Are Smart TVs Accessible for People with Disabilities?

November 14, 2022

Digital accessibility isn’t just about improving web experiences for people with disabilities. All devices should be accessible, including mobile kiosks, smartphones, automated teller machines (ATMs), and — of course — televisions.

The term “smart TV" refers to any television that can run software. Usually, this means apps for streaming content (think Netflix, Hulu, and a practically endless list of other streaming services currently available). Some TVs are “smarter" than others, with expanded capabilities: They might be able to adjust the screen brightness for different times of day, turn on automatically when connected to a smartphone, or accept commands via voice input. 

But more features can mean less accessibility, depending on whether these products are developed with accessibility in mind. Fortunately for everyone, digital accessibility isn’t optional for TV manufacturers: Laws like the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) require all TVs to be accessible for people with disabilities. 

So, are companies fulfilling their obligations under the CVAA? Below, we’ll take a look at how several television manufacturers have taken steps to embrace inclusive design (and what content creators can learn from their approach). 

How Smart TVs Make Entertainment More Accessible

The CVAA, which became law in 2010, sets requirements for closed captioning, essentially extending the existing requirements for broadcasters to cover streaming content. It also establishes requirements for audio descriptions, hearing aid compatibility, and on-screen text menus (including program guides). 

The FCC enforces television accessibility, and virtually every TV available to consumers meets the basic requirements of the CVAA. However, several manufacturers have gone beyond those requirements, introducing advanced features that improve access for users with disabilities: 

  • Many 2022 Samsung TVs include a Sign Language Guide. When the feature is activated, an on-screen avatar presents the TV’s features and options in American Sign Language (ASL). 
  • Some Samsung TVs also support Gesture Interaction, which uses an optical recognition device to enable users to control their televisions with physical gestures.
  • Sony’s BRAVIA remote controls are designed to be operable with one finger, which can accommodate some users with mobility-related conditions.
  • Amazon’s Fire TV features VoiceView, a built-in screen reader that announces menu options and settings. Fire TVs also have screen magnifiers, high-contrast text settings, and audio streaming for hearing aids.

Samsung has emerged as one of the leaders in smart TV accessibility. Since 2020, most of their televisions have movable closed captions, zoom capabilities for expanding sign language windows, and customizable color schemes.

“We don't want to exclude anyone,” Byungho Kim, who works at Samsung's social contribution center and has a vision disability, said in 2021. "Our technology is for everyone."

Related: The Business Case for an Accessible Website

Streaming devices like Apple TV can add important functionality for users with disabilities

While Samsung, Amazon, and other TV manufacturers have embraced accessibility, some TVs aren’t “smart" out of the box. For many users with disabilities, third-party devices can fill in the gaps. 

Google’s Chromecast, an inexpensive plug-in streaming device, can work with the company’s TalkBack screen reader. Apple TV, a set-top streaming device, supports the VoiceOver screen reader and has a host of other features to reduce motion, enlarge text, and switch controls to other devices.

For manufacturers, focusing on accessibility provides tangible business benefits: About 1 in 4 U.S. adults have some type of disability, and that proportion is increasing due to demographic trends. Following the best practices of inclusive design allows manufacturers to reach a wider audience — and sell more TVs. 

Related: What Designers Can Learn From Apple’s New Accessibility Updates

While hardware and software improvements can improve accessibility, content creators share the responsibility

Modern televisions can present captions in a variety of formats, output text as speech, and perform other functions that weren’t possible before TVs became “smart.” However, accessibility begins at the content level, not at the product level. 

In 2012, Netflix settled a two-year class action lawsuit for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Per the complaint, the service didn’t provide captions for 100 percent of its videos. Since then, Netflix has committed to providing captions or subtitles for all on-demand streaming content.

Ultimately, streaming providers have an obligation to make their content accessible. That’s also true for other types of web content, and embracing inclusive design can have enormous benefits for every business. To learn more, read our free eBook, Developing the Accessibility Mindset.

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