By Maria Delgado, Joseph Hodge, and Larry Skutchan
Until just a few years ago, blind television consumers were at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to watching television. Sure, there are some shows that convey their intent and description through dialog or other audio queues, but most do not. The norm was to switch to a channel and try to identify the program by sound alone.
Two recent developments greatly improved this situation.
One of the things that improved is audio descriptions. Audio description is a technique where a narrator inserts descriptions during pauses in the action or dialog of a show. Traditionally, you turned audio descriptions on by activating the Alternate Audio or Separate Audio Program (SAP) feature on your TV. SAP is often used for language replacement where, for example, a Spanish speaking person gets the audio in Spanish, but it is also used for audio description. You turn on the SAP feature in the TV’s menus.
The second event that improved TV accessibility was the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) establishing accessibility requirements for televisions, set-top boxes, and similar devices that receive or play back video programming. Before 2017, TV menus were not accessible.
Throughout most to TV’s history, there were no menus or options. You turned on the TV, and it showed the current channel’s content. Today, TVs show program information, provide multiple inputs for connecting devices, and include multiple options for setting modes and audio. In addition, most TVs are now smart, which means they are connected to the internet and include apps from a variety of sources, like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
Today’s combination of audio description and accessible controls makes the TV viewing experience much friendlier. It also makes it possible to use a smart TV effectively even without vision.
TVs manufactured and sold since 2017 must include accessibility, so whichever manufacturer you choose should work, but there are major differences. Some TVs comply with the rules but leave some areas inaccessible. What will work for you depends on how much you want to use and how you use the device.
While the rest of this article mentions some specific brands, you will want to check the documentation for the device you purchase to discover how to turn on the accessibility features.
Also be aware that even if you don’t have an accessible TV, you can still use one of the streaming sticks like Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, or Apple TV. You only need to be able to select the HDMI input to which that device is connected, then, once you turn on the accessibility features for that service, the device will announce the menus and other program information. In some cases, you will also have to turn on audio description support.
Sony Android TV
Android TVs are interesting, because they provide a robust platform similar to Android for the phone or tablet but optimized for use with a remote control. They also include Google Assistant and Chromecast, two technologies that let you use the TV like a voice assistant and, in the case of Chromecast, a way to send the content from a phone or tablet to the TV without tying up your phone.
Sony makes several models, and some of them use Android TV as the operating system. They, like other TVs, come with a screen reader from the manufacturer, but the nice thing about the Android TV is that you can also use the TalkBack screen reader in addition to Sony’s screen reader. Sony’s probably provides a smoother experience, but TalkBack has the potential to make more of the complex content accessible, going beyond what is strictly required. The built-in documentation, for instance, is not accessible with Sony’s implementation of the screen reader, but if you use TalkBack instead, it reads fine.
When you switch channels, you’ll hear the screen reader announce the channel number, the station’s call letters, and a brief description of what is on followed by the amount of remaining time for that program. Confusingly, over the air broadcasts work with the program guide built into the TV, but if you use a cable box, that box must be accessible to get programming information.
One configuration that works particularly well is to route the audio to a receiver. This way, you control the screen reader volume with the TV remote and the audio for the program with the receiver’s remote. As nice as it is to have accessibility, it is also nice to be able to turn it down when you want.
To turn on the screen reader for Sony TVs, hold down the Mute button on the remote for several seconds. Do the same thing to turn in back off if you wish.
In addition to getting the announcements about the channel and program content, the TV’s menus, program guide, and apps also work with the screen reader.
To turn on the alternate audio for network television, press the Alt Audio button repeatedly until you get the language you desire. The audio description is usually represented by an item called “Spanish/AD.” The AD is for audio description. That button is immediately below Volume on the remote, and the setting takes effect immediately, so you can hear it right away. Remember, however, that not every second is described, so it might take a few minutes to verify the show includes audio descriptions, and there is no way to tell without just trying it. Remember, the Alt Audio button is only for over the air or cable broadcast. Streaming apps each have their own setting for audio descriptions, but the good news is that once you turn it on, it will stay on. The Alt Audio, on the other hand, must be enabled each session.
Ticklers that are part of the programming are not covered by the screen reader. Such information might include news headlines, or the time and temperature that are added by the station or network. The screen reader only announces menu options that come from the TV itself or one of the apps running on it and not was is part of the broadcast, so if a show displays a question or information originating from the producer, it will not be announced unless the producer has included audio description.
Most aspects of the Sony Android TV are accessible. When you begin inputting a channel number, for example, the TV pops up a menu showing all the channels that match what you entered so far. You may either continue to enter numbers, or use the Down Arrow key to select your choice, just like a sighted user would do.
Amazon Fire TV
All the Amazon Fire TVs and Fire Sticks come with a very good screen reader called VoiceView. You enable VoiceView by holding the Menu and Back keys on the remote together for about two seconds. (This is also how you turn it off.)
Once the screen reader is enabled, you can use most features of the TV or stick. Amazon’s Alexa is also built into most Amazon TVs and sticks, so you can use regular voice assistant commands to control many aspects of the unit.
One quirk with the Fire TVs is that they don’t support channel numbers, so instead of using a number pad to turn on, say, WHAS 11, you either pick it from a menu or tell Alexa to tune in WHAS.
Another quirk is that when you turn the TV on, it does not return to the last channel you had been viewing. Instead, it displays a home screen, where you can easily find recent channels, but it is just one more step to go through.
VIZIO Smart Televisions
Vizio has several different models to choose from. Any smart TV made in 2018 or newer will have Talk Back on it. To enable Talk Back you hold down the picture button on your remote. Once you do this you will hear a voice say Talk Back enabled and you now can move around your television using your remote.
I find the Vizio implementation pretty good. Using apps like YouTube and Netflix are smooth and I experienced no hiccups using them. All of the picture and sound settings were accessible to change and read also. One other really nice feature this is the only platform where I have found Pluto TV a free option to watch content accessible. You can use the channel up and down to navigate and Talk Back reads what is currently on. One other thing I like about this implementation is that the Youtube app allows Talk Back to read you it’s interface so I can control how fast it speaks. However, some apps I found didn’t work with Talk Back such as Hulu.
For me the only drawback I found is when you first plug in your television and are on the set-up screen nothing is spoken. If you hold the picture button it will say Talk Back enabled, but nothing is announced until you are finished setting up your TV. This is really disheartening, because as a totally blind person who lives with another totally blind person we have no way to watch the television on our own. They have had several updates to this television 3 to be exact, but they have not fixed this issue. When talking to support the representative said I will not receive any more major updates. If you look over this issue, I’m generally happy with how this TV works. Speech is a bit blurry to understand at times it’s not using the traditional Google text to speech it’s a bit different. Unfortunately, there is not a stop talking button on this system so once Talk Back starts talking you will have to let it finish.
Dish provides screenreader options on the following receivers Hopper, Wally, and Joey. I had the Hopper and at first I was amazed. Here it was January 2017 and I for the first time could flip threw my guide like anyone else. It was liberating and such an amazing moment. Before this I would either have to pull up a website or use NFB Newsline for channel guide information. It doesn’t sound like much, but imagine to watch television and know what was on you had to have extra technology with you otherwise you would have no idea.
This great feeling didn’t last forever though. There are some of the problems with the screenreader. You cannot shut it up. Once you start flipping channels it talks forever. It often repeats show content twice. Example it will say HBO This Week with John Oliver channel 300. It will pause then repeat the last sentence. The voice is awful, and I am a fan of older computer sounding speech. It would be nice to have some different voice options to choose from. The other issue I had was Dish had no way to speed up speech, so you are stuck with the slow droning voice all of the time.
Sadly, I saw two updates to the Hopper, but neither addressed any accessibility issue. Furthermore, I talked to my friend before writing this article, and still no improvements. Clearly Dish is only satisfying the law that the set box talks, and they do not care about the end customer experience.
One thing I did like Dish did is they made the default remote nicely. It was comfortable to hold and really tactilely pleasing. They do have several remotes including a voice remote that costs extra, so your mileage may vary.
Samsung Smart TV
Samsung Smart TVs have done an excellent job providing accessibility options in their newer TV models. A menu of accessibility options can easily be retrieved by pressing down the Mute key for a couple of seconds. This automatically starts Samsung’s screen reader called Voice Guide, regardless of whether it had previously been set up or not. Here, one can adjust its volume, speed and pitch. A menu button also allows to quickly turn Audio Description on or off.
In addition to Voice Guide, which does a nice job reading all the menus, buttons and channel information, one can find settings geared toward people who have remaining vision. Samsung TVs provide a High Contrast option as well as a way to enlarge the on-screen text.
Another useful option is the ability to customize Close Caption. You may choose the text size, foreground and background colors, font, and position of the caption window among other things.
One feature that I have found very useful is the Learn Remote Control feature. Wen enabled, the remote enters a mode that explains what each button or control does as you press them. Once you finish exploring the remote, you may put it back into its normal mode with a press of a button.
The remote is slim and its buttons are easy to identify tactually. The new Samsung remotes have simplified the experience by getting rid of the number keypad. To change a channel, a press of a button shows a horizontal line of numbers 1 – 0, with the highlight on number 6. Navigating right or left and pressing Enter on the correct numbers, allow the user to enter the channel. Pressing up arrow places the highlight on the Done button, which takes the user to the desired channel.
The remote also counts with a button that enables a virtual assistant. Pressing this button and speaking a command allows the user to change channels, access settings and easily switch apps. In addition, Samsung TVs are compatible with most Smart Speakers commercially available.
While it is clear from this article that TV and set top boxes are now accessible for basic control, and audio descriptions add a whole new rich aspect to visual entertainment, it is still a little confusing about how to enable all this and what works together.
For network television, use the Alt Audio function on the remote for newer TVs and use the SAP (Second Audio Programming) setting in the menu on older sets to turn on audio description for a given show. Remember, these settings always revert back to their defaults, so you need to turn this on every time. The nice thing about the new TVs is the setting takes effect immediately, so if there are descriptions, you know right away. Also, on the new TVs, if there is no “Spanish A/D” setting under the Alt Audio, you know there is no audio description for that show.
Even if you have an old TV, you can still purchase a relatively inexpensive streaming stick like Fire TV stick, Roku, or Apple TV that is accessible. You only need to know how to enable the HDMI input to which you connect that device then turn on its accessibility mode. After that, enable audio descriptions, and every movie or show that supports them will be described.
Many TVs have one HDMI port that automatically turns on the TV or switches to its input when the source is enabled, so if you have a set with such a port, you won’t even need to figure out how to change inputs.
Chromecast is another streaming stick that acts a little differently. There are no menus or controls on Chromecast. You “send” content to it from your phone or tablet, and the Chromecast takes over the stream, so you don’t even need to keep your phone or tablet around once you send it to the device. Some televisions even some of the one’s mentioned above have Chromecast built in allowing you to not have to buy an extra device. I’ve found casting works well and allows you to use an app you feel comfortable using rather than an app on a television or streaming stick that may be lacking in features. Recently my wife and I ran in to an issue using casting with Netflix. For some reason it would stream 4 episodes in a row then stop. To fix it we would have to disconnect, and then reconnect and start the next episode. My only other issue is anyone with an Android device that is on your wi-fi network can see or control what is casting on your network. If your letting someone on your Wifi you more than likely trust them, but this is something to think about.
One other tip that may be of use is to get those messages sent by the producer and not in the TV menus. These things might include the name of an interviewee, a short trivia message, or even ticklers. You can get this text with the aid of an app. Microsoft’s Seeing AI can provide this information. Just select the “Short Text” setting and point the camera toward the TV screen. (It helps if you can get some kind of stand, so you don’t have to hold the phone.) Once you do that, all the text that appears on the screen will be spoken by your phone’s screen reader, and you will be surprised how much there is, even in the commercials.
Finally, one aspect of modern TV not mentioned so far is the range of over the air content, especially in the Louisville area. Depending on your antenna, there are dozens of channels available for free, and their video and audio quality is excellent. The program listings come over the air as well. (For the longest time, just getting access to accurate TV listings was a hassle for blind TV watchers.)
We hope this article provides you a little information about how to better enjoy the wide range of content from TV and streaming devices.