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Culture and research

Sign language made easier - The European strategy to improve media accessibility

17 Jun 2021

Giacomo Inches

CONTENT4ALL is an Innovation Project co-funded by the European Commission within their multiannual research and innovation framework programme, Horizon 2020, which took place between September 2017 and November 2020 with grant nr.762021. The project aimed to explore technologies and algorithms to facilitate the production of sign language content for TV broadcasters and to make more content accessible to deaf communities. CONTENT4ALL was a collaborative project implemented by a consortium of six different organisations, under the coordination and direction of Fincons Group, a large system integrator with a strong international presence. In addition to Fincons, the project includes two research entities, the University of Surrey in the UK and the Fraunhofer HHI Research centre in Germany, two TV broadcasters – VRT in Belgium and SwissTXT in Switzerland – and one SME, HFC Human-Factors-Consult GmbH in Germany. Deaf communities were involved through their representative organisations in Switzerland (Swiss Federation of the Deaf SGB-FSS), Belgium/Flanders (Adviescommissie VGT, Doof Vlaanderen and VGTC). 

Funding research projects like CONTENT4ALL is one of many ways the European Union (EU) meets the requirements set by Art.30 and 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention affirms the right to full participation in cultural life, recreation and leisure for persons with a disability, who should enjoy access to cultural materials, television programmes, films, theatre and other events in accessible formats, including the internet, without barriers and discrimination. 

There are at least three other EU initiatives worth mentioning: 

1) The EU Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications. This Directive requires that all EU member states meet common accessibility standards in public bodies’ websites and mobile apps. The Directive was transposed into the laws of each EU member state by September 23, 2018 and is based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 of W3C; 

2) The Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), approved in 2018, governs EU-wide coordination of national legislation on all audiovisual media – both traditional TV broadcasts and on-demand services and 

3) The European Accessibility Act, a law that would make products and services in the EU more accessible for persons with disabilities. The Accessibility Act again takes the form of a Directive, which is legally binding, so that EU member states have an obligation to apply the Act to make certain products and services accessible, including smartphones, tablets and computers, ticketing machines and check-in machines, televisions and TV programmes, online shopping websites and mobile applications. In order to comply with this new legislation, not only public sector organisations but also private companies need to monitor the accessibility of their services and products, as well as their media content. 

The whole European legislative framework and its current implementation is presented in more detail in a recent study called “ICT accessibility assessment for the Europe region”, published at the beginning of 2021 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 

As outlined above, although current legislation is quite rich and prescriptive for content producers and broadcasters regarding improving the accessibility of their content, the effort required to produce sign language content has relegated sign language programming to late nights or a small number of sign-presented programmes. CONTENT4ALL, instead, proposed a low-cost solution to create sign-interpreted versions of most TV content produced for the hearing, thanks to a “virtual human”, animated by a professional sign language interpreter who can work remotely. In addition, CONTENT4ALL employed artificial intelligence tools to explore systems for automatic sign language generation via the virtual human and for a specific domain, like sports news or news about COVID. This work resulted in a series of publications in top-tier journals and conferences, as well as two Best Paper awards at the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in 2019 and 2020. 

Moreover, for the technologies employed, CONTENT4ALL was also awarded the NAB Technology Innovation Award 2020, which recognises innovative projects that are not yet commercialised but can potentially have a great impact on the broadcasting industry. Although the CONTENT4ALL project ended last year, its legacy is continued by two new Horizon 2020 projects: EASIER (grant nr. 101016982) and SignON (grant nr. 101017255).  The focus of these two new projects is to create a framework, including a mobile app, to reduce communication barriers between deaf and hearing European citizens in their daily life. 

These projects kicked off in January 2021 and in the next three years it will be possible to interact with them, for example through questionnaires or polls. This contribution will help make accessibility great again, which is also the slogan of the LEAD-ME COST Action (CA19142), which aims to create fruitful collaboration between all stakeholders in the field of media accessibility through white papers, summer schools for young researchers, and a platform to discover technologies for enforcing accessibility in the media.

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