Stan Taylor, bless his heart, nails Netflix (NFLX) for its apathy towards the hearing-impaired community:
“Hearing-impaired get no love from Netflix “
So Netflix will be charging more for mailed movies? However, there is no word that they will fully provide CC and SDH (closed captioning and subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired) on their downloads. Nor is there any information suggesting they will waive the increased cost for mailers for the deaf and hearing impaired until they can provide CC and SDH. The Americans with Disabilities Act should protect hearing-impaired people from a company that just doesn’t seem to care about them.
(From SJ Mercury News, letters, November 26, 2010)
I have a love-hate relationship with Netflix. I love their DVDs and movie recommendations, but I cannot understand why they won’t get their act together when it comes to online captioning. Many online video outlets already offer online captioning, including Hulu. In 2009, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings claimed that Hulu didn’t offer captions. His comment really irked me, because Hulu did offer captions, and the fact that he got it wrong indicated online captioning wasn’t even on his radar screen. (More here on that particular exchange.)
But Netflix isn’t behind just Hulu–it’s also behind YouTube, which offers online captioning on many of its videos. If you want to see the difference captioning makes in the lives of the hearing impaired, watch this YouTube video. It’s only 1 minute and 28 seconds, but it will give you excellent insight into online captioning. The participants point out that online captioning also exposes content to a foreign audience that wants to learn English. I’d go a step further–Google has amazing translation services and tools, which means that eventually, every single show can be put online and watched by anyone, anywhere. Without captioning, however, most of those shows, including amateur user-made content, will be inaccessible to the majority of viewers. The loss of potential markets aside, why would Netflix choose to exclude the hearing impaired community when Hulu and YouTube are able to be inclusive?
Netflix’s preference that its viewers watch films online certainly saves the company money on postage, but at what price to its viewers? Someone like me–severely hearing-impaired since birth–relies heavily on Netflix for entertainment. Since I function best in one-on-one situations where I can focus on a single speaker, I tend to feel lost during common social activities, which are usually group-based. For example, dance clubs and bars, which are noisy anyway, are terrible places for me and other hearing impaired persons who want to socialize. Now that Netflix is moving from DVDs to online streaming without captions, does it realize it is making another form of socialization harder for the hearing impaired?
Making matters worse, ordering a Netflix DVD isn’t any guarantee that it will be captioned. You’ll notice some Netflix DVDs are colored gray. Those plain gray DVDs are made specifically for Netflix. These DVDs sometimes lack captions, because Netflix doesn’t require them. For example, I still haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I know it’s supposed to be a great film, so when my first gray-colored Gran Torino DVD didn’t have captions, I ordered another one. The second one had no captions. Being the persistent type, I got another one. Still no captions. I finally tried to watch it without captions, but Clint Eastwood has a very soft voice, and it’s impossible for me to hear him without captions.
To be fair, it’s not just Netflix that ignores the hearing impaired community. During Cisco’s most recent annual meeting, CEO John Chambers indicated that “66 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2014.” (More here.) He did not mention the issue of online captioning, nor did he seem to consider that its absence might impact web traffic in the future. However, if senior citizens–who tend to lose their hearing over time–cannot fully participate in online activities, wouldn’t online retailers and businesses lose a large group of potential customers?
For instance, let’s assume that an online commercial has sound and speech–why would the company who paid for the advertisement want to exclude senior citizens from its reach? Even if they don’t buy the product for themselves, most senior citizens have children and grandchildren, don’t they? Let me give you an example of what Cisco and other online companies are missing. Make sure you have your computer’s sound off or your speakers silenced. Now check out this Cisco advertisement. It’s not a bad commercial, is it? Now go back and look at the commercial with the sound on. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s easily one of the best corporate commercials in 2010, if not the best.
Most hearing impaired people have some ability to hear sound (though not all speech). With captioning, hearing impaired people and senior citizens can mentally fill in the parts they miss and enjoy the full experience of television shows and online advertising. But let’s set aside our altruistic side for a moment and say you don’t care about the disabled, the hearing impaired, the deaf, and senior citizens. Fine. Yet, we all know people who watch videos and surf the web during work. If advertisers made it easier for employees to watch commercials and videos in a way that didn’t alert their managers, perhaps productivity would decline, but online exposure would increase. (I said upfront I was ditching the moral choices in this particular argument, and once you’ve already accepted ditching the disabled and the deaf, time-theft seems almost vanilla.)
Overall, the fact that Netflix can’t keep up with Hulu and YouTube should concern not just customers, but any company interested in acquiring Netflix. If Netflix can’t handle online captioning, what else can’t it handle? And why would any company consciously tarnish its public image by ignoring seniors, the disabled, the hearing impaired, and the deaf?
Matthew Rafat founded Advocates for Access, a disability rights group. He currently practices law in San Jose, California.