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Understanding Media Accessibility Quality

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - UMAQ (Understanding Media Accessibility Quality)

Reporting period: 2017-09-04 to 2019-09-03

One of the major consequences of the information revolution is the increasing pervasiveness and ubiquity of media artefacts (i.e. products, services, and environments) in the most diverse aspects of society. Media artefacts offer an unprecedented opportunity for eliminating discrimination and creating an inclusive society. A crucial role in this scenario is played by media accessibility. As a research area, media accessibility took its first steps within the field of translation studies, and its focus was on overcoming sensory and linguistic barriers for certain social groups. Thanks to a series of factors, including its hybridisation with other fields as well as the radical changes brought about by information and communication technologies, media accessibility has now outgrown those borders and reached a new position. Media access services are now considered to be strategic instruments for guaranteeing the human rights of all, not only those facing sensory or linguistic barriers. For many years, the attention of the main stakeholders has focused on promoting policies and practices that would enable the widespread adoption of media access services (i.e. quantity). More recently, attention has been shifting towards the quality of these services. This new phase acknowledges that providing access services does not automatically guarantee the provision of access, nor of social inclusion. The quality of the experience provided by those services matters as well. However, looking closely at the landscape of quality in media accessibility, the resulting situation is fragmented. This disjointed situation is mostly due to the absence of a theoretical framework for understanding the new position of media accessibility, which in turn affects the understanding of quality in media accessibility. This problem has a real effect on the lives of people, for it may lead to a ghetto effect, exacerbating old forms of exclusion and discrimination or even creating new ones. The urgency of addressing this fragmented situation has been acknowledged by many actors and in many contexts, such as the preparatory documents for the European Accessibility Acts, because non-harmonised approaches to quality in media accessibility could create new social, cultural, and economic barriers.
The general aim of the UMAQ project was to tackle this conundrum and investigate the possibility of devising a wider and more unified vision able to address the problem of quality in media accessibility. The project decided to adopt an informational perspective and a blended top-down/bottom-up approach. The choice was grounded upon two main reasons: (a) the profound influence of information technologies on the growth of media accessibility; and (b) the fact that the field of information quality has a rich range of well-tested theories, methods and models to analyse quality problems. In the very first steps of the project, it became clear that, in order to investigate the possibility of a unified vision for understanding quality in media accessibility, the devising of a general theoretical framework able to account for the new position of media accessibility per se was needed. Consequently, the project first theorised such a novel framework, called accessibility studies, and defined it as the research field concerned with (a) the critical investigation of accessibility processes and phenomena, and (b) the design, implementation and evaluation of accessibility-based and accessibility-oriented methodologies. Within this framework, media accessibility assumes a universalist, non-discriminatory account, as the area dealing with (a) providing access to media artefacts as well as (b) the use of media artefacts in order to provide access to different aspects of life for those who cannot adequately (that is, in terms of their specific needs or wishes in a given context) access them in their original form. Then, the project used the accessibility studies framework and the universalist account to examine the problem of quality in media accessibility. This allowed for novel insights and results. Borrowing from the field of information quality the notion that quality is multidimensional, the application of the lens of accessibility studies to the analysis of the current debate on the topic led to two main insights. On the one hand, there was the identification of a synecdochal fallacy: the tendency of media accessibility research, policies and practices to focus on a few quality dimensions, but then draw sweeping conclusions on quality in general. On the other hand, the predominance of translation-based quality dimensions was recognised; that is, the dimensions ignored or minimised are often the ones that do not involve forms of translation. Thanks to the specific angle provided by the new theoretical framework, the project then introduced the notion of “media accessibility quality” as an overarching notion able to account for both the multidimensionality of quality in media accessibility and the fact that some of its dimensions are non-translation-based. This top-down work was complemented by bottom-up activities, including the organisation of a conference (held on 4-5 June 2018), through which feedback from various sources was gathered in order to test, refine, and strengthen the model. Furthermore, the general analysis led us to identify how some of the problems connected to various conflicting or narrow conceptions of quality in media accessibility could be traced back to the ways in which media accessibility is introduced in education and training programmes, and how such programmes are structured. In line with the accessibility studies perspective, the project then devised a new paradigm for the design and implementation of said courses, through the implementation of “critical learning spaces”. Finally, the innovative perspective instantiated within accessibility studies favoured a new look at the role of technology - and thus, technology-related quality dimensions - in the area of media accessibility. This led to a novel, threefold classification of media access services: a first classification into translation-based and non-translation-based media access services; a second classification according to the human-intensive and technology-intensive axes; and a third classification whereby media access services are placed along a human-technology continuum: from human-only to human-centred/technology-assisted to human-assisted/technology-centred to fully automated services.
The project has significantly contributed to the advancement of the scientific community, as the perspective of accessibility studies has been rapidly spreading and fostering debate in the field. The project has also had direct impacts. For example, the idea of critical learning spaces, as well as the perspective of accessibility studies in general, has already been implemented within two European projects. Both deal with the design of training curricula for various media access experts. Finally, policies on media accessibility are moved by an intent to promote equity and social justice. But in order to reach them, the quality of services and of experiences provided by media access services is crucial. The project’s results offer a strategic contribution to the revision and strengthening of European policies on media accessibility, for they provide a framework for analysing their limits and devising corrective solutions.