Will We Ever Gain Access to Game Consoles?

by Anthony James

I am writing this not just to the specific agencies involved in blindness advocacy, but to the blindness community as a whole.  The United States has made tremendous progress toward leveling the playing field for the nation's blind and low-vision communities in terms of accessibility in schools and the workplace.  With accessible tests and other study materials, students can now engage on the same level with their sighted peers.  Similarly, the workplace has been improved, with employers now having a better understanding of how best to meet the needs of their blind employees so they can be most productive.  The nation has a long way to go in terms of equality, and there is one specific area that I wish to bring to your attention.  This one area has been long-standing and thus far unaddressed: the issue of dedicated game consoles.
I am a totally blind 22-year-old who enjoys gaming like every other young adult.  The problem is that many of the newer consoles, like the Sony PlayStation 3, Xbox Original and Xbox 360, both manufactured by Microsoft, and the Nintendo Wii, are totally inaccessible to the blind and low-vision community.  While it is true that a very limited number of games are playable by the blind community on these consoles, the multitude of other functions available to the sighted community such as movie watching, web browsing, and downloading extra content such as movies and other games from the respective manufacturers are not at all accessible.  As a nation which values equality for all, I believe it's our responsibility to insure that blind gamers who choose to use these consoles have the same rich experience as their sighted peers.  While I understand that a game console doesn't hold the same level of importance as a computer does, I would also like to point out that modern consoles like those listed above are in and of themselves computers with similar functionality.  These consoles can browse the web, download content, be used as DVD players, and connect wirelessly to one's home or office wi-fi network, among other things.
While I am not a programmer, I know that several companies have invested time and money in developing screen readers for computers.  JAWS, written by Freedom Scientific, Window-Eyes by GW Micro, and NVDA are the major screen readers, with each one offering a slightly different user experience for the blind or low-vision individual.  Additionally, Apple offers VoiceOver, a powerful yet simple screen reader which assists the blind user to locate and activate items on the screen.  Android offers Talkback, a screen reader similar to VoiceOver.  Both of these screen readers come pre-installed at no additional charge to the user. Several accessible games exist that run on these platforms, games that use audio feedback to help the user know what to do.  Text-based games also exist for these platforms.  In these games, buttons and other page elements are clearly labeled for the screen reader. I believe that a similar solution is not only possible for game consoles, but is, in fact, needed.
Modern gaming consoles are powerful devices with so much functionality.  Consoles like those above are menu-driven, meaning that they have a menu structure like a computer to allow the user to access the multitude of functions available.  It is because of this menu system that modern consoles are inaccessible to those who cannot see the screen.  This is where a screen reader can come into play.  The screen reader can load with the regular operating system and guide the user through the menu structure by describing the menu options available. Once a game is loaded, the screen reader can be deactivated manually or automatically.  The screen reader could be used to guide the user through both the system options and the specific menu structure of the game.
The blindness community is losing out on so much which is easily available to the sighted community simply because the technology is not accessible.  I am confident that if game manufacturers are made aware of the fact that if they start directing resources toward developing screen readers to run on their respective consoles, they will increase their customer base.
The United States is a nation which was built upon the principles of equality for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and most importantly, disability.  The nation has made great progress toward equality for all, but there is still much that can be done, and making game consoles accessible to the blind is yet another way for the nation's population to be equal.