man with white hair watching TV, using remote control

Hollywood is waist deep into its annual awards season.

There was a time when there would be little reason for blind or visually impaired people to take note of Tinseltown’s award-caliber offerings, as most visual media would have been largely inaccessible. This is less so today, thanks to emerging technologies that bring visual media to life for visually impaired audiences in theaters and at home, as well as to hard-fought legislation that is slowly making these technologies more widely available.

Unfortunately, not everyone can fully enjoy Moonlight at the local multiplex or independently cue up a binge-watch of Westworld's first season on their DVRs. Not just yet. Politics, business, and technology are an unpredictable mix. Recent developments on the accessibility front highlight both the impressive gains and persistent obstacles involved in achieving universal access to the best in entertainment.

Let's take a look at recent developments in:

Comcast XFINITY X1 Takes the Lead on Cable TV Accessibility

Cable giant Comcast has announced the new built-in accessibility features of its XFINITY X1 set-top box. To date, Comcast is the first — and at press time, only — home entertainment distribution company to meet the December 20 deadline for compliance with federal regulations requiring cable and satellite companies to incorporate upgrades for viewers with disabilities into their cable set-top boxes.

X1 features include a "talking box" viewers' guide for easy channel surfing and a remote that takes voice commands. X1 is further enhanced by a new accessibility support center with trained staff to help customers with disabilities take full advantage of closed captioning, video description and other features.

"Comcast has earned high marks for its ingenuity and its commitment to reaching all of its customers," said AFB AccessWorld Magazine editor Lee Huffman. "It is clear that Comcast is listening to the vision loss community. We applaud their leadership."

Huffman also noted that although Comcast appears to be the only cable or satellite company that will be in compliance on December 20, there are signs that other companies are working diligently to catch up. "We believe that Comcast's success, and active collaborative partnership efforts will encourage companies to meet the challenge and act swiftly to close the accessibility gap with all future generations of products and services."

Movie Description: Coming to a Theater Near You ...in 2018

Enjoying first-run movies on the big screen: Innovative technology has put this goal within reach for visually impaired audiences. As with the cable industry, the vision loss community's diligent work in Washington, D.C. has helped to bring the force of law to bear on ensuring equal access.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice issued its final rule on Movie Theaters and Movie Captioning and Audio Description. The rule further implements Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public accommodations.

Under the directive, movie theaters must provide audio description and closed captions to patrons in auditoriums showing digital movies that are produced or distributed with those features. The rule does not apply to movies shown on analog projection systems.

"The requirement sounds like an obvious thing, but in fact, theater exhibitors have not always made existing accessibility features available to ticket buyers," said AFB Tech Project Associate Matthew Janusauskas. "Enforcement of the final rule means movie lovers with disabilities can attend screenings confident that the experience will be accessible and rewarding."

Theaters must comply with the regulation by June 2, 2018. If a theater converts from analog to digital projection systems after December 2, 2016, the theater has an additional six months to implement these provisions.

Postponement of FCC Vote on Expanded TV Description Worries Advocates

The much-anticipated expansion of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act will have to wait. Hopefully, not indefinitely.

After two decades of lobbying and negotiation, the FCC appeared ready to act on upgraded regulations that would have doubled the number of hours of major network programming featuring video description and applied the requirement to all top ten non-broadcast cable channels. The FCC was expected to vote on the measure at its November 17 meeting, but the matter was tabled — along with a slate of other FCC business — until after President-elect Donald Trump assumes office in January.

Congressional Republicans asked that the FCC postpone moving on anything "complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial" until after the inauguration. While such requests are hardly unprecedented in the wake of a presidential election, the hope is that strong bipartisan support for the expanded video description requirement will carry over to the next administration and that the FCC will move swiftly. "What we don't want, after the investment of so much hope and hard work, is for this delay to go from temporary to indefinite," said AFB Policy Director Mark Richert. "It's essential that the vision loss community remains vigilant and continue to work with our Washington partners to see this measure passed and implemented."

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