Veronica With Four Eyes

Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Televisions

While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. One of the most common activities that people with newly acquired vision loss mention that they miss the most is watching television, since TV watching is a popular social activity and can give people access to vital information. Here are features to look for when buying a TV for users with vision loss, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.

Screen size

While some people with low vision prefer to use larger screens so that a large amount of information can be displayed on the screen at once, others may prefer to use smaller screen sizes that fit into their field of view more easily. One thing to consider is how close the user needs or wants to sit to the TV in order to see it- sitting closer to the TV will not have a negative effect on the user’s vision in general and can help with making information on the screen easier to see.

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Text-to-speech/screen reader support

Text-to-speech technology in digital television has become much more widely available over the last ten years and uses a speech synthesis tool to speak information on the screen such as the program guide, announcing the current channel/program, on-screen settings menus, playback, and similar functionalities. Text-to-speech can be enabled within the TV’s set up menu or within accessibility settings, though users with vision loss may need assistance from a visual assistance app or another person to enable this setting for the first time.

Text-to-speech features may also be available via the cable box/set-top box or TV receiver.

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Watching live TV with audio description

Audio description, sometimes referred to as descriptive audio or described video, is an additional narrator track that provides visual information for people who otherwise would not be able to see it. Many popular cable networks have audio description available for select TV shows that can be enabled by turning on Secondary Audio Programming (SAP). The program run time is not altered in any way, and the additional audio description track will play on top of the other audio on the program during natural pauses in dialogue. However, SAP does not only play audio description tracks- it also plays audio tracks in other languages, so if audio description is not available then the program audio may be played in a different language.

When navigating through the channel guide, programs that have audio description tracks available will include the audio description logo, which features the letter D emitting an outward signal. This is a universal sign of audio description and is typically found underneath the program title in the guide menu, or will be announced out loud if the user has text-to-speech enabled on their TV.

The exact method for enabling SAP varies by cable company, so I recommend running a web search to find information about how to enable SAP for individual devices- my family’s cable company has SAP settings in the Audio Settings section of their settings menu. If available, users can also contact the accessibility support phone number for their cable provider which can provide assistance with shorter wait times than traditional support lines.

Other sources for audio description

If a show does not have audio description on cable, there is still a chance that audio description may be available on another streaming service. The Audio Description Project from the American Council for the Blind has the most up-to-date list on TV shows and movies that are available with audio description and is linked below.

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Screen positioning

There are a few different screen positioning strategies that can make it easier to see a TV screen with low vision, including:

  • Raising the height of the display with a stand or wall mount
  • Using wearable binoculars/magnification glasses to increase the size of the display
  • Keeping the TV away from windows or other sources of glare that can make it harder to see
  • Changing the display angle with an adjustable wall mount or adjustable stand
  • Adjusting environmental lighting, i.e turning on/off overhead lights

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Digital media players/wireless streaming

Many smart TVs/internet connected TVs support wireless streaming and display mirroring for digital media players and TV apps. This is my favorite way to watch TV as I can wirelessly stream programs from my tablet or computer and cast them onto the larger display of my TV using a tool like Google Chromecast, Airplay, or another wireless device. I prefer to use the touch screen input of my tablet over the buttons of a remote because it is easier for me to search for items and type on the touch screen than to type something with my TV’s on screen keyboard.

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Large print and braille TV remotes

Many cable companies offer large print and braille TV remotes free of charge for subscribers, or users can purchase large print/braille universal remotes to control the TV. Another option is to add tactile stickers or use a marking tool to add 3-D tactile labels- the most popular option I have seen for this is the Hi-Mark tactile pen.

Some cable companies have TV remotes that also support voice control for adjusting settings, finding programs, and other similar features, though the exact features may vary depending on a user’s cable plan.

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Controlling TVs using a smart home device

Another option for controlling a TV with low vision is to connect it to a smart home device such as the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa- one of my friends connected a projector to their Google Assistant so that they could watch content with the Google Chromecast and control the display with their voice.

For Android users, TVs that support Chromecast can also be controlled from a user’s smartphone, including functions such as play/pause, volume, and the ability to turn the tv on/off.

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Summary of features to consider when buying a TV with low vision

  • Screen size- visit an electronics store to get an idea of what different TV screen sizes are available and which one feels the most comfortable to look at
  • Text-to-speech/screen reader support for having on screen information read out loud
  • How to turn on secondary audio programming/audio description for watching content
  • Screen positioning- how to adjust the viewing angle of the television and make it easier to see
  • Support for wireless streaming/digital media players and screen mirroring for other devices
  • Availability of a large print/braille remote, or ability to modify the existing remote for low vision
  • Support for smart home devices for controlling the TV- Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant offer support for controlling TVs with a user’s voice

Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Televisions. Device Features to consider when buying a TV with vision loss. Part of Mainstream Technology and Low Vision series.