Netflix continues accessibility push with badges for audio and subtitle descriptions

Netflix is expanding its audio descriptions, subtitles and dubbing in dozens of languages, doubling down on an effort that has been both helpful and successful. Shows will now also feature badges so that users can easily see whether those options are available without drilling down into the options.

I chatted with Netflix’s director of accessibility, Heather Dowdy, about the company’s efforts to make its content more accessible.

“This work started long ago and will continue on. The impact is we’re more able to see just how many fans we have with disabilities,” she said, noting the company relies on member feedback to guide new features and content. “In the U.S. alone we have at least 500,000 hours of ‘Lucifer’ watched with audio descriptions. And over 40% of our members watch content with subtitles on — that’s more than just our members with disabilities — [so] we can extend these benefits to all our members.”

Dowdy, herself a child of deaf adults, said building these features makes sense for the business — but also, “It gives me a good feeling. It’s what drives me. I’m a CODA and I’ve seen technology evolve and seen how people are using it,” she said. “It’s definitely a collaboration with the disability community in terms of how it drives us on what to prioritize.”

The new badges are a small concession like that — reflecting a UI obstacle that many experienced where you had to start watching a show in order to turn on subtitles and search for audio descriptions and so on. Now there are icons, as you see in the image at top.

The volume of content is also increasing, with over 11,000 hours of audio description available now in more than 30 languages. Originally shows only had subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) and other extra info available only in their own language, but the localization teams are working on expanding those so a deaf person in Poland can watch a Mexican blockbuster with Polish SDH.

Dowdy noted that she is especially proud of the “intentionality” of the scene descriptions Netflix is making, beyond simple narration of locations and objects. “I recommend you turn it on on ‘Bridgerton’ … it’s very steamy,” she said.

“At the end of the day we know we’ve set the bar in terms of quality, so whatever we consider going forward it’s in light of making sure we continue to deliver on that quality,” she added.

While the company is facing headwinds (like many others) after the pandemic boom in streaming services, it has indeed led from early days on some accessibility fronts and that shows no sign of slowing. As part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day Netflix has also collected some 50 shows and films from its catalog that feature people with disabilities and will be hosting accessible screenings across the country.