By Tristan Parker
For Channel 4, being the official broadcaster of the 2012 Paralympic Games comes with a lot of prestige, but there are also significant accessibility challenges. If the website and other digital services of this event were not accessible to disabled people, it would be absurd – not to mention catastrophic from a PR perspective.
However, rising to these challenges have helped improve the overall standard and awareness of digital accessibility within the channel, says Paul Edwards, Channel 4’s online programme manager for the Paralympics 2012.
“The fact that we’ve got the Paralympics means that the importance of accessibility internally, within the company, has been raised. So, people who previously didn’t have much knowledge of the challenges of different accessibility needs are now learning about it”, Edwards told E-Access Bulletin.
Edwards explained to the recent eAccess ’12 conference in London ( http://www.headstar.com/eaccess12/ ) how the Paralympics have provided a driver for a number of Channel 4’s separate divisions to come together to improve accessibility.
Although Channel 4 did already have a corporate accessibility programme including role-specific training, and a requirement that all its projects be independently reviewed before going live to ensure they meet accessibility requirements, one of the initial challenges of the Paralympics project was considering the different levels of accessibility experience within different parts of the organisation, said Edwards.
“In TV, the whole issue of accessibility is often something commissioners and producers don’t have to worry about,” he said. “It’s something that’s done once a programme is made, and they can then get it subtitled or add audio description. That’s obviously not case with the web, where accessibility has to be considered from day one.”
Additionally, for Channel 4’s online operations, a significant number of external agencies are used for development work, which presents a further challenge dealing with varying levels of understanding about creating accessible content.
“In the past, we’ve discovered that there’s a big difference between people saying ‘Yes, we understand accessibility’, and having their knowledge properly questioned during a selection process,” Edwards said. “Now, all prospective suppliers have to provide their understanding of accessibility requirements as part of the selection process.”
In broadcasting the Paralympics, Channel 4 will be providing more than 400 hours of live sports coverage – more than ever before in the channel’s history. As part of this task, Edwards and his team have created a number of online platforms specifically for Paralympic content.
Firstly, a Channel 4 Paralympics website has been designed (
featuring schedules, results and live video throughout the Games. The site is supported by mobile apps on iOS and Android systems, all of which have been reviewed by the Digital Accessibility Centre, a non-profit accessibility consultancy, alongside testing by disabled users.
A series of short video features have also been created, including over 200 video diaries from Paralympic athletes and individuals involved with the games, showing their build-up to the event and “60-second guides” to Paralympic sports. Both of these video series are available with closed captions and subtitles.
Several accessible online game-simulations of Paralympic sports have been developed for the site, including boccia, an event which sees players in wheelchairs competing to throw leather balls as close as possible to a ‘jack’ ball on a court, and wheelchair rugby.
Finally, the online video player used to broadcast live sporting events has presented a major challenge for text access. “Live video for sport is a real challenge when it comes to commentary and subtitles, and the accuracy of live captions in this area has been derided for some time”, said Edwards. “The speed at which live sport moves often means it’s unfeasible to produce accurate captions. People have suggested putting a delay in the broadcast, but this is often not acceptable to many viewers, particularly if there’s an equivalent radio broadcast going on at same time.”
To tackle the problem, Edwards and his team have created an online video platform to support text commentary on the right-hand side of the screen. “This won’t necessarily be as comprehensive as full subtitles, but we’re trying to provide a context for what’s happening within the games, while at the same time trying to provide a really good viewer experience”, said Edwards. “I’ll hold my hands up and say that it’s an experiment, but I think it works better than live subtitles for a very fast sport like wheelchair rugby. The challenge is to balance reporting of every piece of action in a sport with the pace of the narrative. We’ve done a lot of tests on that, and we’re getting pretty close.”