Summer’s coming...or maybe for you it’s already here. As for me, we have one more week of school left. And let me tell you, when that week is over, I’ll be ready for some binge watching!
There are lots of options for watching television these day...gone are the days when you MUST have cable or satellite to get a large variety of channels. In the past five years, streaming devices have become increasingly common and more affordable. In fact, now that Smart TVs have come down in price, devices like Roku, Fire Stick, Chromecast, and others have become even more cost effective.
This article will focus on the Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa and the accessibility features built in as well as resources to learn more.
What You Will Need
Before we get started, let’s make sure that you have the type of hardware necessary to use a Fire TV Stick. After all, it doesn’t matter how accessible the device is if you can’t use it, right?
You will need all of the following:
- A WiFi connection (including access to the password)
- An Amazon account (note that you do not have to have Prime but it would increase your TV viewing as well as music options)
- A TV with an HDMI port OR an an RCA to HDMI Conversion kit similar to this one from Amazon
- Account information for any streaming services you subscribe to such as Netflix, Hulu, Sling, etc.
Simply plug your Fire TV Stick into the HDMI port, connect it to a power source with the mini USB cord (included with the unit) and you’re all set. You might want to get a tech-savvy friend to help you or check out this YouTube video by Ray Perez about how to connect your Fire TV Stick. Please note that this video was created for sighted individuals, so there is no reliable blind-friendly description.
Out of the Box Accessibility
According to various sources, including Amazon’s About VoiceView page, the Fire TV Stick is accessible out of the box. You simply need to hold the back and menu buttons on the remote simultaneously for two seconds (there will be a description of the remote shortly). There are instructions in the link above to get you started as well.
As promised, below is a top to bottom description of the Fire TV remote with Alexa:
Microphone - Located at the very top, just above the Voice Search button; a very small hole
Voice Search - Located at the top of the remote; a round button used to summon Alexa or do a search using your voice
Navigation Ring - A large raised ring located below the Voice Search button. Used to navigate up, down, right and left on the main screen and in menus.
Select - Button in the middle of the Navigation Ring; used to make a selection or as an “enter” key.
Under the Navigation Ring and Select Button are two rows of three buttons each.
The top row of three buttons consists of the following (from left to right):
Back Button - Used to navigate backwards a page or screen
Home Button - Can be used from anywhere, including within apps, to navigate directly to the Home Screen, from which you can select or open other apps
Menu Button - Used to open menu options of a particular app or program
The bottom row of buttons consists of the following (from left to right):
Rewind - Used to go backwards or rewind content that is currently playing
Play/Pause - Used to play or pause content that is currently playing
Fast Forward - Used to skip ahead or fast forward content that is currently playing
The Main Idea
There are many resources on how to get started with your Fire TV Stick, including how to download apps, sign in to streaming services, and control VoiceView. Most of these can be found in the VoiceView User Guide which will either be downloaded as a PDF or open in a new tab in your browser depending on your settings. There are also some very nice YouTube videos available, including Turning on VoiceView Screen Reader on Amazon Fire Stick by Bluetech7753.
In the sections below, we will discuss features of the Fire TV Stick that work well and those that might benefit from a bit of improvement. This may help you decide whether investing in this device is right for you.
The Good Stuff
The early versions of the Fire TV Stick software are not nearly as accessible as the version that is available now. All content from the main screen is read and quite accessible by using the navigation ring and following prompts given by VoiceView.
The search functions, both using the Voice Search feature and the text entry method are quite user friendly. It’s true that the text entry method is rather tedious, but to be fair, it’s tedious to sighted users as well.
It is very easy to get to the VoiceView options so that speech, rate, and other settings can be adjusted. The menus are also laid out in a fairly common-sense way so they are easy to navigate.
In the past couple of years, third party apps such as Netflix, Hulu, and Sling have become much more accessible and work quite well with VoiceView. In fact, as of this writing, the Hulu iPhone app is not accessible with VoiceOver at all. This is another viable way to access the streaming services you already subscribe to.
For the most part, in this author’s opinion, there are only a few things that could use improvement.
The first is that, in some apps such as Hulu, VoiceView simply stops talking once it gets to a certain point in reading the streaming chioices. It will start back up again after waiting a few minutes, using the navigation ring to go up in the menus and then back down, or going to the home screen and re-entering the app. Though not a “deal-breaker”, this is inconvienient and rather annoying.
When using some services, Sling in particular, the screen has a lot more content on it at one time. At times, VoiceView does not seem to navigate these screens in an order that is logical. Once you get enough practice and become used to the layout of the various screens within the app, navigation is much easier.
Most, if not all, of the games available on the Fire TV Stick are not made to be used wtih VoiceView. In fact, I have not come across one yet (if you have, please share in the comments). It would be nice to have some games or entertainment content available for those individuals who are blind or very low vision to play.
Lastly, and probably nothing that Amazon can really have any control over aside from its own content, is availability of video description. Some services, such as Netflix, have committed to providing video description for all of its original content. What I’ve watched so far has had very good description. Amazon would certainly attract more customers if it provided more described content.
Like any mainstream technology device that “just happens” to be accessible or have accessibility added in later on in development, the Fire TV Stick has its quirks. Overall, however, Amazon has done a great deal to increase the accessibility of its products.
While this product is accessible, it might not be the right choice for individuals who do not have a lot of patience for learning new things. It can require some problem solving skills that some individuals may either be lacking or unwilling to invest their time and attention on. So knowing yourself or the person you are purchasing the device for is important.
Amazon has an Accessibility page with links to product resources for individuals with varrying disabilities. Also on that page is a link to provide a contact number for one of their customer support specialists to call you and address your issues directly.