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.