Philip: I’m speaking with Alex Varley, the outgoing CEO of Media Access Australia. Alex, you’ve been with the organisation since its inception. What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen, in terms of people of all abilities being able to access technology over the years?
Alex: Well, we have seen so much in the last 10 years of Media Access Australia and, of course, the previous 10 years I spent with the Australian Caption Centre. At the first level, I think when I first started in this game, really, the only thing that was kind of accessible was TV and a few videos and, of course, that’s now expanded to TV, cinema, DVD, video-on-demand, the internet, social media. Anything you can think of that’s digital, content-related, now has some form of accessibility somewhere. So that’s the first thing. I think the next thing is that the equipment and technology that people use has also changed so much. So, for example, in the early days it was pretty much Apple only, when you were looking at things like computers and telephones and tablets, and very rapidly Windows and Android have caught up and, in some cases, probably exceeded what Apple has done and that’ s good because, of course, with that has come a competition and dropping in pricings because accessibility in the early days always used to be an expensive option. Whereas, now, and in fact what we’re going to launch after I’ve left is a thing all around affordable access, which is about low-cost accessible solutions. Then the final thing, I think, that’s been the big game changer is where we once had specialist equipment, which used to drive everybody crazy, because it would be very expensive and then would go out of date rapidly, we now have specialist apps that work on mainstream equipment that can do very specific things for accessibility, so lots of changes which you’d expect in this world.
Philip: What have been some of the more memorable moments during your time as CEO?
Alex: Well, there have been so many but I’m thinking this through. There’s a few little stories, I suppose. The first one is, I remember, it was probably 12 or 13 years ago, I sat down with Graeme Innes, the then Disability Discrimination Commissioner, in a DVD inquiry and that’s where actually got the managing directors of the DVD distributors to admit that doing access was a mainstream thing for them and that it probably wasn’t that hard. Then we sat down and worked with their production people to create checklists. In the end we ended up with the highest levels of DVD access in the world, just from actually working with industry. So that was a good lesson in terms of that’s what you have to do. You’ve got to work with all the players and not just complain and advocate without understanding how those things work. The next one, I think, was the day that I interviewed Dr Scott Hollier, a digital accessibility director and expert, and in that interview he showed me the, as then, pretty much unknown mainstream technology access on things like Windows and we decided right there and then to tell the world about that. Here we are, eight years later, where that is just considered commonplace and no one really understood that no one knew about that before. The next thing, I suppose, is TV and when I first started captioning on TV was a voluntary thing and there was a handful of hours. In fact, there were so few hours that we used to publish a monthly guide showing which programs had captions on them and I’m sitting here now with getting very close to a hundred percent captioning across all the different free-to-air TV stations and all the pay stuff as well. So that’s come a long, long way. Social media accessibility, so social media in my lifetime in this business is a relatively new thing but we did a ground-breaking guide on that about four years ago, which just flew around the world and was translated in different languages and adopted by different people. That, you know, made that world of how you communicate with each other in the digital age accessible to people with disabilities in really practical terms. Then probably the last story I will tell is I had the privilege of going to Qatar, just after we released the social guide, because they were interested in trying to develop a whole range of accessibility solutions. I ended up at a blind social club in downtown Doha, the capital city of Qatar, and I had one of the guys there interpreting from my non-existent Arabic into English for me and dealing with the problems at the same time. We were just talking through all sorts of different issues and they mentioned that Apple had just upgraded their operating system and one of the consequences of that was the voice for Arabic became unintelligible and they were just discussing how bad this was and they wanted to go back to the old version. Then they reached out into the world and found out that the Danes had the same problem and they lobbied together and got it sorted out. Apple actually changed the voices for the automatic voices and it just showed me that wherever you are in the world, whatever your language is, the issues are the same and that they actually got amazing change just by working together. I think one of the things I have certainly learned is that by actually working together with lots of different people you can actually change lots of things and it was a very, very simple, humbling example of that.
Philip: How do you see the road ahead? What are some of the current challenges impacting on digital accessibility and what lies just around the corner?
Alex: Well, it’s less of a problem than it used to be but I think in some cases accessibility is still an afterthought and/or it’s the first thing to get dropped when they’re trying to save a bit of money. So I think trying to keep accessibility top of mind, especially as it expands more and more into mainstream consumer spaces and gets away from just the developers and other professionals who may actually have picked up on this stuff through just the work they do or through their training. It’s actually getting ordinary business people to understand that this stuff is really important. I think some really exciting things are things like 3D printing. I mean, I’ve just recently come across that and I’ve seen how it can change the world, even simple things like blind kids sitting in classrooms being able to get tactile models of things that they’re working on just printed in front of them. Then I think that story that was picked up all around the world of a blind woman going for her first ultrasound and then having a 3D model of her foetus printed out and not only was that kind of like, wow, what an experience for her, but I thought everyone is going to want one of those. What a great business idea. I think the next challenge as well is for people to realise that different disabilities are actually individual markets and that they’re valuable in themselves and that they should be treated as individuals and not just lumped together. There’s still a bit of a tendency to say, “What’s the disability market, how do I do disability access?” instead of thinking about the absolutely diverse and sometimes opposite needs, for example, of Deaf people and blind people or people with a cognitive disability. I look at things like the case that was brought against Coles Online for not being accessible and rather than it being, “Oh, we have to make our online shopping accessible and how the hell do we do that and that’s painful and expensive,” is isn’t that a great opportunity to say that there must be a whole bunch of people out there who can’t come into a store. But you can get to them through online shopping. So if you actually went and talked to them and found out how they actually shop, how they choose things and what they need, you could make that work for them and open up a whole new market. So I think there’s lots of opportunities out there like that. I think in the slightly more kind of legalistic sense, the big issue I’m seeing, which is going to play out over the next couple of years, is how do you actually regulate for access in this content world on digital where you can show anything on any device at any time. At the moment all the regulation is around traditional media, like TV, but there’s some battles going on in the UK right now around video-on-demand streaming services and who actually is responsible for putting access on there. And if they are putting access on there, who is responsible for making sure that it works on all the different devices? Now, I have always been an advocate for access should just be part of the content and follow the content but there is some complexity there and it needs to be nutted out. Again, I think people realising that there’s money to be made will help solve all those things.
Philip: Yeah, it usually does, right? If you could be remembered for just one or two things, what do you see as your most important legacies that you’ve achieved for Media Access Australia?
Alex: Okay, well, Media Access Australia is not really about me. I’ve had the privilege of leading it since the beginning, so I haven’t had to buy into anyone else’s vision. The two things I want to talk about are both about people. The first is that I have been very fortunate in that I started off with four other people working with me who are passionate about access and came from the old Australian Caption Centre. Then over the years I’ve built up a team of passionate, inspired experts who have bought into and believed in the vision that I started with, rolled with the punches that we’ve had along the way and certainly celebrated lots of achievements and I know that although my time in this area is finishing, that there are still people there who will keep pushing this and driving this and that’s very, very important. The second thing is that every now and again I get to deal with individuals with disabilities and it can be when you’re at an event or if you answer the phone. I can end up helping somebody with their personal access problem. So, for example, the other day I ended up chatting to a blind man who was getting frustrated at some of the issues around audio description on iTunes movies and we kind of chatted through some of the problems and I think I gave him a few little tips and guidance and he taught me a few things about the way it worked. And that’s really what it’s about, is that you can go an advocate with government and you can go and talk to the big industry and you can present at international conferences and all those exciting kind of things but really what you have got to remember is at the end of the day there is somebody with a disability who, because of what we are doing and helping to do, it actually improves their life in a small way and lets them access stuff that other people just take for granted. That really is what drives me and I know it drives most of the people in this industry. So the legacy is the people out there that need it most are getting better and better things and I know I’ve played a small part in making that happen.
Philip: Any regrets or unfinished business?
Alex: Yeah, the big one is the old audio description on television in Australia. I remember a good 10 years ago I promised Graeme Innes, who was the Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the time and a blind man, that I would help him sort out getting a permanent audio description service on TV and we still haven’t achieved that. We’ve had a trial. We’ve got a catch-up service with the ABC’s iview, but they’re still arguing about it and I must say I can’t believe that it hasn’t happened yet. We’re the only first world country really that doesn’t have audio description on television and that is my great failure, but I will say that I will still keep fighting for that as an individual and private citizen, so hopefully one day that will be sorted.
Philip: Thank you so much, Alex. All the best with what lies ahead for you.
Alex: Thanks very much, Philip, and it’s great to talk to you.
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