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20 February, 2009

Stay disabled

On Monday, Peter Horrocks, the head of the BBC's multimedia newsroom, sent an internal e-mail to TV newsreaders asking them to read out telephone numbers and internet addresses featured in broadcasts, rather than simply say "you can see the number/address on screen now", for the simple reason that the blind and partially-sighted can't access the information visually.

This seems entirely reasonable and utterly uncontroversial to me, but the e-mail, leaked to newspapers, has triggered a deeply disappointing micro-scandal, in which a simple technique to accommodate a significant minority of the population – without even inconveniencing the sighted majority – has been condemned as 'political correctness gone mad'. I wouldn't have expected that even from sensationalist journalists*, but the comment threads on the newspapers' websites, and accompanying Horrocks' response, overwhelmingly agree.

This isn't 'political correctness', which is usually defined as a petty-minded attempt to avoid giving offence where none exists. It's a straightforward means of providing information. Simple as that. What's the problem?

Bizarrely, some have dismissed the practical aspect as irrelevant, attacking the 'real reason' for the policy: that, allegedly, it's not about genuinely helping people, but merely a fear of litigation. I'm not sure how the commenters have access to Horrocks' 'true' thought process, nor why his inner motivation is relevant, but even if he was merely doing his job in protecting the BBC, that would have been entirely appropriate. Accessibility legislation does exist (DDA 1995 & SENDA 2001 in particular), and if a public-sector broadcaster willfully excluded a section of its customers it would, rightfully, be liable for prosecution.

The particularly disturbing aspect of the press/public response is that people want to deliberately avoid helping people, to avoid being seen to be helping people. I don't think that's hyperbole: commenters genuinely seem to want the vision-impaired to muddle-along rather than oblige sighted TV viewers to hear a URL being read aloud: a 3-4 second imposition into their busy, busy lives. Oh, the hardship.

*: Amusingly, one critic was Emma Hartley, the Daily Torygraph's style guide editor and author of 'Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?'. An experienced expert on disability and social policy, then. ****ing hack.


Utter bollocks. You don't even need to be blind/partially sighted to find it useful - if you're only half watching while doing something else it's handy too.

The fact that I can still remember the phone number for Live & Kicking years and years after it was broadcast is testament to the catchy spoken theme that was used when announcing the number.

Posted by Neil T. at February 20, 2009 02:02 PM

I always parse the phrase "It's political correctness gone mad" to mean "I am a deeply stupid small-minded bigot who believes everything I believe in the Daily Mail".

Posted by Tim Hall at February 20, 2009 05:08 PM
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