Accessibility and Inclusion: ‘This is who we are’ – PBS KIDS, a model for all media

PBS-Kids logo artFor more than 50 years, PBS has strived to be as accessible as possible to a broad audience, and they have paid particular attention to including children with a variety of disabilities. ABILITY Magazine’s Karina Sturm spoke with Vice President of PBS KIDS Digital, Sara DeWitt, about PBS KIDS’ efforts to make their shows and online games accessible to kids of all abilities. For the audience experience, Karina spoke with actual PBS KIDS viewers (children) and also tried out some of the PBS KIDS’ educational games and provided her firsthand experience.

Sara DeWitt is responsible for digital production and partnership with the producers at PBS KIDS shows, as well as for developing games, streaming video, and maintaining the website. Sara explains,

“We are very committed to being representative and accessible to as wide an audience as possible. That includes children with disabilities, but also kids across all socioeconomic status. We want kids to feel like they can see themselves in our shows and that they can play unfettered with our digital content in a way that allows them to learn and grow”

Test Group: Kids with Disabilities

By allowing test groups of children with a variety of disabilities to try every developed game, Sara and her team immediately know if their games cause them any significant issues. “We partner with many schools to go in to test with kids. Now that schools are closed, we do virtual testing. Even when our games are only at a paper-concept level, they go in front of kids. Additionally, we have partnerships where we can test with kids with different abilities. The biggest one is with Johns Hopkins IDEALS,” Sara states. IDEALS is The Institute for Innovation in Development, Engagement, and Learning Systems at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, with which PBS KIDS partnered in August to test new accessibility resources for parents.

PBS KIDS also works with CAST, Indiana University Institute on Disability and Community, Harvard School of Education, and the Northeastern University. Cooperating with diverse advisors and partners  and asking their target audience, children with and without disabilities, helps PBS KIDS accommodate more children and identify access barriers compared to other broadcasters.

“When we started testing the Slidea-ma-zoo game with kids with visual impairments, we started to realize that we didn’t have enough contrast in how the slides were presented, and what the differences were when you put things on the slides. So, we shifted the whole way we looked at the fine elements of the slides to make them more accessible. And if we hadn’t tested this with kids with disabilities, we might have not realized that we weren’t being as accessible as we could be–even just in a basic design,” Sara explained.


Slidea-ma-zoo is one of many games PBS KIDS has developed for children between the age of 2 and 8. It’s based on PBS’s series The CAT in the HAT knows a Lot About That! The main characters, Nick and Sally, race against Thing 1 and Thing 2 on two separate slides that are adjustable in height and texture. Like all of PBS KIDS’ games, Slidea-ma-zoo educates children. In this case, they learn about cause and effect thinking. However, what makes PBS KIDS’ games so extraordinary isn’t their effort to teach children a lesson, It is their accessibility to children of all abilities. Slidea-ma-zoo is fully captioned, and the sound can be switched on or off. Other games have descriptive audio and more features to change contrast, text size, and more.

Education and Access: Karina’s Play-by-play of Slidea-ma-zoo

A little boy with brown hair and a girl with blonde hair stand on top of a colorful slide. When I push the start button, the boy hops onto the slide, shouts out, ‘Wohoo,’ and glides down. A narrative voice that sounds like a sports commentator gives me instructions on what to do next. I can either press the up-button to make the slide a bit higher or the down-button to make it lower. I decide to build my slide higher. A block gets added to my two existing building blocks. I push the start button again. Now the narrator informs me that my slide got much faster. I learn that by adding a block, the slide gets higher, and I am therefore faster. After figuring out how height correlates with speed, the race starts. A second slide that is slightly higher than mine with two children appears and the narrator tells me that I want to finish the race first, so I have to adjust the height of my slide again. When I reach level 2, additional options are added: I can use honey, ice, butter, and sand to change the surface of the slides to accelerate or decelerate my two characters. When I make a mistake, I am asked to try again, and I am only given the correct option this time. So, I am taught what I did wrong and am shown the correction. With every challenge I manage, the tasks get slightly harder. Even though I am an adult, I appreciate the learning effect of this game.

Not All Games Fully Accessible

“We have more than 200 games that were built over the last 15 years, so I wouldn’t say that they are all accessible to all children. Part of it is that technology has changed. They may have been accessible one time, but now because of the different ways that things are presented, they aren’t all. But we are actively working to make as many of them as accessible as possible,” Sara said.

Together with CAST and other advisors and through the ‘Ready to Learn Initiative,’ a partnership with the Corporation of Public Broadcasting funded by the Department of Education, PBS KIDS came up with a set of standards for universal design for learning and actively trains all their producers in those standards. “And if we have something we aren’t sure about, we even take it to an outside advisor,” Sara added.

Accessibility 2.0: Railway Hero

On the other hand, a few of PBS KIDS’ games have gone even more in-depth than including captions or descriptive audio for accessibility. The best example is a game called Railway Hero, developed by THIRTEEN (WNET), PBS’s member station in New York. Railway Hero goes along with the show Cyberchase, which focuses on math. “Channel THIRTEEN worked closely with Bridge multimedia to think about how it could be accessible to kids with physical and cognitive disabilities. One of the specific things they built in were customizable screen display options that meant adjustable text size but also color and contrast, as well as audio control options and voice-overs,” Sara explains. Additionally, they offer descriptive audio and keyboard controls for blind and visually impaired children. And all children can find more hints as they are playing: game learning support. On top of this, PBS KIDS considered players with autism by making the music adjustable to avoid sensory overload.

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Real-Time Contextual Feedback: Karina Tests Fish Force

Some of the games use real-time contextual feedback, which means they adjust to the skill level of the gamer in real-time. One of these games is Fish Force, which, of course, I have to try myself too. Fish Force is a science game where the player has to shoot fish with a cannon onto ice, hit a stuffed animal, and push it into a specific target area – almost like curling. I can adjust the force and the angle of the launcher. This game is a bit more complex compared to Slidea-ma-zoo because it offers more possible options, and the way it adapts to my skill level makes it a bit harder with every level. After a few attempts, additional obstacles are added to the playing field, like penguins that move in the way of my flying fish, or sand that adds friction to reduce the speed of the fish gliding over the ice. All of these challenges have to be included in the decision-making process. When I miss my target, which happens quite often – I am clumsy – I shout out ‘Nooo,’ and Ruff, the narrator, asks me if I am sure the amount of force I used was correct. No, it certainly wasn’t. I need another two attempts to finish the level and feel very relieved when I do. This game is for children, and I am 33. But I still feel engaged.

Sara explains, “Children need to formulate a hypothesis, and then test it. We wanted to see if we could get this principle across while also helping them understand different kinds of forces and motions. As we built the game with WGBH in Boston, we tried to identify specific places where kids would demonstrate their knowledge of the concept within the gameplay. If they were to master the first level just like that, then the game would jump up a few levels to meet their skills and adapt the challenge. Within those levels, the feedback is also adjusting depending on what they did accurately or what required some more attention or hint.”

Access for Children with Autism

Besides having a sensory-friendly environment in many of their games, PBS KIDS also shows the name of an emotion and the picture of the character with a particular emotion. The Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood app additionally gives the child the option to take a photo of themselves, trying to mimic the facial expression of the character in the show. “We have heard from a few producers that the eye shape and the ability of the character to express emotions has been resonating with children on the autism spectrum,” Sara says.

7-Year-Old Bridget

Bridget is seven years old and lives with autism, ADHD, and anxiety. She loves to bake apple crisp, pumpkin pie, Rice Krispies, and sugar cookies. However, Bridget doesn’t enjoy doing her homework because of math. “I need fun math,” she says. When I ask her what she means by that, she explains, “You just have fun while you are doing it. You do it in a fun way. You could do it with sweets. Say, you have ten cheese crackers and ten goldfish. How many does that make? 20!” I laugh and agree. This really is more fun.

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Bridget wears pink glasses and a pink dress showing a unicorn. Her room is purple with colorful posters everywhere. While we talk, she uses a fidgeting toy to relieve stress. Bridget is a smart, articulate, little girl who loves to learn. “My favorite show is WordGirl,” she says. “’cause she likes to teach people about stuff. So, people know the right thing to do. If they want to say a sentence, they might use some of the words that she teaches us to use.” WordGirl is a superhero with an impressive vocabulary that she uses to fight crime. Bridget also loves Pinkalicious. “I like that she learns a lesson after she has done something,” Bridget explains. The young girl has a poster of a horse on her wall, and I ask her about her favorite animal. She says she loves horses, narwhals, dolphins, unicorns, cats, dogs, and lions. The latter one because it’s cute.

Due to her passion for animals, she enjoys watching PBS KIDS’ Wild Kratts, a show about biology, zoology, and ecology. “They teach us about animals. In one show, they taught us about flamingos, that they aren’t pink when they are born, but white,” Bridget explains. If she could be any of the characters of her favorite PBS KIDS shows, she would be Aviva Corcovado, a female engineer in Wild Kratts. “She makes creature power suits to transform into animals. They just put the power on and become the animal,”

Bridget’s favorite game is Ready Jet Go! because “it’s like a video game. There is this maze, and you have to jump, get coins, and stars, and fly, and pretty much everything,” Bridget says. And of course, she enjoys the Pinkamagine Fashion creator. “You get to choose your outfit, and then you can decorate it any way you want. And they take a picture, and you choose a background,” Bridget illustrates. I created my own polka dot dress too. And yes, this is fun. Besides playing games, the creative girl has big plans for her future too. When asked what job she would want to do as a grown-up, she shockingly says, “Job?! Well, I would like to be a happy artist. I would just like to work at a happy place and make kids smile. I can draw them, and I can draw what they want to be. I would use things that I have and make something pretty.”


Listen to the interview with Bridget on ABILITY Magazine’s podcast.


Four children dressed as superheroes stand next to an adult in a school.
Hero Elementary features a character with autism

Representation Matters: Disability

Besides having full access to PBS’s games and kids TV shows, it is just as crucial for children with all abilities to feel seen and accurately represented in media. Oftentimes, TV shows lack this kind of diversity, and if a character with a disability is portrayed, it’s often in a stereotypical way. PBS KIDS wants to change that.

Sara explains, “We feel very strongly about making sure that kids can see a positive representation of themselves, not a stereotype. So, there are several shows that feature characters with disabilities,” Sara says. The main character of the new show Hero Elementary is on the autism spectrum and always has headphones around his neck so that he can tune things out if the sensory input gets too overwhelming. On Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a girl named Chrissie is wearing braces and walks with crutches. In several episodes, she and Daniel thematize her disability and talk about the ways her braces help her to walk. “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways we are the same,” is a line in a song in one of the episodes that explains how Chrissie might look a bit different, but still enjoys the same things as Daniel and his friends.

Sara continues, “Another show that represents a variety of children with disabilities is Arthur. Buster, Arthur’s best friend, lives with asthma. Carl, a main character in the show, has Asperger’s. In the episode “When Carl Met George,” PBS dives deep into explaining how certain situations might feel differently for people with Asperger’s compared to neurotypical children sometimes. Additionally, the show features Brain, who suffers a trauma after a hurricane hit his town. After the event, he has reoccurring anxiety, and the episodes show him talking to a therapist and learning how to calm himself down if he feels overwhelmed. And the list goes on and on.”

“These characters are not just developed in a vacuum. It’s not writers in a room developing it. The producers themselves, who create the content, work with outside advisors and with communities to make sure that they are representing things accurately. Additionally, through the partnership with the US Department of Education, we have been able to provide advisors to contact when we are representing children with different abilities,” Sara stated.

Molly of Denali

Molly of Denali, a girl with short brown hair wearing a warm hat sits next to another girl with long brown hair in a kitchen
Molly of Denali features the first Alaska native lead

PBS KIDS doesn’t only care about representing children with disabilities but also focuses on giving other minorities a voice. An example of this is the show, Molly of Denali, which features an Alaska native lead and was the first children’s cartoon with a native American main character, according to Sara DeWitt. “WGBH Boston produced Molly of Denali in partnership with Alaska native writers and production partners because we wanted to make sure that the characters were really authentic and representing Alaskan native values. That’s what we are thinking about when we are developing new shows: Which audience is not being represented on TV right now, and how can we help showcase their voices in a way that is authentic and true to their cultures?” Sara says.

And the same counts for gender equality. “For a long time, a lot of children shows were more likely to feature a boy character. There are myths in the industry that girls will watch boys, and boys will watch boys, but boys will not watch girls. And I think we have proven a few times that that’s not the case. Young boys will watch stories that feature girls. It comes down to two things: making sure that the story is compelling and that we feature relatable characters,” Sara adds

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17-Year-Old Ethan

Ethan is 17 years old and is on the neurodiverse spectrum due to his language processing difficulties. He loves playing with his Nintendo Switch, cooking, and playing music. Due to his disability, Ethan struggles a lot with language processing. “It’s kind of hard because I struggle to understand what everyone is saying when it’s too crowded or noisy. I have to go to a school far away, and do a lot of other things after school, like music, tutoring, and occupational therapy,” Ethan says. Like many children with disabilities, Ethan finds creative ways to adapt and learn. His mom, Christine, tells me Ethan taught himself to read when he was only two years old. “After watching me log his sister onto the computer to play games with a friend, he logged himself on, turned on closed-captioning, and kept replaying until he taught himself what was being said,” Christine explains. Ethan’s ability to find solutions for his biggest challenges has no limitations. During a visit with his grandparents one summer when Ethan was a small child, he started speaking Spanish. His family thought he learned it from one of the TV programs but, “later that summer, his grandmother called a bit upset because she had been charged unfairly by the cable company. We laughed when we figured out the reason was that Ethan had subscribed to the Spanish channel to access closed captioning in Spanish,” Christine explains.

While processing languages required Ethan to figure out a way, he seems to have a natural talent for physics and math, saying he loves to watch PBS’s Odd Squad. “I like when agents fix odd problems, which are math problems. I like to solve the problems along with the actors. I wish I could be an agent! I would be Agent Orion, and I would be in charge of the Maintenance Company because they are really busy fixing household objects all of the time,” Ethan says. Another show he enjoys is Super Why because Ethan says it “teaches a lot of vocabulary, and I like it when they jump into books to find out how they can solve problems based on the moral of the story. I love the idea of knowing different morals.”

In fact, Ethan takes the show’s lessons very much to heart. “He is always talking about being a good friend,” his mother says, even though he wasn’t treated with much kindness in the past. When Ethan was eight years old, he fell off a swing and broke both arms right before summer vacation. He underwent surgery and wore casts all summer.

“Worse was that no one would play with me and the kids teased me because my arms were in casts all the way up to my armpits,” Ethan remembers. The children would invite him to play but then run away. “TV shows were his only connection, and when the casts finally came off, Ethan immediately danced and sang along to PBS KIDS shows,” Christine says. When asked what his future looks like and what he wants to do after school, Ethan replied, “I would want to be a cartoon writer and write some great shows for kids to watch and learn.” So, PBS’s future appears to be really bright, with kids like Ethan wanting to get involved in the production of content that’s made for children just like him.

PBS KIDS, a Model

PBS seems to be the model in many areas, but specifically when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and, of course, accessibility. PBS laid the cornerstone for accessibility in the US because they were the first American broadcaster providing captions back in 1972. Their member station WGBH in Boston counts as one of the pioneers in closed captioning, and since then, PBS has permanently focused on bringing the latest accessibility technology to their audience.

“I have been at PBS for 21 years, and in the first year, we were talking about making a new website for children accessible to families using screen readers. We thought about how to use ALT text to help children to access our site,” Sara said. “It’s been in the DNA of our organization from the very beginning.”


All images: PBS


By Karina Ulrike Sturm

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