October 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 10

Television Accessibility

Accessible Television for the Visually Impaired: Is It Only for the United Kingdom?

Two of the most popular speeches heard at both the National Federation of the Blind Conference in Dallas, TX, and the American Council of the Blind Conference in Louisville, KY, this past July were delivered by Richard Orme of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the United Kingdom. The topic of both speeches was television. In Dallas, his speech was aptly titled "The United Kingdom Scoops the US," which was an attention-getter for sure.

Here in the US, the big television news of late has, of course, been the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), a piece of legislation that became effective on July 1, 2012.

CVAA requires that ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC provide at least 50 hours per calendar quarter (about four hours per week) of video description for prime-time and/or children's programming. In addition to the requirements placed on these four commercial networks, five cable networks (Nickelodeon, Disney, TNT, TBS, and USA) are also required to provide up to fifty hours of programming accompanied by video description in each calendar quarter. Although it still only represents about four hours per week that each of the nine networks is mandated to include video description in its programing, this legislation represents a giant step forward for television viewers with vision loss in the United States.

Thus, recognizing that video description would be on the minds of his American listeners, Orme began his two lively speeches by telling his audiences about description on television in the UK. The term "audio description" has been adopted in the UK rather than "video description" as it is called here in the US, but the medium is the same: tight verbal descriptions between pauses and dialogue of those elements on the screen that are sufficiently visual that they may otherwise be missed by a viewer who is blind or has low vision.

Orme explained that, in the UK, some 69 television stations carry programming accompanied by audio description on a regular basis. Some of these stations boast as much as one-third of all programming being delivered with audio description. People in the UK love television, he said, including people who are blind, and they get lots of it!

Clearly, viewers in London have far more television options with description than people with vision loss in New York or Los Angeles. The centerpiece of Mr. Orme's news, however, was not the wonderful amount of television programing carrying description that is available but the accessibility of the television itself.

For the production of so many consumer electronics, from washing machines and ink jet printers to refrigerators and, particularly, televisions and TV-related equipment, manufacturers have been moving more and more toward inaccessible onscreen information and programing.

If you enjoy watching television (and many people with vision loss do), watching it without a sighted friend or family member in the room typically leads to some frustration. You can't determine which channel is playing. You can't read the menu to change the channel, volume, or program. You can't read the onscreen program guide, and you definitely can't record upcoming programs that you want to enjoy at a later time. When it comes to our newly celebrated bonanza in video-described programming, can we even, in fact, independently activate the extra channel carrying that additional audio material?

Thirty Accessible TV models

In collaboration with Panasonic, the largest manufacturer of consumer electronics worldwide, RNIB announced this year the availability of 30 different television models offering accessibility to customers who are blind or low vision throughout the UK. Using high-quality Nuance text-to-speech for what Panasonic is calling Voice Guidance, a TV viewer with vision loss can access onscreen information (taken for granted by sighted viewers) from the remote control. You can hear the name of the current channel. You can listen to the onscreen program guide. On models equipped for doing so, you can select programs to record for a later time. With the press of one dedicated button, you can easily activate an available audio description track.

This line of products, which Panasonic is calling Talking Viera, includes 30 models, ranging in screen size from 32-inch to 65-inch, and in price from $500 to $4,000 (roughly US $800 to US $6,300 ). Perhaps best of all, they are available at mainstream commercial television retailers.

RNIB customers can get instruction from RNIB volunteers, if needed, as well as a braille, large print, or audio CD set of instructions for operating one of the Talking Viera models.

Since Panasonic headquarters is in Japan, people with vision loss in that country have a similar range of accessible televisions and Blu-ray players as well.

What about the United States?

Tony Jasionowski, senior group manager of accessibility for Panasonic, says that while there is certainly interest in providing TV accessibility to customers in the US, the issue is complicated on both economic and technological levels. First, Panasonic experienced a $10 Billion loss in early 2012. While the company has long been committed to making all its products accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities (vision, hearing, and orthopedic), the reality is that developing a line of products like the Talking Viera television models is not an inexpensive venture. In addition to the obvious research, development, and testing associated with the project, there is the licensing of the Nuance text-to-speech voices for the Panasonic Voice Guidance features.

The different ways in which television broadcasts are delivered in the US and the UK, however, poses perhaps even greater complications. The majority of television viewers in the US receive their programs via cable or satellite services. The onscreen menus are controlled by those companies and are manipulated through your set-top box rather than through the TV itself. In the UK and Japan, most homes receive their television broadcasts through what might be called over-the-air or terrestrial broadcasts.

In short, a Panasonic television that brings all of those lovely spoken features into the living room of a person with vision loss in London wouldn't work in the living room of a person who is blind or low vision in Chicago.

Panasonic is in the television business but not in the cable business. The obvious solution for access in the US, of course, would be for the cable and satellite companies to address the issue as Panasonic has done.

Tony Jasionowski said that he has, in fact, been in some dialogue with cable companies regarding the addition of text-to-speech capabilities to their equipment, clearly indicating that all hope is not lost in that direction.

Meanwhile, although Panasonic is in a phase of cost reduction rather than product addition or enhancement, the company's interest and commitment to universal design is genuine. Jasionowski indicated that accessible televisions (and such related equipment as DVD and Blu-ray players) remain a high priority in Panasonic's future.

Of course, the remaining question on all our minds is: when?


For more information on the availability of Talking Viera television models in the UK, visit the RNIB website.

Visit the Panasonic accessibility website for more information on other accessible products created by Panasonic.

For more information on newly added programs with video description in the United States, visit the FCC website or the individual websites of the nine affected television networks.

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