The importance of Accessibility in Rai Public Radio and Television Service: accessible audiovisual models and languages

by Maria Chiara Andriello.

Rai is a broadcaster – a Public Service Concessionaire – and for this reason it must respond, in terms of accessibility, to specific obligations established from time to time by the Service Contract – signed between RAI and MIMIT (formerly MISE) -.

The fact that Rai is required to comply with specific obligations in this regard is an indication of how the importance of Accessibility is recognized at institutional level and always at institutional level how its role as a “public service” is recognized.

Accessibility must increasingly be considered a “service” to be guaranteed to citizens, because it is only through Accessibility that we can achieve full sharing of any “good” among everyone.

But what type of accessibility must a public broadcaster satisfy?

The accessibility that Rai as public broadcaster has to achieve is the Accessibility of communication: this is an Accessibility aimed at allowing anyone to understand the content of an image and/or a sound.

In summary, the services offered by Rai – specifically by the Public Utilities Directorate with its Accessibility Structure – are those services allowing deaf people to “decode” everything that is sound – through subtitles and translation into the sign language – and blind or visually impaired people to understand what the images represent and depict – through the audio description technique -.

The evolution of institutionally imposed compellings, and the notable increase in accessible products created by Rai in recent years – well beyond the minimum limits set by the mentioned Service Contract – clearly demonstrate how we are increasingly understanding that:

  • an accessible product has an increased communication capacity
  • there can be no true inclusion without Accessibility
  • Accessibility is not a service for a few, but a common good useful to all.

When you create an accessible product, i.e. a product in which audio and video are accompanied by a subtitle and a description of the images, you effectively create a product that everyone can perceive activating the available senses in a given moment.

The communicative capacity of the “Accessible” product is increased because it is able to reach everyone: in this way, both a deaf person and a blind person can be able to understand the contents of sounds and images and the sensations that sounds and images arouse.

We must acquire the awareness that without widespread accessibility, there can never be true inclusion.

If we continue to keep part of users out of informative, cultural, customs communications and social phenomena because they cannot hear that information or cannot see those images, true inclusion will never be achieved.

It is no coincidence that in recent years there was a notable increase of RAI accessible products through translation into Italian Sign Language (LIS), both because LIS had official recognition in 2021 but also, and above all, because over the years, the requests gradually increased from the Associations of deaf, asking for the use of LIS as an additional communication method.

Therefore, starting from the traditional LIS news programs – which Rai has been producing for over 20 years – the accessibility in LIS has been extended to the most important institutional communications, to electoral stands in the event of political elections and/or referendums, to musical shows and to cultural contents.

Rai, as a public broadcaster, is also the largest cultural enterprise in Italy and precisely by virtue of this important and delicate role, Rai can provide a fundamental contribution in starting and consolidating an awareness and promotion campaign of the cultural value of Accessibility.

About this, the statement reported by the online newspaper regarding “accessible Sanremo” goes precisely in this direction: “The operation that RAI is carrying on as a Public Service has great cultural and social relevance”.

Talking about Accessibility of Communication, another fundamental consideration is the indispensability of the human factor and its high professionalism: this consideration is supported by the experience of those who daily create Accessibility services.

Obviously, technology is fundamental. Both to support creation processes and to spread it – let’s think of the web and all the devices that reach an infinite audience of users and also allow to the personalization of accessibility services – but all this must remain under human control, because communication is something that happens between human beings and cannot be left to the automatisms of technology, even if it is continually evolving and progressing.

With the previously stated objective of considering Accessibility as the primary driver of cultural diffusion, as Rai Pubblica Utilità, we also began to deal with museum Accessibility: the techniques for creating Accessibility in museums are the same techniques used to create the accessibility of an audiovisual, i.e.: subtitles, LIS and audio description.

The first experience on museum accessibility was carried out during the Covid19 pandemic, when each of us experienced the condition of “isolation” and when the use of the web was often the only way to interact with others and with the world.

Precisely in that period, the Uffizi Gallery created a virtual exhibition dedicated to Dante with 92 paintings by Federico Zuccari: but blind and visually impaired people were excluded from enjoying it. Therefore, we activated a collaboration with the museum of Florence and created the audio descriptions of these 92 works allowing blind people to be able to access and appreciate their beauty. The result was the creation of an artwork within an artwork: historical and literary references were added to the objective description of each individual panel, reproducing a fascinating and engaging “Dantesque atmosphere”, such that even sighted people preferred enjoy the exhibition also through the descriptions.

Accessibility improves enjoyment for everyone.

The creation of Museum Accessibility also continued through a collaboration with the Capitolini Museums, which led to the creation of audio and video in LIS with subtitles, to guarantee the usability for blind and deaf people of the Helmut Newton Legacy photography exhibition – hosted in Ara Pacis Museum – from October 2023 until March 2024.

In creating museum accessibility, it is obviously necessary to take into consideration the needs of blind people; therefore, we must narrate what cannot be seen, also with reference to materials and spatial indications; the narrative must be constructed considering the historical and cultural location of the artist and artwork; the audio must therefore be accompanied by a video project which will be subtitled and translated into LIS. In this way, we can obtain an audio-video guide enjoyable through a QR code (perhaps in Braille) which can also be activated from a smartphone, or through uploading the videos onto tablets available to users, or – for audio files only – through the audio pens.

I want to end with the hope that we can realize a true cultural revolution where everyone understands that in a society considered truly civilized it is necessary to create products that are accessible from the beginning and therefore to move from the concept of ACCESSIBILITY as an accessory SERVICE of a product, to the concept of ACCESSIBILITY as the FOUNDATION and ESSENCE of the product itself.