If yours is like most homes these days, the television set is your central entertainment hub. You can watch TV programs and movies, and even listen to music through the speakers on your TV (which produce sound quality a full magnitude higher than those on sets manufactured just a decade ago).

Asian couple smiling while watching TV

Many unenlightened sighted people may wonder, “But if you can’t see, how can you watch TV?” If someone asks you this question, just smile, then wait until the next time they go into the kitchen to start dinner with their back turned but the TV on so they don’t miss anything. Pictures are nice, but in most plot-driven stories or educational documentaries, it’s the dialogue or narration that conveys most of what’s going on. Which is not to say a bit of scene and action description cannot add to your viewing enjoyment. Happily, more and more programs are making use of the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) broadcast capabilities to include an audio description track. You can learn more about video description and play a few sample described videos on the AFB video description webpage, which includes information on how to access video description on your own television.

Unfortunately, all too often the controls to enable video description are buried several layers deep in the TV or cable box remote. The good news is that all of this is about to change for the better. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 includes a number of provisions regulating the production and availability of accessible broadcast media and devices—which is to say, television sets, set top boxes, digital video recorders (DVRs) and descriptive video for broadcast and non-broadcast channel programming.

Currently, the top four broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—are required to provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of video-described prime time or children's programming, or approximately four hours each week. This requirement also applies to the top five cable networks. Currently these top five include USA, Disney Channel, TNT, Nickelodeon, and TBS.

Local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates in the top US 25 markets are required to own and operate the equipment to broadcast this network-provided video description. They must also provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming per quarter. On July 1, 2016, the regulations will expand to cover local network affiliates in the 26th through 60th markets.

Cable and satellite companies that serve 50,000 or more subscribers must also own and operate the equipment necessary to broadcast video description. Of course no amount of descriptive video is going to make much of a difference if the controls are inaccessible. That’s why the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 also includes accessible device standards which apply to all new TV sets, cable boxes and DVRs manufactured after December, 2016.

These standards include accessible device setup, program guides, channel and volume selection, and more. For a complete rundown of this groundbreaking legislation, check out the January 2015 AccessWorld article, Is Accessible TV Viewing Finally on Its Way?

To date there are several devices that already incorporate some but not all of these new accessibility enhancements. Many new Samsung TV models include a built-in voice guide, and Comcast now offers a talking TV interface, available at no extra charge to their DVR customers with visual impairments. If you are not a Comcast customer and you would rather wait for the new regulations to go into effect before investing in a new set, there are still a few ways to increase the accessibility and enjoyment of your television experience.

Accessible TV Viewing: What's Possible Now for People with Visual Impairments

There are still several months before the expanded regulations go fully into effect, but if you have a mobile device, chances are good that you can already use many, if not all, of the upcoming accessibility benefits and capabilities right now.

Accessible TV on a Mobile Device: There’s an App for That

If you subscribe to either cable or satellite service, your provider probably offers mobile apps for either Android, iOS, or both. An app's features will vary, depending on your operating system, device, and service provider, but here is a list of features that can improve your TV accessibility:

  1. Live TV: Most cable and satellite apps allow you to watch live TV, and display both the network and program name.
  2. Accessible Program Listings: This is one of the features that will be mandatory in new sets, starting in July of 2016. Most carrier apps already enable you to browse the current program guide by channel, network, time, and date. Many also include a search feature that will help you find your favorite show quickly and watch it on your phone or tablet.
  3. DVR Recording: Some carrier apps will let you view your upcoming DVR recording schedule and set the DVR to record new programs from your mobile device. An increasing number of apps also allow you to start playback on either your mobile device or your home TV.
  4. View OnDemand Programming: To date, it has been all but impossible for a blind individual to select an OnDemand program, which are shows that begin when you are ready to play them. Mobile apps often include the ability to search, select, and begin playback of OnDemand titles, though often the playback is limited to watching on your device.

As mentioned, your mileage may vary when it comes to your service provider’s mobile app availability and features. New apps are constantly being added, and old ones updated, so keep checking.

The Connected TV

Most new television sets advertise themselves as being either “Connected” or “Smart” TVs. What this usually means is that the TV connects to the Internet and can stream video, music, and other media from online services like YouTube, Netflix, and Pandora.

There is still some uncertainty as to whether or not the apps that control a TV's access to these services will be covered by the new accessibility regulations. It is possible, however, to turn any television with an HDMI port into a connected TV right now, and do it accessibly, using one of two hardware devices: The Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast.

The Apple TV is a hockey puck sized device that connects to a TV via an HTMI cable, and is controlled using either the included remote, a Mac computer, or any iOS device, including iPhones, iPads, and newer generation iPod touches.

The Apple TV includes the same built-in VoiceOver screen reader found on iOS devices. If you are setting up your new Apple TV for the first time, use these steps to enable VoiceOver:

  1. Connect the HDMI cable from your TV or receiver to the Apple TV and verify that your TV is set to the correct input mode. You will need sighted help for this.
  2. Connect the power cable and plug the Apple TV into a wall outlet.
  3. After approximately 1 minute, you should hear a voice prompting you to press the Play/Pause button, which is the lower right button on the Apple TV remote.
  4. Select the language you wish to use.

If you already own an Apple TV, or if someone else has already completed the setup process, access the Accessibility menu (Found under General on the Settings menu) and turn on VoiceOver from there.

The Apple TV can stream any music and videos that are stored on your Mac or PC computer running the iTunes application. You can also purchase music, movies, and TV shows directly from the device.

The Apple TV streams other media, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and various paid channels for baseball, football, and basketball. We will discuss many of these services in the next several sections of this guide. For now, here is a complete list of available Apple TV channels from iLounge.

As mentioned, you can control your Apple TV either from the included remote, or from the free Remote app, which is currently fairly but not completely accessible. You can also control your TV via AirPlay, a feature built in to all Apple devices. Enable AirPlay in your Apple TV’s Settings menu and you will now find an AirPlay option on many of your favorite iOS devices. This button will send the content of your current app to be played through your Apple TV. If you are watching a video on your iPhone, for instance, when you press AirPlay that video will begin playing on your Apple TV-connected set. VoiceOver will not be transferred, however, so you can still operate your phone while your movie or other video plays on your family room set.

Note: The above information is for the third-generation Apple TV. Apple recently released the Apple TV Fourth Generation. This newer version offers downloadable apps and uses a touch screen remote. Get the full details in the January 2016 issue of AccessWorld article, The Fourth-Generation Apple TV: An Accessibility Evaluation for People with Visual Impairments

Google Chromecast is available for $35 from the Google Play Store. This device, about the size of a package of chewing gum, fits directly into one of your TV’s HDMI ports. There is no remote. You need a mobile device running either Android or iOS to set up and use the device. During the set-up process you will be asked to confirm a number displayed on your TV screen, so you may need sighted help.

Once setup is complete, the Chromecast works pretty much the same as AirPlay on Apple TV. Look for the Chromecast button on your mobile device and use it to send media content to your television. Chromecast can also redirect media from a computer running the Chrome browser.

For a more complete look at the Google Chromecast, check out the review in the March 2014 issue of AccessWorld.

The Chromecast will operate with various apps for both Android and iOS. The Apple TV will only work with its remote, or with an iOS device. You cannot use AirPlay on an Android device.

Of course if you own a smartphone or tablet you do not need an Apple TV or Chromecast . You can enjoy music, video, and other media played right on your mobile device.