A Better Normal: How X1 Leveled the Field for Two Blind Teens

A Better Normal: How X1 Leveled the Field for Two Blind Teens

Comcast's accessible technology enables the Smedley family to enjoy television together.

X1’s accessibility features include a talking guide, a voice-controlled remote control, and video descriptions.

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Monday, July 10, 2017 - 8:15am

Diagnosed with a rare eye disease at four months old, both of Kristin Smedley’s sons are legally blind yet fiercely independent.

Michael, 17, is the driven, do-everything kid. A musician and audiophile, as a high school sophomore, he parlayed his fascination with acoustics into a gig doing sound design for the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.

Four years younger, Mitchell is the natural-born performer. Confident, carefree, and precocious, he’s known how to work a crowd since kindergarten. He recently finished a star turn in his school’s production of Seussical the Musical.

Kristin has watched Michael and Mitchell break dozens of barriers with the latest assistive tools and technologies. But she wasn’t prepared for the emotions that swelled when her boys used the accessibility features on XFINITY X1 for the first time in the summer of 2016. Life for her kids was suddenly a little more kid-like.

“I was overwhelmed,” says Kristin, a former third-grade teacher who launched the Curing Retinal Blindness Foundation in 2011. “I probably cried too, because I’m like that.

“Not being able to watch TV seems like such a small thing in the face of all the other challenges blind people face. But things like that gnaw in the background. They suggest that the world is not at your fingertips the way it is for other people.”

Comcast launched the X1 talking guide in 2014 as part of our commitment to making our technology and media accessible to the widest possible audience. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19 million U.S. households have at least one member with a disability and 8.1 million people have a visual disability. Providing richer, more inclusive entertainment experiences is just the right thing to do for our customers.

X1’s accessibility features include a talking guide that “speaks” what’s on the screen, a voice-controlled remote control, and video descriptions that narrate key visual elements of the programming within natural pauses of the dialogue.

It’s a radical change for Michael and Mitchell, who no longer rely on their parents or sister to check the channel guide or control the menus, which annoyed Mitchell so much that he all but gave up on TV. But what Kristin loves most is the sense of inclusion that accessible TV creates for her family.

“My 12-year-old daughter is sighted, and she was born into this family with a ton of bridges between blind and sighted already in place,” Kristin explains. “So it was bizarre to her that the boys couldn’t read the menus on TV. Why shouldn’t they have that ability? Now they do.”

Kristin believes the value of products like X1 is that they do more than change the lives of blind people; they normalize them.

“Comcast has millions of customers relying on them to be cutting-edge on everything, but the company invested in this small little niche where my two boys are,” she says. “If other big companies would shift their perspective to incorporate more people when designing a product, what a world it could be.”

And with normalcy comes the sense that you can achieve anything. Like when Michael and Mitchell played on championship baseball teams as the only blind kids to ever play in the league. Or when a rumor started at Michael’s school that he wasn’t blind at all because nothing slows him down.

Kristin is proud of every achievement, but she revels in the moments when her kids can just be kids. “I’m sure this will sound ridiculous, but every time I see one of the boys alone in the room working the TV, I have to stop and watch for a second,” she says. “And I think, ‘Oh my God, this is so different than it used to be.’ It’s just incredible.”