Comcast has just announced a solution to a huge television-watching problem.

What is the problem?

Imagine if there were a way to turn on the description (the special feature to narrate the visual elements of a show for people who are blind or visually impaired) on your favorite shows! Imagine being able to check your television to find out what is on right now, or up next, the name of the show, the channel the show is on, or the channel the TV is tuned to. (If you are wondering what "description" could be, check out this overview of audio description.)

Back in the olden days, I bought a device at Radio Shack that had, among other features, a button that would let me switch to SAP audio (the special "channel" that contains description or alternate language audio). So, I would change TV channels on my remote like anybody else, but the audio of the TV would go through this device and, if there was description, or Spanish (or Chinese or Russian...) on that channel, that would be the audio I would hear. Life was perfect.

Well, everybody didn't have that option even then, and now, most of us have to use the onscreen menus on our television, via the cable system, to turn on description. We could also use those menus to select a show, find out what is on, record a show for later, but we can't see those pesky menus. Solution? (Take the television to the recycling center?)

Now, if you are a Comcast customer, or could become one, this is changing.

The Solution

The modern set-top box for Comcast is called X1, and it is in millions of homes and moving into more. Those customers will be receiving an upgrade, which will happen automatically, and will get talking menus they can turn on any time they wish to have accessibility, or just like to have things talk to them.

Comcast remote, with the A button highlighted, and audio description icon nearby Comcast X1 remote, with the triangular 'A' button highlighted. Pressing the A button twice toggles voice guidance on/off.

I've gotten a chance to try this technology out twice. Basically, you press the "A" button on your remote twice (the remote, shown here, has a series of distinctly shaped buttons which are called "B," "B," "C," and "D"), and then activate the talking menus. Once you've done that, you are home free. You can do the obvious—turn on the description for shows that have it—and, you can do most of the other things Comcast customers would reasonably want to do with these menus (if you've never had access to those menus, you might not be aware that you can read short summaries of upcoming episodes, record a show, play one back, select on-demand movies, and many other exciting things).

Comcast is responding to requirements set forth in a law known as the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and the company is far ahead of the competition since the requirements for accessible set-top boxes don't start until December 2016. And, the new feature gives us access to more than will be required at that time. In other words, Comcast is setting a high bar for the rest of the television field to follow.

Is the new feature perfect? No, and Tom Wlodkowski from Comcast was quick to point out things that Comcast already agrees need to be improved. But, he felt, and I agree, that moving forward with something people can really use and then improving it later is the way to go.

So, when you get this feature in your home, you'll notice right away that there is a delay between the time you press an arrow key and the time you hear the menu item you've landed on. Comcast has plans to speed this up, but for now we'll have to be patient. Also, this new feature doesn't do anything to change the contrast on the visual menu display, or let users with low vision switch the contrast (black on white, white on black) but this is also something Comcast knows people need to be able to do.

Is there more?

Yes! Comcast is dedicated to accessibility. They have a lot more going on than set-top boxes. They've already released apps with accessibility features and have more features in the works. And, Comcast is involved in telephone, Internet, and home security areas, so we can hope for better accessibility in more than just entertainment. See the AccessWorld® article Comcast Accessibility: More Than Talking TV from earlier this year.

If you have Comcast in your area, keep their website handy, so you don't miss the next big thing. Better yet, keep AccessWorld handy to get the news and the detailed reviews of these new features.

If you're not a Comcast customer, and especially if you don't live in a community served by Comcast, perhaps you should contact your cable or satellite provider and ask what they are doing to make sure that blind people can use and access their set-top boxes.