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Blindness & Visual Impairment,  Everyday Life,  Technology

How Do Blind & Visually Impaired People Watch TV?

In short, blind and visually impaired people watch TV any way they feel comfortable. Or, they don’t. For the longer, more in-depth answer, keep reading.

With streaming services on the rise, it has become easier to watch TV and movies in the past few years. We have a wealth of options available to us as far an content, length, and genre are concerned.

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I also covered this topic in a YouTube video called How Do the Blind & Visually Impaired Communities Watch TV.

Masters of the Audio Cue

Many of us have spent years listening closely to TV shows even when we can’t visually see all of the wonderful details. I and many others who are blind and visually impaired often become masters at picking up audio cues and recognizing obscure sounds. We learn to pick up voice tone and pattern quickly and recognize actors from this alone, but there is still so much to miss visually. This is where having a family member, friend, or significant other with working eyes can really make life easier. My family would occasionally read subtitles and describe things to me, especially when I ask, but my partner does this ALL the time, often before I ask. He knows that subtitles frustrate me, and often will just start reading them, even when I’m sitting close enough to read them myself.

The biggest issues with subtitles for me, other than the fact that I have to sit very close to read them is that they draw my focus from what’s happening on screen. My eyes do not work well together and absolutely cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. So, I am either reading the subtitles or trying to watch the movie. I cannot do both.

The Setting

a pair of feet rest on a table in a well lit room. a tv sits on an entertainment center with the netflix logo
Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

Being able to sit close to a TV is beneficial to those of us who rely on our limited vision. The best setup for me is one with the TV on a table or desk that I can slide my chair underneath to get right up next to the screen. Settings with a TV that sits low to the ground are also ideal for those of us who don’t mind sitting on the floor. I have sat on many floors while watching TV over the years. This setup, like everything else, is a personal preference.

Lighting can also affect how well I can see what is on a TV screen. A room with lots of glare or with a TV located in front of a window or bright light can make it challenging to see the screen. Glare and lots of light can reduce contrast for the TV screen, and for some of us, it can put the TV in complete shadow much like a silhouette. As I mentioned in my post about designing a home for the visually impaired, adjustable lighting is so important for those of us with light sensitivity.

Despite all of the challenges, many in the blind and visually impaired community enjoy movies and TV just as much as people with working eyes. Though this is true, our viewing and listening experiences can be made better by audio description.

Audio Description

Just as the deaf and hard of hearing community has closed captions, the blind community has audio description. Audio Description (AD) is an additional audio track that includes auditory descriptions for the more visual actions taking place in a movie or TV show. AD can describe facial expressions, movements, objects, text on screen, and more.

Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime all have a solid selection of audio described media. I’ve had a hard time finding any audio description on Hulu. HBO Max had very little up until March 2021. WarnerMedia Direct reached a settlement with The American Council of the Blind (ACB), the Massachusetts-based Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB), and others that means the company has committed to making HBO Max more accessible for the blind and visually impaired. This settlement means that HBO Max will have 1500 hours of audio described media by the end of March 2021 and will increase that number to 6000 by March 2023. By September 2021, all HBO Max platforms including mobile, web, and smart TV apps will be accessible by a screen reader.

You can find all of HBO Max’s current audio described content in a section labeled “Audio Description.” This section is present on web and mobile but not on my smart TV apps as tested on current versions of Samsung smart TV and Chromecast with Google TV (Android TV).

Future Reviews on Accessibility

I will be reviewing the Chromecast with Google TV from an accessibility standpoint soon. I have absolutely loved these new Chromecasts and I own two of them. I would also love to review some of the other options available as time and money permits.

I will also be reviewing an app called Spectrum Access that provides audio description and closed captions for media without it. It is currently only available for iOS, but the developer has an Android app in the works. The app works by syncing with media playing on your TV and providing you with either closed captions or audio description while you watch and listen on your TV.

Keep an eye and ear out for more information on these items and services and more.

Thanks for reading. Stay curious.

I have Albinism and am legally blind. I have a Master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I'm currently pursuing my passion of writing through this blog and for the Albinism InSight magazine.

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