January 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 1

Access to Entertainment

Comcast Accessibility: More Than Talking TV

As one of the giant communications entities, Comcast has captured its share or more of headlines in recent months. For those of us interested in accessibility for people who are blind and visually impaired, however, the company has grabbed our attention for an entirely different set of reasons.

Entertainment, specifically entertainment that comes into your living room via television, is an integral part of popular culture in the U.S. and elsewhere and for many who are blind or visually impaired access to that entertainment is difficult or impossible. Onscreen menus and the complexity of choices they deliver are daunting for many TV viewers who can see the screen to read them. If you can't see the screen, finding and using basic programming information is mostly something you just can't do independently. Now, with the dramatic and welcome increase in described programming prompted by the 2010 Communications and Video Accessibility Act, blind people are more interested than ever in watching television, and thus are more likely to sit up and listen when any company says they are going to do something about the current state of inaccessibility.

Comcast certainly seems to be serious about being the company to bridge the accessibility gap, not just for people with visual disabilities, but for all people who have ability or language differences. Eighteen months ago, Comcast hired Tom Wlodkowski to be vice president of their newly established accessibility department. Wlodkowski is blind himself and at least one member of his five-person team has low vision. In other words, Comcast has selected a leader who understands accessibility problems personally, and whose expertise holds the promise of finding solutions.

The solution of greatest interest to AccessWorld readers will, undoubtedly, be the new talking TV interface that Comcast will be rolling out in a limited trial during the first quarter of 2014. Before talking about that effort, though, a peek at the broader accessibility picture seems in order.

Location, Location, Location

Tom Wlodkowski says that he knew Comcast was serious about a stepped-up approach to accessibility during the interviewing process. Every senior management member of the company's executive team weighed in on interviewing him, he said, and that clearly indicated that his hiring was not being taken lightly.

Rather than being on the legal policy side of business or customer service (retrofitting accessibility, in other words, simply because the law requires it), Comcast placed Wlodkowski and his accessibility department next to product innovation. When new products or improvements to old ones are being created, rendering those products as usable and accessible to all customers is part of the conversation. The company maxim of building "a smarter home for everyone," in other words, seems to include people with disabilities in its vision.

The accessibility department and newly opened accessibility lab are on the same floor of the Philadelphia corporate headquarters as the product innovation department and all the innovation engineers, a clear indicator that the effort is more than symbolic.

The accessibility lab, a combination test lab and showcase, is designed to hold the kinds of entertainment and communications tools that actual homes occupied by actual people with disabilities might include. A computer with software and hardware for controlling the environment via eye movements, a computer with magnification software and text-to-speech software, braille playing cards and a braille Scrabble game are just a few of the items visitors might notice.

When a product or product enhancement is under development, the accessibility lab is the place for staff to give it a test drive.

More than Cable TV

Although cable TV might be the first product that comes to mind when we hear the Comcast name, Wlodkowski was quick to point out that the company is the fourth largest provider of telephone services, and is constantly striving to move all its services (television, telephone, internet services, home security, and home automation) toward creating that "smart" and, perhaps, more efficient home.

Mobile apps that allow Comcast customers to accomplish tasks ranging from activating lights or changing the thermostat, to texting the kids or checking tonight's movie availability are constantly evolving. And each of those functions presents its own set of accessibility challenges. Can a deaf person access a voicemail via text? Can a blind person navigate the website? Can a person who is quadriplegic operate the remote control to select the desired channel on the TV?

Comcast is striving to address these issues and more, and has created an Accessibility Center of 22 customer service agents trained specifically to answer questions regarding Comcast's various accessibility features.

And Now…The News You've Been Waiting For

While high-speed Internet, mobile apps, and telephone service all matter as much to blind people as to anyone else, the one area where access has been most blatantly unavailable is in navigating the myriad features available to sighted viewers in browsing, selecting, and saving television programming. Comcast announced at the largest cable trade show in October that they have finally developed a talking TV interface for the Comcast box.

Slated to be tested in the first quarter of 2014 by a small group of customers, the guide provides text-to-speech access to all those menus sighted viewers take for granted. You can hear which programs are available in which categories, how many episodes, which movies are available for renting, and oh yes, which programs offer video description. You can search by category or title or even by the descriptive feature itself.

The sample I heard for this article was a pleasant female voice (Carol is her name). Speed and pitch controls for the voice are not available at this point, but Wlodkowski said such features would undoubtedly be added soon. Also in the foreseeable future, he indicated, would be a voice input feature for the same system.

As a blind professional, Tom Wlodkowski has an enormous opportunity to assist one company in demonstrating by example how accessibility can work for everyone as a from-the-ground-up consideration. If he does it right, we'll all win.

Contact Information:

Comcast Accessibility Center for Excellence
Phone: 855-270-0379
Hours: 9 am-10 pm, Monday-Sunday
Live chat: Comcast Support

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