The Winter 2022 Paralympics in Beijing are set to be the “most inclusive” viewing experience in the Games’ history, featuring enhanced tools for viewing live sports and engaging with Paralympic content online. And with the Games being aired in coveted primetime slots, the accessibility of these events is especially important. But what does that entail for the viewers themselves?
NBC, the official broadcaster of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the U.S., announced that it was enhancing its accessible viewing options in response to the success of the historic Tokyo Games in 2020, which featured the first full closed-captioning service for all digital live streams. This year’s Games will now include 120 hours of television content, including three hours of primetime coverage, and even more changes to both its live and digital content.
In line with international standards for web accessibility, the expanded Paralympic coverage includes upgrades to the NBC website, like enhanced contrast, increased compatibility with screen readers, and keyboard-only navigation (especially helpful for those with mobility concerns). These enhancements build on the official International Paralympic Committee (IPC)’s own goal of greater digital accessibility, especially for its video-based online content.
And live broadcasts offer even more changes that promote accessibility. One of the biggest additions to 2022 Paralympic viewers, first deployed during the Tokyo Summer Games last year, are expanded closed captions for both live primetime broadcasts and digital live streams through the NBC app and Paralympic website, making all sporting events navigable for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing.
For people who are blind or have low vision, NBC has added audio description services to all of its Paralympic coverage. The services, in which broadcast audio is “interspersed with skilled voices describing Olympic and Paralympic scenes and context” according to NBC, have been automatically added to the events, including the opening and closing ceremonies scheduled to air on NBC’s USA Network. When scrolling through videos and event highlights found on the NBC website and app, look for “(AD)” after the event title, or find “with audio description” in the video’s summary. For cable television, audio descriptions can be turned on through your TV’s Secondary Audio Program (SAP) settings, which can usually be found under “Audio” or “Closed Captions” in the Settings menu.
You can also find a list of all events with audio descriptions, as well as access audio-described replays, here.
Beyond the live viewing experience offered on NBC, the official Paralympic website — which doesn’t air live broadcasts but offers other features like event schedules, medal counts, replays, and featured video content about the Games — has integrated a fleet of accessible features into its user experience.
Using a built-in widget (the small blue circle in the upper right corner of the page), page visitors can change the website’s text size, screen contrast, and color, and even switch the page font to two different typefaces that are easier for people with dyslexia to read. You can pause all automatic-playing animations, highlight all clickable links, and make other text format changes, like line spacing, all in one place. The widget also includes a built-in screen reader with adjustable speeds, as well as reading guides and highlighting tools for those who have cognitive or visual disabilities.
The immense variety of digital tools added in order to expand an already impressive international event for athletes with disabilities is especially important for former competitors.
“When I participated in the Olympic Games… the world then was not fixed at all. It was not accessible to people with wheelchairs,” reflected Yossi Wengier, an early Paralympic swimmer and medalist. “The problem now is for people with the kinds of disabilities that make the Internet killer, like blind people or people with cognitive [disabilities]. And I’m not only talking about sports, I’m thinking about everything… There are 1.2 billion disabled people around the world,” Wengier explains. For the last 10 years, Wengier has worked with activists in the disability movement and tech companies, including those behind the Paralympic’s tech features, to advocate for expanded digital accessibility. Seeing the amount of accessible online tools made available during the Tokyo and Beijing Paralympic Games made him emotional. “That is the future,” he said.
According to UserWay, the digital tech company behind the Paralympic Games’ integrated accessibility widget, the website is setting a standard for accessible user design — a fact that shouldn’t come as a surprise for an event predicated on advancing the representation of athletes (and people) with disabilities. “When the Paralympics say they’re the most accessible ever, it’s partially because the technology is the most advanced ever,” explained Lionel Wolberger, chief operating officer of UserWay. “One in five people have a disability that needs assistance or remediation… clearly the Paralympics organization took it upon themselves to really make this a priority.”
UserWay’s human-side widget allows any site visitor to customize the page to their own needs without the need of third-party tech or browser add-ons, and, with its intense accessibility, the website can act as a bridge for viewers with disabilities to find more Paralympic content, athletes, and accessibility resources elsewhere. The possibilities for customization, and engagement, are really endless.
The widget’s site features are also paired with original IPC content made explicitly for viewers with disabilities, like athlete interviews with onscreen sign language interpreters and sport highlights with audio descriptions.
Wolberger says that the IPC — along with commitments from major players like NBC — is a model for how other organizations can promote representation and access. And he says there needs to be active engagement from viewers and visitors of the Paralympic and NBC sites in order to encourage companies, sponsors, and institutions like these to continue expanding these kinds of accessibility offerings. “Awareness is a big driver across our industry,” Wolberger explains. It’s a conversation that keeps picking up momentum every year, according to UserWay — not only because it’s an important cause, but because many now have zero tolerance for companies and organizations that refuse to make their work accessible.
The additions to the 2022 Games are not only beneficial to athletes and viewers with disabilities, they can also help just about everyone who uses the site, streaming services, or live broadcasts, Wolberger says. Closed captioning is useful for anyone with audio or visual processing concerns and people with ADHD, or even just those who need to multitask while following along with their favorite athletes. And tools like slower screen readers or fonts that aid those with dyslexia can make navigating busy websites more manageable for all of us. It’s in everyone’s favor to continue advocating for more accessible features on major sites like these, and across the internet.
While the 2022 Paralympic Games gets ready to display the awe-inspiring talent of hundreds of athletes with disabilities, what’s just as important is that the communities being represented on the slope and the screen are able to engage with the Games in easy, accessible ways. With primetime coverage and new features, it seems like the 2022 Games are just the beginning of this expanded access.