President’s Message: Comcast: An Industry Leader in Accessibility

by Kim Charlson

I don’t often highlight the activities of a specific manufacturer or service provider, but in the case of Comcast, I felt compelled to make an exception.
In 2014, Comcast took a major step toward corporate accessibility with the opening of the Comcast Accessibility Support Center for customers with disabilities. The specially trained staff in the Accessibility Support Center know about accessibility issues relating to Comcast, and they also understand and are familiar with assistive technology, audio description and Voice Guidance, to assist customers having problems.
To reach the Accessibility Support Center, call 1-855-270-0379 or e-mail Agents are available from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m. (Eastern time), seven days a week.
In addition to the center, Comcast has led the industry by being the first cable provider to launch Voice Guidance, an interface providing spoken navigation to the program guide and the cable features such as recording or On Demand.
In March, I was honored to submit a nomination to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, for Comcast’s Talking Guide feature on the X1 Operating System for the Chairman’s Awards for Advancement in Accessibility (“Chairman’s AAA”) in the “miscellaneous” category. I felt that Comcast’s Talking Guide feature deserved consideration for the Chairman’s AAA Award because it has opened up a new world of options for blind and visually impaired customers to watch and experience television.
Comcast’s Talking Guide feature “speaks” what’s on the television screen as the viewer navigates the “Guide,” “Saved,” “On Demand,” and “Settings” sections of the X1 user interface. It includes details like individual program descriptions and ratings from Common Sense Media and Rotten Tomatoes that help viewers decide what to watch from their entire channel lineup.  The Talking Guide also allows customers who are blind or visually impaired to independently access settings to enable or disable the Secondary Audio Program (“SAP”) to access content with audio description.  It provides the ability to schedule and play DVR recordings and access the more than 50,000 movies and TV programs currently available in Comcast’s video-on-demand library. The Talking Guide is easily activated by double-tapping the “A” button on any X1 remote control.
Comcast debuted the Talking Guide feature in a public trial in several markets in July 2014, and officially launched the feature on Dec. 18, 2014.
The Talking Guide is currently available to all of Comcast’s X1 customers. Comcast is the first video provider to provide a voice-enabled television user interface. It has revolutionized how blind and visually impaired customers interact with their set-top boxes, making it easier to navigate menus and thus expanding their television viewing options. The Talking Guide also breaks down barriers to allow blind and visually impaired customers to experience American culture and participate in society. As I told “The Boston Globe” in November 2014, “TV is more than just a box with a picture in it. … It’s our culture and our society, and people spend a lot of time talking to each other about what they watched on TV last night. It’s important to be part of that conversation.” 
Here’s a sampling of what members of ACB have been saying about Voice Guidance:

  • “The talking guide encourages independence and self-sufficiency; it’s a real game-changer for anyone who is blind and loves TV.”
  • “[The Talking Guide] represents a major advance in ease-of-use of DVRs.”
  • “[The Talking Guide] grants near full usability to vision impaired and blind television watchers to the vast world of cable television content.”
  • “It’s absolutely wonderful to do everything a sighted person can do with their cable TV.”
  • “It is great to be able to look through all of that on-demand content that was useless to us before.”

I am very pleased to report that Comcast did win the award, and was recognized by the FCC and Chairman Wheeler on June 3rd in Washington, D.C. at the M-Enabling Summit.
The most significant factor and the most relevant quote from members states, “Comcast is setting a high bar for the rest of the television field to follow.” This statement is absolutely true. ACB is watching and waiting for the other cable providers to step out and offer a service that provides the same level of accessibility to the television viewing experience as Comcast has provided for customers who are blind. Other providers need to get moving, engage ACB and our members in the testing process for access. We don’t want to be told about a system when it’s ready to launch; we want to be consulted and provide important feedback during the testing and evaluation phase. We want each and every system being proposed to work for customers who are blind of whatever cable provider they use. We will be there … ready to help, ready to provide valuable feedback, and we want to hear from cable companies now, not six months from now. We have expectations of access and we will definitely be watching to ensure that accessibility will be there for people who are blind, who right now may not be fortunate enough to be in a Comcast service area, or who have contracts with another provider. We have waited long enough! Access is a reality for television and we are ready to have it now!