I rode a plane for the first time when I was 21 to travel to San Diego for the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, and one of my friends had given me a few tips for passing time on flights with low vision in advance of my first ever plane trip. I was super excited to be on a plane and ended up just observing my surroundings for the entirety of the trip, but have since used a few other strategies for staying entertained on cross-country flights with vision loss, including watching content with audio description. Here are my favorite tips for passing time on flights with low vision, based on my experience with traveling through the continental US.
Download content ahead of time on a tablet/mp3 player
I don’t like to download online content on my phone for offline viewing so I can save the battery, and prefer to use a tablet or mp3 player for listening to or watching content. Several streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video support downloading content for offline viewing, including several titles with audio description/descriptive audio, which is a secondary audio track that provides descriptions of visual content on the screen. The Audio Description Project hosted by American Council for the Blind keeps an updated list of titles available with audio description on various services.
Outside of movies and TV shows, many streaming music apps also support downloading songs, albums, and podcasts. I also use the Freegal music service from my local library to download music to my own personal devices, or rent albums from Hoopla.
- The Audio Description Project (ADP) (acb.org)
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Tablets
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: MP3 Players
- Digital Library Resources For Vision Impaired Patrons
Listen to streaming music on the flight
Some airlines give passengers the option to use premium music streaming services for free on their personal devices- as an example, American Airlines gives users the option to stream Apple Music. Another option is to use the in-flight entertainment kiosk that is built into the seat to access music and curated playlists- I use my phone to magnify the text on the screen and use my own headphones to listen to the music.
Audio description for in-flight movies
While waiting in an airport in Texas, I discovered that several airlines offered audio description for in-flight movies and TV shows through their mobile apps and through the built-in entertainment kiosks that are attached to seats. One thing I found interesting is that audio description tracks are not standardized across streaming services or even airlines, so the audio description track for The Breakfast Club on my flight was different than the one that is available on Netflix. Here is information about audio description for content on popular airlines:
American Airlines displays supported titles with the language tag “English Audio Descriptive.” I recommend searching for titles before the flight, as I wasn’t able to view language tags for movies on my flight.
British Airways displays supported titles with the language tag “English Audio Descriptive.” Audio described content can also be found on the Paramount+ app that is available on participating flights.
Delta Airlines customer support confirmed to me in 2023 that audio described movies are available on flights, but did not provide any additional information on how to access this. Audio description is not supported for live TV.
Emirates was the first airline to offer content with audio description on flights starting in 2014. Available titles can be filtered by selecting the [AD] Audio Description tag on the Movies page on their website. One of my friends who flew on this airline recently also reported being able to find audio description on the free HBO Max/Max app that was available through in-flight entertainment.
KLM Royal Dutch airlines displays supported titles with the accessibility tag “Audio Description.” The accessibility tag can be found on the movie or tv show’s page.
Lufthansa displays supported titles with the language tag “English Audio Descriptive” on their website, application, and in-flight entertainment kiosk.
United Airlines offers audio description, and supported titles can be found in the Accessibility Settings menu of the United Private Screening library either within the United app or on the in-flight kiosk.
- Airport Security and Low Vision
- How A TSA Pre-Check Helps Me As A Visually Impaired Traveler
- Watching The Breakfast Club With Audio Description
Zooming in on surroundings
When I went to CSUN in 2019, I had a window seat on both flights and had fun using my phone in airplane mode to take pictures and zoom in on surroundings, like the Grand Canyon or interesting colors in the sky. Since I would not be able to see small details with my eyes alone, taking these photos allowed me to zoom in and magnify things more easily.
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Smartphones
- How I Use My Phone As Assistive Technology In Class
- How I Use Google Assistant While Traveling
Read a book from the library or Bookshare
I can’t read traditional physical copies of books, so I download eBooks from Bookshare onto my eReader so I have something to read on my flight. Alternatively, I might download magazines, books, or audiobooks from the Libby app for offline reading on my tablet.
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: eReaders
- Fast Facts About Bookshare
- Reading Magazines With The Libby App And Low Vision
More tips for passing time on flights with low vision
- I have severe food allergies, so I don’t consume any of the in-flight meals or snacks. To be considerate of travelers that have peanut or tree nut allergies, I avoid packing snacks that have whole or chopped nuts, since this residue can get stuck on the seat
- Some airlines allow users to use select messaging apps on their flight- for example, Alaska Airlines has a free wifi texting option. I used this option to talk to a friend over text with WhatsApp (shoutout to my friend G for keeping me entertained on a long flight!). Pictures, video, and audio messages are not supported
- I recommend packing a pair of wired headphones or earbuds, since users may not be permitted to use wireless devices.