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Enjoying the Television With a Vision Loss

Enjoying the Television With a Vision Loss

One of the most common challenges clients report, after experiencing a vision loss, is watching TV. They will often report an inability to see the actors’ faces, printed text on the screen, or the television menus and accompanying channel guide. Television viewing has changed dramatically in recent years and the number of ways to approach these challenges has increased exponentially… which is a good thing, right? Ultimately yes, but the dizzying array of new technology surrounding television viewing may make some of us dream longingly of watching the Andy Griffith show on an old B&W TV, with rabbit ears-style antenna! If the picture became fuzzy, at least you knew how to fix it—slap the TV with the palm of a hand, or twist around the rabbit ears! Ultimately though, many of these changes are creating a positive impact on enjoying and accessing television programming for all of us.

Before looking at some of the environmental factors affecting television viewing for consumers with a vision loss, it’s worth considering a completely new definition for television. Television programming is now really just content that traditionally was only available on that appliance with a large screen, often situated in a common area of the home. Today, on the other hand, television programming can be delivered to a computer, smart phone, or tablet, and the services vary widely– cable, Internet, satellite dish, antenna, etc. The TV you purchase now, may also connect to the Internet and be capable of doing much more than delivering television programs–you might use it, for example, to go to a website, check your email, or play music, among many other things.

To begin, let’s address some of the environmental factors that may detract from watching TV in a more traditional way—sitting across the room from a screen displaying some sort of television programming.

Glare and Magnification

Two low-tech factors affecting your ability to see the television screen, or most any electronic display, are glare and magnification.

If your screen is in front of a window, or near a powerful light that is often on, glare may play a significant role in reducing the contrast needed to watch TV. Move the TV away from the window, reduce the glare from the window with curtains, or consider trying a pair of indoor glare shields from NOIR.

Glare shields are available in a wide variety of styles and filter colors, so to be certain of the correct filter, have an assessment done by a low vision therapist or vision rehabilitation therapist before purchasing one.

Magnification can be achieved in several different ways. We often think of optical solutions when we think about magnification, so it is not uncommon for clients to ask for “glasses” to help with television viewing. It’s easy to overlook one of the easiest methods of achieving magnification—simply moving closer to the object we’re trying to see! If it’s at all possible, try moving closer to the screen. Check with your doctor, but in most cases, sitting closer to the television screen will not negatively impact your vision—contrary to what many of us were told as children. That said, however, there is mounting evidence that both the blue and ultraviolet light emitted by most digital screens may cause damage to the eye’s retina (seeSeminars@Hadley, The Low-Down on Lighting for more in-depth information)

Consider a larger screen, or switching to a high definition (HD) television screen. A trip to the local electronics store will enable you to conduct your own assessment. Look at various screens in the store to see if a particular type offers a clearer picture, and at what distance can you see it best?

And, the answer is, “Yes,” there are glasses to magnify the television screen. Over the past 10 years, however, I’ve done numerous demonstrations and assessments with such glasses, but in most cases clients find these to be either ineffective, or cumbersome to wear. Three high-quality versions of these glasses include the Eschenbach Max TV, Max TV Clip, and COIL Spectacle Binoculars. All three and numerous other products that look similar are readily available from or, in some cases, the local box store. Before spending the money, though, ask your low vision therapist or vision rehab therapist to trial a pair, to determine if they really will work for you.

Another optical option might be a handheld monocular or telescope. These can be held up to either eye, or in some cases, mounted to existing glasses, to see greater detail. Monoculars come in magnification strengths greater than 2X, which is more than the maximum magnification available in the TV glasses mentioned above. Keep in mind that as the magnification strength increases, the field of view will decrease. In other words you may see greater detail in a smaller area of the TV screen with a monocular, but much less of the screen than you might see through the TV glasses. Again, you will want to get a professional assessment done prior to purchasing a monocular to determine the best magnification and field for you. Also, keep in mind, that unless the monocular is mounted to a pair of glasses, you will be holding it up to your eye again and again, as needed, and this can get tiresome despite any benefit gained by looking through it! To see some examples of monoculars, the Independent Living Aids catalog offers a wide selection of varying magnifications and fields.

A final environmental accommodation that comes in handy is creating greater access to the television remote. TV remotes can become difficult to use if the lighting is poor, the print is too small to see clearly, has poor contrast, or the number of buttons becomes overwhelming. While a large print remote with larger buttons and better contrast, may come in handy, it is often only one or two buttons that are most regularly used and difficult to find. It may be the case that a high contrast, raised line marker, like Hi Mark, in white or orange can add a label that can be seen and felt, after the liquid dries. You may also find simplified or large print remotes at a local electronics store, or through Independent Living Aids.

Better Access to TV Programming

Glare, magnification, and remote labeling may be just what’s needed for some television viewers, but for others, this is not going to make the television, programs, and menus completely accessible. A great leap forward for greater television accessibility took place with the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, or CVAA, passed in 2012. For a comprehensive look at the CVAA read Mark Richert;s article, The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act: Highlights of a New Landmark Communications Law, in Access World. The CVAA includes a very comprehensive set of accessibility guidelines for communications devices, such as televisions, computers and phones. Two of the most exciting provisions for television viewing include increased accessibility for user controls and menus, and a mandated quota for video described programing.

In brief, the CVAA mandates that any devices airing broadcast or cable programming have user controls and menus used for locating programs and turning on video descriptions, that are accessible by users who are blind or visually impaired. As a result many of the Smart TVs (televisions that connect to the Internet and do much more than provide traditional cable and broadcast reception) are now more accessible with self-voicing menus, and cable companies such as Comcast are incorporating text-to-speech into their programming menus.

Additionally, the CVAA mandated that some of the most popular broadcast networks and cable networks offer 50 hours of primetime or children’s audio described video per quarter. This is 4 hours each week.

What is Audio Description (AD) for Video?

Audio described movies or programming include additional narration that accompanies the film to describe action that might otherwise need to be accessed visually. Audio description is not just limited to videos, it may be implemented in live performances of all types and delivered by radio receiver, iOS app, or some other sort of separate device. For an example of audio description in action watch the Notes on Blindness video, about writer and theologian John Hull’s experience with vision loss, in the audio described version.

For programs offering it, audio description may often be turned on through the SAP (second Audio Program) or MTS (Multichannel Television Sound) options on the television or cable menus. To learn more about audio described television options, be sure to check out the Audio Description Project (ADP) pages on the American Council of the Blind (ACB) website. Within the Television section readers will find a handy network guide updated weekly, to learn which channels are offering programming with audio descriptions, and at what time.

While television programming and the hardware used to access this programming has changed, some of the fundamentals related to watching the TV, and increasing access to it with a vision loss, such as increasing magnification and reducing glare, remain the same. Legislation, such as the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act will also continue driving greater accessibility and increased options for television viewing. Perhaps one of the greatest changes in television viewing—the increasing ways in which television programming is delivered—on smart phones, tablets, smart tVs, and through Internet streaming services, are yet to come…

This article appears as, “Enjoying Television With Vision Loss,” on

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