Hannah is a New Zealand mum diagnosed with glaucoma as a baby. Nearly 13 years ago, she suffered complete blindness. Hannah was 25, and has finished 16 marathons and two Ironman triathlons since. She's now in a para-cycling development program and aspires to compete in the 2024 Paralympic Road Race and Time Trial in Paris.
"The biggest challenge in my training has been the fact I am totally blind, and there is a limited amount of technology out there that is accessible enough for me to get the best out of training," Hannah shares.
Compared to her sighted peers, who can choose between going outdoors or sitting inside on a smart trainer, she believes "that if I had sight or better access, I would be a lot further along with training than I am currently sitting."
In the US, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 obligates television, video, and streaming services to provide accessible communication options. The legislation finally caught up to video games in 2019. The update requires video games to have a voice-over, electronic messaging, and video conference option. The EU has similar web directives, and in the UK most of these are covered by the Equality Act 2010.
These are monumental steps, but further legislation, industry regulation, and adaptive technology are needed to ensure accessibility for individuals like Hannah and Anthony.
Anthony is a passionate 55-year-old cyclist blind due to retinosa pigmentosa, who, like Hannah, shares an appreciation for virtual cycling's impact on their lives.
“My love of cycling led to doing a triple ascent of Mont Ventoux on a single day back in 2017, and multiple coast to coast rides in the UK”, Anthony recalls.
Anthony has a 20-year background in software engineering. He relies on technology for most things in life and the assistance of a Tandem Pilot to ride and train on the road.
"As you can imagine, in the absence of a Tandem Pilot, the virtual cycling world would be an ideal substitute for blind cyclists, but so far, this isn't happening," Anthony alludes to his two-year attempt to present the issue to Zwift.
Hannah is more direct when acknowledging the potential of virtual cycling for the visually impaired: "Although Zwift is probably the most inaccessible app out there, it has helped with strength and hill climbing."
It doesn't come easy, as she describes her daily training process.
"My partner has to choose the course, start it, and get me going. I can feel the terrain using a KickR Climb, so I am aware when I go uphill or downhill," she shares.
That’s about the extent of the accessibility for Hannah.
"I have no idea what speed, power, or cadence I'm doing, which makes it tough to know where to put in some power or not.
“You don’t know if there are others on the course, and you don’t know when things are coming up. My partner has to come in to give me some stats now and then."
You can sense Anthony and Hannah's frustration.
When asked, Zwift representative Andrew Bernstein commented on the multi-year feature request by stating: "We believe that making Zwift more accessible to the visually impaired community is an important goal that will improve Zwift for all users. We are currently in a discovery phase so we can best understand the space and needs of visually impaired athletes and look forward to sharing more information on new features for this community in the future."
That's not to say that Zwift doesn’t listen when it gets things wrong, and to our knowledge, none of its virtual cycling rivals offer much in the way of technology to aid the visually impaired either. A specific incident where Zwift took action involved a September 2022 rebranded font change that accompanied multiple upgrades. This proved to be particularly concerning for members of the visually impaired virtual cycling community.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Kevin Leahy confirmed the issue: "Yes. In general, the simpler or more traditional fonts are more legible/recognisable for the visually impaired. The rebranded font has more of an italicised look that blends numbers and letters together."
The first font revamp, with 1 and 7 looking rather similar
Specifically, the ones looked like sevens. Zwift and Bernstein didn't overlook it, with Bernstein saying: "Following the launch of our new fonts, we discovered that some elements were creating problems for some community members. We are working on a high-priority game update to improve readability and address accessibility concerns raised by the updated font."
This came out on 28 September, and most would agree that it looks much better.
Also on Dr. Leahy’s wishlist is to provide visually-impaired riders audio cues, an avatar distinguished from others by contrasting colours, dimensions, size, or that blinks, or providing a beacon over the head of the avatar.
How Can Zwift Be More Accessible to Visually Impaired Riders?
Straightforward improvements like screen magnification and high contrast modes are potential upgrades, but the holy grail is audio narration.
According to Anthony: "To be clear, we don’t strictly need spoken or synthesised speech built into the platform, but if text banner elements of the text are displayed, it allows VoiceOver, the built-in IOS accessibility feature, to capture that text and announce it automatically.
“Just as my iPhone automatically notifies me when I have an incoming call, the notification is accessible, and my phone speaks the announced notice."
The iPhone includes VoiceOver as a core accessibility feature. The API hooks to facilitate accessibility are there, and Zwift programmers could utilise them to provide similar inclusion features to end users of all abilities.
Examples include the following Audio Cues:
- A countdown for the start of events and upcoming sprint and KOM segments.
- Distance to the end of the course or event
- A graded pitch that signifies drafting advantage, when you are approaching and overtaking another rider, and for climb gradient changes
- Voice-over description of all UI elements, settings, garage, and powerups received
- The periodic announcement of average and peak performance metrics, like power and heart rate, through a configurable dashboard that populates and changes, triggering VoiceOver detection
Anthony adds: “With the provision of configurable options to add meaningful audio tones and announcements during rides, announcing the metrics that sighted can see, tones to signify a completed lap, Km/mile, sprint, and optional count down towards the finish, 10km, 9km, 2km, 1km, 500m, 400m, 300m, 90m, 80m, ...10m, finish! All are configurable and easy to implement.”
Virtual Tandem Pilot
In addition, a "Virtual Tandem Pilot" could be added to that wish list. Many members of the visually impaired population rely upon an app called "Be My Eyes." The app's designers invite users to "See the world together by connecting people needing sighted support with volunteers and companies through live video around the world."
Through Discord or in-game communication technology, a network of virtual tandem pilots guide visually impaired cyclists while riding alongside or fan viewing. Dare I say, "In-game tandem cycles?"
The (virtual) road ahead
It's essential to point out that features suggested to improve accessibility for the visually impaired have the potential to enhance the experience of a far broader user base. For example, kerb cuts designed for wheelchairs benefit all individuals with mobility issues.
In addition, impactful change will happen when gaming companies like Zwift hire cyclists with disabilities as accessibility directors and consultants. Zwift has the potential to develop a generation of blind able cyclists and create a global virtual visually impaired cycling community.
If you're a visually impaired cyclist, know someone who is or would just like to see these changes happen, Zwift is always happy to take constructive feedback (via research [at] zwift.com (constructive feedback)).
It seems appropriate for Anthony to have the final say:
"If anybody is in a conversation with Zwift or customer support at any point, could you just try to advocate and encourage them to make amendments to stop excluding the blind community from the virtual cycling world!"
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I'm on Vulpine's mailing list and have just had an email saying they are 50% off - so £130.