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Zwift is “the most inaccessible app out there” claim visually impaired cyclists — but when will Zwift fix it?

Despite the rapid progression of virtual cycling platforms in recent years, none of them currently offer tech such as audio cues in place of visual ones in all scenarios for cyclists with visual impairments. What is Zwift doing about it?

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." 

Adaptive Technology

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.

Cyclist riding on a road on a virtual cycling platform


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." 

Example of font on the virtual cycling platform Zwift
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."

Example of font on the virtual cycling platform Zwift
The new number 1

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

A pacer bot riding on the virtual cycling platform Zwift

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] (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!"

A physical therapist with over 25 years of experience, Christopher Schwenker is on a journey to give back to the cycling community for rewarding experiences and fulfilling relationships through the pages of his virtual cycling blog, The He rode his bike across the US in 2022 to raise awareness of his cycling-related non-profit, The DIRT Dad Fund. 

Add new comment


Rendel Harris | 1 year ago

Software engineering is, to me, a closed book locked in a safe at the bottom of a coalmine, but surely it would be a pretty simple matter to slip in a line or two of code that would give an audio reading of the vital stats when prompted or at set intervals?

Until that's implemented, just a thought, why doesn't someone organise pairups between visually impaired and non-impaired riders so they could train together on the same ride with chat over Zoom or Skype, so the non-impaired rider could keep their ride partner apprised of what's happening? I'm sure there are enough serious trainers who would welcome a companion and distraction to get them through the long hours on Zwift.

joules1975 replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago

Your suggestion for paired rides overlooks one fundamental issue highlighted in the article - it's all but impossible for blind riders to find there way through the zwift app to actaully start a ride. 

Blackthorne | 1 year ago
1 like

Firstly, hats off the the visually impaired users of Zwift. 

The clickbait title does Mr schwenker's article zero favours. Whereas the article in tone is of 'shining a spotlight' on the challenges a segment of Zwift users face, the title conditions the reader instead to interpret Schwenker (they/them) as a purple haired social justice warrior bullying a net-positive company into a corner because it has not done enough to correct the evils of this patriarchal society we live in. Next, Zwift will be responsible for Uighur malrepresentation and not doing enough to save the Galapagos tortoise. 

Mathemagician replied to Blackthorne | 1 year ago

What the actual fuck are you on about.

Blackthorne replied to Mathemagician | 1 year ago
1 like

Guess you'll never know. 

waterrockets replied to Blackthorne | 1 year ago

The title of the article accurately reflects the content and purpose of the piece, and it is not about bullying Zwift or targeting a specific company, but rather highlighting a legitimate issue faced by visually impaired indoor cyclists.
The article is not a politically motivated attack, but rather a call for increased accessibility and inclusivity in the cycling industry and it is not intended to single out Zwift as the only company that needs to improve accessibility, but rather to bring attention to the issue for all companies in the industry. The issues raised in the article are important for the cycling community as a whole and should not be dismissed or trivialized.

Perhaps if you feel attacked politically, you should reconsider your politics.

Blackthorne replied to waterrockets | 1 year ago

Correct, we are in agreement then. That is why, if you read my comment again, that the combative headline is misleading and does not reflect the level-headed tone of the article itself. 

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