Movies and television are central to American pop culture. As more people cut the cord and get their entertainment through streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, it’s critical that streaming platforms are accessible. However, disability advocates say that there is a large audience of people with visual impairments unable to embrace the full media experience on streaming platforms.
New features and UI changes required by settlement agreements
Netflix and Hulu are leaders in streaming services, with more than 60 million and 20 million US subscribers, respectively. In recent years, both companies pledged to make the platform more accessible to the disability community. Although both Hulu and Netflix included mainstream accessibility such as closed captioning from the beginning, opening up their libraries to the visually impaired required legal action.
After a settlement agreement with the American Council of the Blind (ACB), Netflix began including audio description tracks as early as 2015 and agreed to update all device apps to provide screen reading technology by the end of 2016. The company also agreed to provide audio description tracks for all original programming, request audio description tracks for all new content, and make reasonable efforts to source descriptive audio tracks in existing content. The service currently offers more than 800 described titles in the US content library.
Hulu reached a similar agreement in 2018 with advocates from the ACB and other parties. The settlement requires Hulu to increase the accessibility of the streaming service to individuals who are blind or have low vision by January 2020. The company committed to making the website and all device apps accessible via screen readers and providing audio description tracks for streaming content where possible.
What issues will Hulu address in upcoming changes?
Hulu aims to make changes on the company website and all device apps so that they are compliant with standard web-accessibility guidelines. Ideally, planned updates will allow the blind and low vision community to watch Hulu content independently and participate as equal members of society. Doing so requires the company to make UI updates, push new technology out to every device, and re-work their platform with adaptive features.
For example, Hulu’s 2017 UI redesign left many struggling to make out onscreen text. The colorful gradient backgrounds paired with white text in a modern font made it hard to read. The lack of contrast between the light-colored backgrounds and the white text required users to strain their eyes to see clearly. Hulu agreed to test future updates to the UI for usability.
Although some devices like Roku provide audio feedback when moving the cursor on some platforms, Hulu didn’t have a built-in screen reader. Screen readers allow viewers with visual impairments to hear audio cues to guide them through the menus. Vocal prompts announce menu navigation and read titles.
None of Hulu’s streaming content included audio description prior to the agreement. Audio description is a separate audio track that narrates the onscreen action so that low vision users can hear the dialogue and hear a play by play description simultaneously.
Recent updates to Hulu’s platform introduce changes
The update provides some new features that make the platform more accessible and provides a foundation for future updates. According to the press, Hulu pushed updates in the first half of October to address these issues on Roku devices, but my Roku 3 only reflects the first legibility feature. The same changes will reportedly become more broadly available to other platforms in upcoming weeks.
**Better text legibility **
Hulu enhanced the text opacity and increased the contrast of the white font by pairing it with darker background screens. Previously, the white all caps font was difficult to read. The new color pairing should make it easier to read for all users. The update is applied automatically for all Hulu users.
**Enable and disable the descriptive audio **
Audio description of video provides information about actions, characters, scene changes, on-screen text, and other visual content during pauses in dialogue. According to the ACB, Hulu currently has 58 titles with audio description available. The feature appears to work on browsers, but not in Roku menus yet. Plans are for the feature to be easily enabled and disabled in the same way that users can turn on/off the closed captions.
How to turn on Hulu’s audio guide
- Access Hulu.com on a browser
- Gear icon>Subtitles and Audio
- Choose English-Audio Description (might not be possible without sighted assistance)
More plans for the future
Filter for the library
In the future, viewers will be able to filter the Hulu streaming library based on the availability of audio description. For now, the easiest way to identify titles is to access the Audio Description Project website which keeps a running list of available shows for each platform.
Update website and apps to ensure screen readers work accurately
Hulu prioritized platform changes but has additional updates before it is fully in compliance with generally accepted standards. The recent update provided the foundation for developers to enable screen reader technology. Hulu agreed to update the company website and multiple software applications to ensure that screen-reader users can navigate and interact with the platform.
A screen reader on a computer or handheld device can help viewers with visual impairments by vocally guiding them through websites and apps, but developers must code for compatibility. Screen readers are software included on a device, and therefore can be turned on via a device’s setting. The software converts the text displayed visually into audible speech or on a digital braille display. If any button or field is unlabeled, it can render a website wholly unusable for those using a screen reader.
That’s a wrap
Early this month, Hulu rolled out accessibility enhancements that improve the viewing and navigation experience for people with visual impairments. According to the ACB, blind community members are enthusiastic about the new opportunity to fully enjoy the extensive programming selections available on streaming services. As industry leaders, Hulu and Netflix are paving a path that makes entertainment accessible to all.
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