a "better television experience for everyone".

"In an ageing population, people with hearing and sight impairments are becoming part of the mainstream," he said.

"It's no longer about a minority: We're a major sector of the viewing public, and we have the same rights as everyone else who pays the licence fee."


Subtitlers for live TV shows listen to broadcasts and say what they hear into a microphone; a computer turns these spoken words into text for viewers at home. Sometimes the software translates words incorrectly; hilarious and unfortunate examples are regularly posted to the web. So the problem is mostly about accuracy, though deaf people also complain about the delay in translation.

In pre-recorded programmes like dramas, subtitlers have more time to create and format a script. Audio description is not so commonplace and in the UK has only been widely available for 10 years on TV.

Unless you can speak French, subtitled dramas like Channel 4's The Returned are inaccessible if you can't read the subtitles - this means blind people are excluded from this current trend. But if the show was dubbed by actors, viewers would complain.

Audio Description (AD) is broadcast on a separate channel that you can turn on or off. If an audio describer were to read the subtitles and also explain what's happening on screen - AD's usual job - it may be a complex and unsatisfying listen. It's a debate that broadcasters are currently having.

Blunkett, the first blind cabinet minister, also complained that blind people were left frustrated when foreign dramas and documentaries were not dubbed.

"I would have loved to enjoy The Killing and Borgen, but both shows were screened on BBC Four with English subtitles and no over-dubbing.

"I appreciate that many people don't like dubbed dialogue, but if you're blind it's invaluable - you can piece together the storylines simply by listening to what is said," he said.

Labour's former home secretary accused the TV industry of having an "unstoppable fetish" with pleasing younger viewers.

"It is the trendy, the metropolitan and, yes, the under-40s who determine what we view and what we listen to.

"But much of the spending power reflects an older age group. The ageing population wields a very powerful incentive - our financial muscle," he said.

Subtitles are used by more than a million people with hearing impairments to watch television.

Errors such as a weather forecast which warned of "mist and fox patches" could be fixed, said Blunkett, by investment in technology to improve subtitles, audio descriptions and voiceover translations.


"We need the commitment and will to achieve a better television experience for everyone," he added.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People agreed that "spoken subtitles" in addition to audio description would give "greater access" to blind or partially sighted people.

Start Quote

I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but muttering is something we could have a look at”

End Quote Lord Hall

The charity commended Channel 4 for "taking the lead" when it aired Spanish thriller Julia's Eyes with translations on the audio description feed of Film 4 earlier this month.

Channel 4 said it had received feedback that audiences generally prefer the "authenticity of original voices rather than dubbing".

A spokesperson added that the broadcaster was working with the RNIB to further develop audio description services to make its content accessible "to as wide a group of individuals as possible".

Further efforts to improve subtitling and audio description are being made by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, which is working with deaf and hearing impaired viewers, as well as broadcasters, to address audience concerns.

Introducing a time delay to live programmes is one proposal being considered, with a plan of action due in the next couple of months.

BBC director general Tony Hall has also pledged to help older viewers who struggle to hear programmes over background music.

He told the Radio Times in July that it was important to balance people's needs as they get older with the "creative need of a director to put in music or sounds that help to make the drama or the programme more real and vital".

"I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at," he added.

In response to Blunkett's comments, the BBC said it made every effort to ensure is programmes were accessible to all.

"We are proud of our record of being the first UK broadcaster to subtitle 100% of programmes on our main channels, and we routinely exceed our targets for programmes which have audio description.

"However, as always, we will continue to work to improve the quality of our services."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    And your government failed a nation David!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I agree that dubbing should be used more - I had to give up on all the recent series such as Wallander because I struggle to read the subtitles and actually watch the action in time.

    Surely for high profile drama such as this both those who need subtitles and those who need to hear the words could be catered for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Tele - vision.
    Although I agree that provisions should be made to cater for deaf and blind people, I just think that since this particular media isn't exactly suited to either condition, too much provision isn't fair on sighted and hearing license fee payers. It can't be cheap to implement such extensive interactive content. Programming is already suffering due to slashed budgets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Subtitles are only good for the occasional hilarious gaffe, They rarely convey what is actually spoken.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Whether or not a programme is dubbed into English has nothing to do with an obsession for youth. Considering how the young are branded as lazy, the fact that foreign TV is not dubbed - thus forcing the viewer to actually READ subtitles(!) as well as soak up some of the original language, surely shows TV companies are trying to encourage the viewer to take a more active engagement in their viewing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I was in hospital for the first 3 months of this year, and while we were allowed personal TVs, we either had to use headphones or subtitles. The former made talking to other patients and staff impossible, and the latter were incredibly frustrating due to misinterpretations or mis-keying on the part of whoever (badly) subtitled the programmes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Has Ofcom not heard of the Disabilities Discrimination Act ? EVERY programme should be properly subtitled, including American imports..

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Yeah but like, you know, like one of those fings init, dunno really, Like he said and then she said and it was like Oh My God totally awesome. Yeah he was well sick.

    More subtitles please.......for BBC viewers with an IQ over double figures who don't understand what on Earth they are saying , but are driven by a strange unnatural, and politically incorrect, desire to throttle them warmly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    This leaves broadcasters with a dilemma.

    Would Borgen, The Killing or The Bridge have been so entertaining if they had been dubbed into English?

    I suspect not.

    However, the needs to visually impaired do need to be met.

    Personally I used to listen to R4 and didn't bother with television until I regained my sight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Why is it that every time an African person speaks we get subtitles, yet often their English is clearer and more intelligible than someone born here with a heavy accent ? Only if it is unintelligible do we need subtitles, not just because a person is 'foreign'. Less xenophobia please.

  • Comment number 64.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I often watch programmes at odd times of night with the sound off, the sub titles leave a lot to be desired. Often hours after the original broadcast no repairs or corrections have been done.
    Sometimes I watch with the sound off because of the inaudible diction or thames estuary type vocabulary which should be filtered out. If they can't speak understandable english then why interview them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    It is regrettable that deaf viewers could not fully enjoy Borgen, but I gained immensely from hearing the voices of the Danish actors. Their vocal inflections added meaning to the subtitled dialogue and would have been lost in over-dubbing. Borgen deserved to be heard as originally filmed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    So long as they are optional ala DVD/Blueray where you can choose what you want to see/hear.
    I find them distracting, so for me I would have them disabled, but make them available if required so that everyone can enjoy what is broadcast.

  • Comment number 60.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Had he not spent his tenure at the Home Office eroding our Nations civil liberties and his time at the DWP creating A4E and his future lucrative Directorship of the same, he may have put some energy into pro actively addressing this issue.
    But no ..... too busy using Blair's posterior as his guide dog!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    When live news etc. is being presented, why do we see these jerky, time-lagged and erroneous subtitles? Presenters are normally reading from autocue screens, so why can't the autocue material itself be shown as the presenter speaks? Surely the BBC in particular can afford 21st-century technology?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    In South America I could choose the language I wanted to hear on TV films - similar to DVDs. - usually Spanish or English but also other languages AND subtitles of my choice.

    Great for learning a language.

    Real time subtitles will always be problem because the spoken word - with its 'ems and 'ahs etc - is so different from the written word .

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    If you know the language being spoken, subtitles can be a source of innocent hilarity - but are far better than dubbed or 'voice-over' translations which completely change (ruin?) the programme. Given the technology now available, it should be possible to provide options for those with sensory disabilities without spoiling shows for everyone else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Apart from the odd typographical error on live subtitles, there really isn't much to enjoy about the current service.

    Any chance of a comeback?


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