Having been blind since the age of three, I’ve always known that some experiences would be very different for me. To this day, some of my friends find it funny to hear me say that I’ve "seen" a movie or "watched" my favorite shows. Indeed, I’ve always loved entertainment since I was a child. I am typically able to identify actors and actresses by their voices, and I rarely have trouble following the plot of a movie or show. The biggest issue has always been, how could I independently find what I want to watch?
I remember when my parents first got "Digital Cable" for our home. It was back in the summer of 1997, and I was 13 years old. I vividly recall how excited I was when the cable technician showed us the new features we would be getting - an on-screen guide, parental controls, music channels, Pay-Per-View (no On Demand back then), and more. Then it suddenly dawned on me - I would be completely unable to access most of it on my own. Once again as with a few other situations in my life, the playing field would be very uneven.
As the years went by, the playing field was leveled in many areas. New technology made new things possible. Instead of bulky Braille books and expensive note takers, I was able to use devices such as the iPhone and iPad to do many things on my own. I began for the first time to feel a true sense of independence. The problem was, this independence still did not extend to television. Sure, I could memorize some channel numbers, use streaming services to rent or buy some movies to watch with friends and family but in reality I was missing out on the most essential component of the TV viewing experience - the ability to simply browse for content on my own and then independently decide to watch, record, rent, buy, or altogether skip particular content. I always found myself at the mercy of other people who could see. They were in control of the remote and consequently, in charge of the entire experience.
It’s not that I wanted total say in everything we watched. The point is, I had no options. I felt left out as other people browsed through channels and content. Some providers began developing iPad and iPhone apps to complement their TV services, and I had high hopes that this would improve the experience. What I found however was more of the same exclusion, because most companies were not taking the time to make their apps accessible with Apple’s built-in speech program - VoiceOver. Occasionally, an app would work with VoiceOver for a while, but it was just dumb luck. After an update or two, the app would be inaccessible once again, and customer service representatives would typically have no information to help me out. Most of them had never even heard of VoiceOver and just assumed that I was a clueless customer wanting something that was simply not possible. So frustrating was the experience that I had effectively given up on the idea of being able to watch TV in the way my sighted peers do.
It was at this time that I became aware of Comcast’s new X1 service and thought I’d give it a try. It seemed like X1 offered features that my family would love - things like On Demand, the Cloud Player, Any Room DVR, apps, and more. Yet I really expected nothing in the way of accessibility.
A day or two before the installation, I was browsing the web to see what I could learn about X1 and I inadvertently stumbled upon a YouTube video about X1 and decided to watch it. What I found completely astonished me. It was a demo of the brand-new Talking Guide feature - Voice Guidance. To say I was dubious would be an understatement - it was more like total disbelief. I quickly googled to see what else I could learn. Even then I had to call Comcast to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I saw. Sure enough, for the first time in my life, I would have an accessible television experience. Not only that, but I also quickly learned that Comcast has an entire department dedicated to accessibility.
After my X1 installation I immediately began exploring. Instantly there was a palpable change in my feelings about television. To be honest, for the first week or so, I found myself picking up the remote unnecessarily and pushing the Xfinity button just to make sure Voice Guidance still worked and that the whole thing wasn’t a dream. To be sure, it was completely real and completely awesome. Everything I could not do before is now possible - independently browsing the guide and On Demand content, performing searches, setting recordings and accessing them later, and much more. The playing field is now completely level in this area thanks to Comcast.
So now I had accessible TV. Was it possible that the various Xfinity apps were also accessible? I already used the Xfinity Connect app for email and voice features, but as yet I had never seen a truly accessible TV app. Sure enough, the Xfinity TV app which lets me watch recordings from anywhere and use my iPad and iPhone as additional TV screens when in my home, the TV Go app that lets me watch On Demand and live content away from home, the On Demand Purchases app, the X1 Remote app, and more, all work perfectly well with the VoiceOver screen reader.
It is very difficult to express the feeling one gets from independence. It’s something I fear is often taken for granted. Things like learning to cook for my family, helping out around the house, and more, all have to be taught to me in very different ways. I have no problem asking for help - it’s not a pride issue to be sure, yet any challenge which I cannot conquer independently serves as a reminder that I cannot see. Conversely, anything that I can do independently helps me to feel a sense of freedom and equality that every human being deserves. By bringing accessibility to X1 and to the Xfinity apps, Comcast has done far more than change the way people like me experience television. They have helped people like me reclaim some of that freedom and equality. Comcast has not just provided a new feature, they’ve made a bold move to send a powerful message - a message of hope - a message that every person matters. They have also reminded other companies that good is the enemy of great, that the status quo is not good enough, and that accessibility should be a right - not a privilege.