How PBS Kids is Making Children's Television More Accessible

During the parade of Hollywood A-listers at Apple's March services event the company brought on stage to hype their upcoming Apple TV+ shows, at one point Big Bird appeared to talk about the Sesame Street series.

Sesame Street, of course, has been running on PBS stations for decades. PBS Kids has long been recognized as the leader in educational programming for children—but their commitment runs far deeper than that. The network cares about making accessible entertainment for all children, of all abilities.

"PBS Kids aims to reach all kids, but we have a special focus on supporting those kids that need it most," said Lesli Rotenberg, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager for Children’s Media and Education at PBS. Rotenberg oversees pretty much everything in the PBS Kids ecosystem, from content production to digital development to educational product creation. "As a public broadcaster, we’ve always felt a deep responsibility to uphold representation and inclusiveness in our content, including how that content is accessed and consumed."

PBS Kids's target demographic is children aged 2 to 8, spanning toddlerhood through early elementary school. The goal with its programming is augmenting early education. Young children's brains, particularly the toddler end of PBS's range, are highly malleable. Which is to say, their brains are exceptionally primed at this stage of development to soak up information; this retention plants the seeds of a child's worldview, which obviously becomes more complex as time passes and their cognitive abilities expand.

While there's no substitute for physical, real-world hands-on experiences for children—play-based childcare centers are best—the content PBS Kids produces surely can supplement learning in a positive way. "We aim to produce content that provides audiences with useful tools to be ever-curious and kind as they experience and grow through successful interactions at home, in the classroom and beyond," Rotenberg said. "We are committed to reducing barriers and creating flexible learning environments where all kids can succeed."

The work PBS Kids has put into accessibility and its mission to deliver accessible media began in 1972, when Boston's WGBH began showing programs with closed-captioning. Rotenberg says everything her network produces adheres to tenets of inclusive design, noting that "every PBS Kids program on-air includes closed-captioning and almost all include audio descriptions." Furthermore, the PBS Kids app—available on Android, iOS, and Windows—supports closed-captioning, as well as an information screen where parents can submit feedback and questions for the developers.

On the web, Rotenberg told me the PBS Kids site has been evaluated by the design team for accessibility. The website is optimized to work with screen readers, text-to-speech, and contrast. This is all done, she says, using the guiding principles of the Universal Design Language (UDL) framework.

Aside from streaming video, PBS Kids also has pushed for accessibility and inclusivity in its games. Rotenberg says "adaptive and personalized games have a lot of potential, as they adjust to a child’s individual learning needs and behaviors and provide on-demand supports that the child can actively seek to enhance their learning." PBS Kids's games include titles such as The Cat in the Hat Builds That and Railway Hero. The accessibility features supported in these games cover a wide variety of domains, including physical motor, blindness and low vision, and the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Screen readers, audio descriptions, and closed-captioning are just a few of the technologies designed to support disabled gamers.

The work PBS Kids has put into making content more accessible to everyone has not gone unnoticed by parents and educators. "Parents and educators alike are excited to see their [children] successfully engage with content that complies with such high standards for accessibility," Rotenberg said. Representation has been important as well, as Rotenberg notes much of the feedback garnered has centered around a child's ability to see themselves in the on-screen characters "who present a range of situational, temporary and permanent disabilities." One example of this is Julia, an autistic preschooler introduced in 2015 who, Sesame Workshop said at the time, "does things a little differently when playing with her friends.”

At a macro level, the work Rotenberg and her team at PBS Kids is both laudable and necessary. Disability representation on television and other media has been pitiful forever, so to see PBS go to the lengths they do to provide better representation for children is not an insignificant development. It puts disability—and by extension, accessibility—at the forefront of the shows and of the overall user experience; this is also why Apple's forthcoming series See, starring Alfre Woodward and Jason Momoa, is so intriguing. The whole premise surrounds a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity is blind—this is a stark contrast to the usual role disability plays as a plot device: one of moribundity and adversity.

PBS Kids has taken the right approach, putting all children on a level playing field. "There is a major gap in accessibility in media, [and] children and families are finding that PBS Kids is leading the industry in making this space open to kids from all backgrounds," Rotenberg said. PBS Kids can be an invaluable resource to not only families, but to special educators and others in special education classrooms.

Kindle Paperwhite First Impressions

I know I’m extremely late to the Kindle party, but I finally made it.

On Prime Day last week, I saw that Amazon was selling the Paperwhite for $80 and decided I would grab one. I’ve had it for about a week now, but haven’t had much time with it due to other things going on at home recently. I took it with me on BART yesterday on a trip across the bay to visit family, and so far I am very impressed by the device. It’s pretty great.

The book I’m reading is John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, which chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. I’d seen nothing but rave reviews for the book, so I figured it would be a good first book. As I write this, I’m three chapters in and loving it so far.

Here are some assorted thoughts on the Paperwhite thus far.

Size & Weight. The Paperwhite is much smaller and lighter than I expected, but I like it. It’s easy to hold and throw into my backpack. I got the black model, which is nice looking and well made, but the bezels make it look old. I have no insight into Amazon’s industrial design process, but I would love a Paperwhite with no bezels at all, kind of like how Apple got rid of the “forehead and chin” of the iPhone X.

The E-ink Display. The Paperwhite’s screen is great—text is sharp and easy to see at maximum brightness. As someone with low vision, I was curious to see how my eyes would acclimate to a different screen technology. In my brief time with my Paperwhite, I’ve had no issues with glare or eye fatigue.

The User Interface. I’ve found the Paperwhite’s touchscreen to be surprisingly responsive; I haven’t noticed any significant lag when tapping. The controls are thoughtfully laid out too. I like Amazon’s font choices and the slider for adjusting screen brightness and text size. As for page-turning, I don’t mind tapping the screen to go back and forth. I like the feeling of touching the screen and it does something; it’s natural.

Accessibility. Amazon has a slew of accessibility features for its products, including a screen reader, magnifier, text options, and more. For the Paperwhite, their VoiceView screen reader is supported, as are text options like font size and line spacing. If I discover more functionality, I will report back.

Overall, I’m enjoying the Paperwhite very much. I now see why Kindles are so popular. The Paperwhite is, in Alton Brown parlance, a unitasker—but the one thing it does, it excels at. There is a serenity about the device that is appealing; I don’t feel distracted or tempted to reach for my iPhone. I can focus on the reading experience in a way that’s more difficult on my iPad. Different devices for different things, but still. I’m happy I decided to finally take the plunge into Kindleland.

‘How the iPhone and App Store Have Redefined Accessible Software’

My friends and colleagues at MacStories have been running a week-long event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the opening of the App Store. I was honored to be asked to contribute a story for it, and my piece ran on Wednesday. The Cliff’s Notes version: The App Store has quite literally given the disabled community access to the world.

Apple Merges Machine Learning, Siri Teams

Matthew Panzarino, reporting for TechCrunch:

Apple is creating a new AI/ML team that brings together its Core ML and Siri teams under one leader in John Giannandrea.

Apple confirmed this morning that the combined Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning team, which houses Siri, will be led by the recent hire, who came to Apple this year after an eight-year stint at Google, where he led the Machine Intelligence, Research and Search teams. Before that he founded Metaweb Technologies and Tellme.

The internal structures of the Siri and Core ML teams will remain the same, but they will now answer to Giannandrea. Apple’s internal structure means that the teams will likely remain integrated across the org as they’re wedded to various projects, including developer tools, mapping, Core OS and more. ML is everywhere, basically.

As Panzarino notes, this move makes a ton of sense for many reasons.

‘The Science of Saving the Declaration of Independence’

Joe Pappalardo, writing for Popular Mechanics:

The official declaration of America’s independence from Britain may be dated July 4, 1776, but the story of the Thomas Jefferson's hallowed document really begins two weeks later. On July 19, the Continental Congress ordered a scribe, Pennsylvania State House clerk Timothy Matlack, to write the words on a piece of parchment big enough for everyone to read—and with room for signatures.

Since then, the Declaration of Independence has had a fairly rough time. A forensic analysis of the document shows some rough handling, damaging displays, and even a mysterious handprint. Understanding why it looks the way that it does — much more faded and battered than the U.S. Constitution or The Bill of Rights — is a romp through the history of printing, preservation, and patriotism.

This was a fascinating read; it’s astounding how old documents like this survive.

(via The Loop)

'The Democratization of Communication'

AssistiveWare founder and CEO David Niemeijer wrote a terrific piece on Medium on how the App Store has revolutionized access for AAC devices. He writes, in part:

We saw an opportunity to democratize access to AAC. Our aim was to deliver AAC on a consumer device at a price within reach of those who did not have access to funding. In April 2009, we released Proloquo2Go, the first full-featured symbol-based AAC app on iOS. Combined with an iPod touch and a speaker case, total cost was below US$ 500.

We were a small company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. We did not have a network of sales reps or a department to help with funding requests. The App Store provided us with access to a worldwide market. Within a year, we reached 40 countries and sold over 4,000 licenses, of which the vast majority were in the US.

This article ties in perfectly with yesterday's press release from Apple.

The Absurdity of Eating Competitions As 'Sport'

Great 2012 piece by Michele Catalano for the now-defunct American McCarver:

When did eating your weight in nitrates and meat-by products become a sport?

[...]

What does bother me about the whole IFOCE (yes, competitive eaters have their own federation) is that the people who partake in this stuff take themselves so seriously as to refer to themselves as athletes. Eating is not a sport. A competition, sure, but it’s not a sport, in much the same way that high school dance squads are not a sport. Yet ESPN wants you to believe they are, just so they can fill their programming slots with something besides paid advertisements from companies wanting to sell you souvenir coins imprinted with the number of your favorite NASCAR driver. Pounding back food, whether it be hot dogs or burgers or burritos or ice cream, is not a sport. Yes, it takes training and determination and discipline, but so does being a car bomber, and no one considers that a competitive sport.

Relevant today because Joey Chestnut won another Nathan's hot dog-eating contest.

More Health Insurers Adopt Apple's Health Records Feature

Michael Potuck at 9to5 Mac reports on more health insurance companies who have adopted Apple's Health Records API, which allows users to view their health record on their iPhone. Potuck writes there are now 65 participating providers and users will start reaping the benefits of the functionality this fall—this is currently included in the iOS 12 betas, now open to the public.

This feature is exciting from an accessibility perspective. I'm a Kaiser Permanente member, and my health records are stored online when I log into Kaiser's website. The information is available, but it isn't very accessible. The interface isn't exactly user-friendly and my recordfs are presented in relatively small fonts, which makes them hard to find and hard to read. Hence, you can imagine why this Health Records feature is exciting from an accessibility standpoint. Should Kaiser ever bring it to Northern California members—it's available only to Oregon and Washington residents now—then I could use the accessibility features on iOS to make accessing my records more accessible. That's no small feat, especially considering many didabled people have complex health records they need to keep tabs on. The combination of Apple's API and iOS's accessibility features should, in theory, make this much easier and more convenient for them, and for me.

Apple's Rebuilt Maps

TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino dropped a surprise 🔥 scoop this morning: Apple is overhauling its Maps app. According to his report, he spoke with Eddy Cue and "over a dozen" engineers on Apple's Maps team. Apple also let him ride in one of its Maps vans.

On the vans, Panzarino writes:

In addition to a beefed up GPS rig on the roof, four LiDAR arrays mounted at the corners and 8 cameras shooting overlapping high-resolution images – there’s also the standard physical measuring tool attached to a rear wheel that allows for precise tracking of distance and image capture. In the rear there is a surprising lack of bulky equipment. Instead, it’s a straightforward Mac Pro bolted to the floor, attached to an array of solid state drives for storage. A single USB cable routes up to the dashboard where the actual mapping capture software runs on an iPad.

[...]

When the images and data are captured, they are then encrypted on the fly immediately and recorded on to the SSDs. Once full, the SSDs are pulled out, replaced and packed into a case which is delivered to Apple’s data center where a suite of software eliminates private information like faces, license plates and other info from the images. From the moment of capture to the moment they’re sanitized, they are encrypted with one key in the van and the other key in the data center. Technicians and software that are part of its mapping efforts down the pipeline from there never see unsanitized data.

The new Maps will be included in the next iOS 12 beta and will be limited at first to the San Francisco Bay Area.

John Gruber on IGTV

John posted this item to Daring Fireball a few days ago, and I agree with his take on IGTV.

As I tweeted, reading his comments got me thinking about how I've really fallen out of love with Instagram. I still use it fairly regularly, but the ads and the algorthimic timeline, among other "features," have sullied the experience for me. I'll be 37 come September, and I admittedly feel old and curmudgeonly about this—it feels like the service has been skewing towards a younger audience (teen-to-20s) for some time now. In my usage, I follow a few hard rules that hearken back to the "good ol' days": I only post a single photo at a time, I never use Stories, and I do not share memes or screenshots (anymore). Oh, and my account is private; Instagram has always felt more personal to me than something like Twitter, which for me is an essential work tool for me (sharing and networking). For better or worse, this setup works for me and i'm sticking to it.