How TV is becoming more accessible for people who are visually impaired

There are misconceptions that people who are visually impaired don't engage with TV. But, you can be sure that many, many people who are blind were absorbed in Game of Thrones (maybe not so much the last series!).

Improvements in TV hardware and software, along with audio description (AD) mean there's increasingly more potential for people who are blind or partially sighted to enjoy TV.

In this blog we look at some of the ways TV sets and TV programmes are becoming more accessible. We also cover what else needs to change to make TV even more inclusive for the two million people with sight loss in the UK.

A scene from Stranger Things where the character Eleven is undergoing tests
Photo: A scene from Stranger Things with audio description enabled

Davinder Kullar, technology for life coordinator at RNIB, helps blind and partially sighted people get the most out of technology. RNIB also campaigns for an increase in the amount of audio described TV, including improving the amount of AD on ‘catch up’ programmes.

TV hardware, software and talking to your TV

The most important TV requirments for someone who is totally blind are:

  • An in-built screen reader
  • Audio description

According to Kullar, the best type of TV set for someone with total sight loss is one with an in-built screen reader which can speak out everything text-based, such as programme guides and menus. “Whatever a sighted person sees, a blind person wants to hear, from choosing channels to changing colour contrast,” he says.

“Some TVs, such as Samsung models now speak everything. On other models, such as Panasonic, only some menus and programme guides are spoken. The more options to talk to and interact with your television, the better." In 2018, LG and Sony also added audio menus.

Alexa and talking to remote controls

Sky’s latest remote control has 'Voice Control' which enables someone to speak into the remote control and tell the TV to change channels and perform other tasks (a video of voice control in action follows below). Kullar says this is progressive and something for other companies to aspire to.

The Sky remote control also has larger more tactile buttons which are good for anyone older or with reduced dexterity, as well as those who struggle to see the buttons. But there's something more Kullar would like when it comes to talking to televisions. 

"What I'd love is for TVs and remote controls to be enabled for interaction along the lines of Amazon Alexa,” he says. “So, it would be great if you could ask questions, such as what channel a certain documentary is on, or what time is Eastenders on, for example. We’re starting to get closer to this - some companies are working on introducing such capabilities.

Audio description

Audio description is available on some programmes and adverts and means that a person with visual impairment can hear a spoken narration of what’s happening on screen. By law, 10% of programmes are currently required to have AD but campaigners would like this to be increased. 

Read our piece: What's next for audio description

Campaigners are also working to ensure that AD is more available on catch up/ on demand TV. This is currently inconsistent across different channels and on demand services. 

Audio description on VOD

“With video on demand (VOD) audio description is sometimes available and sometimes it’s not,” says Kullar. “With some providers, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, you can download content and it keeps any audio description available. Then sometimes, with the BBC, you might download something and find that the audio description disappears. Audio description isn’t available on Sky downloads either. If a Sky programme has an audio description option, it can be possible to switch on audio description via your Sky box and then record on that unit and that will keep the AD. It would be great to see more standardisation with AD."

Another issue that the RNIB would like to see tackled is making it easier for two people to enjoy a programme together, with only one of those people (the person with visual impairment) hearing the audio description through headphones. To make that happen at the moment is very convoluted," says Kullar.  "Some cinemas do offer such an option, where a blind or partially sighted person hears AD through a headset and. At some point we think this will become easier for standard TV programmes."

Changing text size and contrast

For people who are partially-sighted, the main accessibility requirements, explains Kullar, are the ability to easily change certain elements including:

  • Increasing text size on screen
  • Changing to a clearer font style if needed on screen
  • The option to change colour contrast on screen
  • Screen magnification options

Again, not all TVs have these options, so it is worth doing your research, encourages Kullar. He explains: "Sales people and shop assistants unfortunately don’t always have full knowledge of accessibility options with products, but it's worth asking and also doing your own research to find out what the latest models do." 

Looking for help?

• Call the AbilityNet freephone helpline on 0800 269 545 for free advice and information on technology and disability

• You can also call our helpline to request a trusted volunteer to come to your home and help with your technology

• Or contact the RNIB helpline on 0303 123 9999 – they can provide free information and also have trained volunteers who can visit your home

Read more about audio description on the RNIB website.