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16 March 2023

Bigger and better subtitles: it can be done but why is it so difficult?

Senior couple sitting on sofa while watching television in living room.

This article is an opinion piece written by one of our members, Dr Colin J Smith, for Insight magazine.

I wonder how many people with glaucoma also have severe hearing loss? If they do, like me they will need subtitles to enjoy television but because of our visual problems, they will struggle to read normal subtitles. Often these are too small and disappear against light backgrounds. Also, because of difficulties with shade differentiation often associated with glaucoma, certain colours are almost impossible to read.

There’s not much you can do about it on regular TV but if you have access to catch-up services like BBC iPlayer and streaming services such as Netflix, it is possible to customise subtitles and make them larger and clearer. For me, the most legible subtitles are Closed Caption (CC) with white print on an opaque black background.

But it isn’t easy to get them!

For example, among streaming services, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Disney + and Netflix do let you personalise subtitle size, colour and background. Unfortunately, each has a different way of enabling this process.

Sometimes, you have to search for the ‘Accessibility’ option in the ‘Settings’ menu on your Smart TV or computer. Sometimes, you have to pause a programme and highlight a speech bubble in the information line, usually at the bottom of the screen. You can then select and save the format which best suits your needs. However, to add further complexity to the proceedings, what you can do will also depend on which ‘platform’ you use to access your programmes (such as BT YouView or Amazon Fire Stick, for example).

I write as a fairly media-savvy octogenarian but many of my age group, who are most likely to need personalised subtitles thanks to age-related loss of sight and hearing, are least likely to be familiar with the technology for setting them up.

Why can’t someone, Ofgem perhaps, sort out a standardised universal subtitling system for all TV channels and streaming services? Just as buildings and travel companies must accommodate access for wheelchair users, why shouldn’t television be required to provide easy access for the partially sighted?

At the very least, it would be wonderful if someone could help those of us with sight and hearing loss by publishing a simple comprehensive guide on how to edit and personalise subtitles in all the different services.