As the Assistive Technology Adviser for London Vision I am often asked about access to radio and television by people with varying degrees of visual impairment.

In many ways, access to electronic products by visually impaired people has improved considerably over the last 10 years or so. Smartphones and computers in particular are now accessible out of the box and third-party products exist so that Apple, Android and Microsoft devices are really pretty accessible.

Most of us would like to spend at least some of the time listening to the radio or watching TV. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways of accessing radio. 

In the 1980s, most radios had an analogue tuner. You twisted a knob to tune the radio and used another control to change wave band. The list of bands might include AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Most blind and partially sighted people I knew got used to the order of the stations in their home area so they could use the radio pretty effectively.

Since then, things have moved on. There is still AM and FM radio and you can buy radios with a tuning knob so many national stations and a few local stations are still available as they have been for the last 40 years or more. However, many stations now use a system called DAB which stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The radio can be tuned automatically and, if you can see, information such as the name of the station and the song being played is automatically shown on the radio’s digital display so you always have details of what you are listening to. This is very convenient if you can see the display. If you do not have enough sight to read the display, however, finding out the details of the station is harder. There are many more stations than ever before and some even have no DJs, so song titles and artists are never announced.

In the past, Pure, one of the largest DAB radio manufacturers, produced a radio that was accessible. It wasn’t perfect for various reasons but it did allow the user to hear details of the current station as well as using features such as the wake up alarm independently. Development of this radio never continued despite reasonable sales, and manufacturing ceased some years ago.

Unfortunately, there is currently no truly accessible DAB radio available to visually impaired people without enough sight to read a display; this is clearly quite disappointing. Many people feel that more legal pressure is required to force manufacturers to make their products more accessible. If you have sighted assistance, and you only listen to a few stations, most radios have presets where each preset has a button like on an old car radio. These can be used to listen to the radio though sighted assistance will probably be needed setting them up.

For accessible products it is necessary to turn to internet radios. Most stations now broadcast online and some only broadcast online. These stations can be played using accessible mobile phones or computers, but many people want a device which looks more like a traditional radio. Many manufacturers such as Roberts and Pure offer devices that look like a radio but they can access radio stations that are online. As unlimited internet has become more affordable listening to the radio in this way has become more viable.

The internet radios are sadly not accessible but there are some solutions.

I have recently been demonstrating the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers. These can both be told to play particular stations using voice. I can say “Alexa, play Radio 5” and Radio 5 Live will start playing. The Amazon Echo is available for £30 or £90 for the larger version of this speaker. Google also makes a smart speaker called Google Home for around £129. You can read more about these devices in this review. 

Devices such as the Victor Stream are available from Human Ware. They also have a very good internet radio built-in. This pocket-sized device also plays audio books and music and it’s primarily designed for personal listening. It costs around £300.

Lastly there is the British Wireless for the Blind fund. They offer easy to see DAB radios but they also offer a specially designed tablet called Bumble Bee which allows users to access radio and podcasts. Until recently, they offered a device called Sonata which had buttons rather than touch controls but Solutions Radio in Holland are not developing this further so while it still works, it’s not available to new users.

So, there are accessible internet radios available and DAB radios can have presets programmed so they are usable by a blind person - albeit with some sighted assistance. More needs to be done for sure, but it is good that there are now some viable choices in this area.

Written by Graham Page, Assistive Technology Adviser