Netflix’s recent accessibility screenings were held at theaters in the UK, New York, and Los … [+]
As part of this column’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) coverage back in May, I interviewed Netflix executive Heather Dowdy. Dowdy is the streaming giant’s Director of Product Accessibility, having joined the Los Gatos-based company a year ago this month from Microsoft. Her passion for accessibility and uplifting the disability community stems from a deeply personal place; like me, the Chicago-born Dowdy is a child of deaf adults and knows all too well the struggles of straddling the line between two different worlds, hearing and deaf.
My conversation with Dowdy a few months ago was part of a “coming out” party of sorts for herself and Netflix. She’s still relatively new to her role, and the company’s commitment to digital equality has heretofore been unknown to the public despite being a high priority internally. In marking GAAD this year, Dowdy penned a blog post wherein she shared details about the company’s latest accessibility-centric news. Amongst the many announcements Dowdy wrote about included brief mention of Netflix’s first-ever “accessibility screenings.” Held in the United Kingdom, New York, and Los Angeles, Dowdy described the screenings in a LinkedIn post as “such a vibe as folks rocked the red carpet” to celebrate the company’s Celebrating Disability with Dimension collection with viewings of the new film The Gray Man that included both audio descriptions (AD) and subtitles for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH). The events tied into Netflix’s aforementioned announcement that they would be expanding AD and SDH localization support across more of their catalog; new languages include French, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. The update brings the number of supported languages to over 20. In addition, Netflix has added new badges on the web and iOS that make it easier for subscribers to discover the enhanced features.
“I am still [emotionally feeling] full from meeting so many different people in the [disability] community that came out to our accessibility screenings,” Dowdy said to me about her experience attending the screenings in a new interview via teleconference. “And when I think about the events that we had in the UK, New York, and LA, what comes to mind is just how much of a celebration it truly was.”
Given how May’s announcements was a grand peek behind the curtain at Netflix’s accessibility efforts, the screenings made sense as a way to literally band a community together. Dowdy explained during the planning process, the company felt “it would be a great opportunity” for those in (and out) of the disability community to see firsthand the assistive technology bundled with The Gray Man. Moreover, the company held panel discussions before every screening featuring creators and disability advocates that audiences, Dowdy said, had an “overwhelming” response towards. “[They were] such great candid conversation with all of them about the work they’re pushing forward, and things we can think about, by and large as an industry, to make entertainment more accessible,” she said. “It brought me a lot of joy [to see] how much joy the audience had. It also brought me joy to spotlight disabled creatives that are in the industry and working together with us [to make film and television more accessible].”
Screenings are nothing new to Netflix. The company has extensive experience in putting them on; that these latest ones highlighted accessibility was the new part. According to Dowdy, the impetus behind the events was greater inclusivity, as there are many Netflix employees—including C-level people—who are “super passionate” about doing more in the accessibility space and wholeheartedly support any endeavor aimed at amplifying the message. The accessibility screenings are a direct reflection of said passion. “[The question] was ‘How can we do what we’ve done but more inclusively?’” Dowdy said. “The answer to that was to do it with the community and really center around the members [of the disability community] that will be coming out. And the folks that will be coming out to participate and the folks that we wanted to highlight in the conversation.”
The screenings are a way Netflix hopes to help lead the charge towards greater awareness of and empathy for disabled people, entertainment-wise. It’s something Dowdy said they take with the utmost seriousness. “We recognize we’re pioneers in this space and we are leaders, and we want to continue to be inclusive leaders [in the entertainment world],” she said. “Prioritizing accessibility is a part of that. I think it makes us stronger for it, because of the innovative ideas that come out of this type of collaboration. It really excites me to be able to deliver it to and with the community, because it’s one thing to do all these features in a vacuum. But it’s another thing when you are with folks that are experiencing it, and it lands so well. It helps people feel included, and there is a sort of ease with it because it’s already been intentionally provided for our members with disabilities.”
Eric Bridges is executive director of the American Council of the Blind, whose organization collaborated with Netflix on building the AD feature. He was in attendance at one of the accessibility screening, saying to me in a recent interview “the screener was so cool.” Like Dowdy, Bridges feels the screenings are a manifestation of Netflix’s commitment to shepherding accessible and inclusive entertainment. “I have never been in a movie theater with open audio description. So hearing it coming through the speakers [without] having to put on a headset to hear the voice narrating was really cool,” he said. “And to know that the other however many people there were in the theater, were hearing it as well, many of them I would argue probably for the very first time. Exposing an audience that may have heard conceptually about audio description, but never partook in it or experienced it firsthand. Having that ability in a theater was really cool.”
Both Dowdy and Bridges were keen to emphasize the screenings were available to the public at large—and, disability-wise, they didn’t feature only Blind and low vision people. Bridges told me the event he went to had Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, as well as those in wheelchairs. “I think [the screenings] shows Netflix wanting to get stuff like audio description out more broadly than just to the Blind community—the event was open to the general public,” he said.
Bridges believes Netflix is doing the disability community right overall, especially considering there’s no law governing the adoption of audio descriptions and other accessible tech for streaming services. (There is such regulation for cable and network television, called the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, or CVAA. The bill was signed into law by President Obama in October 2010 and went into effect in 2012.) That Netflix has been so staunchly committed to accessibility is highly notable, Bridges said, because getting other streaming providers to follow suit is like a “game of Whack-a-Mole.” For their part, both Apple and Disney made assistive tech like AD standard fare when building their respective streaming services in Apple TV+ and Disney+. It isn’t trivial that three of the industry’s biggest players—Apple, Disney, and Netflix—all are united in making entertainment accessible—and enjoyable—to all.
For Keely Cat-Wells, seeing Netflix’s screening was an enlightening experience.
“This event was so important, because I think a lot of times, non-disabled audiences don’t realize, and creatives within the industry don’t realize, that audio description and captions are such a huge part of not only the process of making a project and the viewing experience, but also the creativity within the project and how it needs to be embedded from the start of the project,” she said.
Wells is an entrepreneur and disability activist, and is on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list. She is founder of C Talent, a talent and consulting agency focusing on Deaf and other disabled people. She became disabled at 17, having gone undiagnosed for a long time. After leaving the hospital, she resolved to forge her own path towards a so-called “Option C” since people with disabilities are more often than not presented with lackluster Options A and B when receiving care and support.
Echoing Dowdy and Bridges’s sentiments, Wells told me Netflix’s accessibility screenings were a big deal in terms of awareness. It was an important step to make people aware that disabled people enjoy movies and TV like everyone else. “It was a great event to be able to really reiterate the fact to the audience in into the industry that disabled people are not disabled because of medical conditions— we’re disabled because of the inaccessible world we live in,” she said. “The attitudinal barriers, the physical barriers, and the communicational barriers. Things like audio description and captions give us access to content that we want to watch and takes down those barriers. [It’s] one step in dismantling ableism.”
Wells was invited by Netflix to speak on the panel at the screening, about the importance of authentic disability representation in Hollywood. She feels the work in this realm is evergreen, and the events just another step on the journey towards true digital equality. Much progress has been made in recent times, but as ever, there’s much more work to be done. “People are realizing that disabled audiences are so important to get involved in—[and] not just the audience but getting disabled creatives in front of and behind the camera, and how we need to have accessibility put in place to be able to benefit from disabled creatives,” she said.
Wells feels Dowdy and her team at Netflix is at the forefront of this movement.
“I think Netflix is really leading the way with [accessible entertainment] from what we’ve seen. That’s such an important piece of creating a inclusive and accessible project within the industry is intersecting accessibility with with creative because it’s so often forgotten that accessibility sparks innovation, it sparks creativity, and universal design and all of those different things and how important that is to the creative process,” she said. “That was one of the main things I got out of the event and learned specifically from Heather and the work they’re doing.”
At the screening in Los Angeles, Netflix preceded the Gray Man showing with the short film The Multi. The film was written and directed by two Deaf Black women, Natasha Ofili and Storm Smith, respectively. In a concurrent interview with me, both women said Netflix is killing the accessibility-in-entertainment game.
“It was so nice to be able to work with work with Netflix, to show this film with the captions and the descriptions for our disability community,” Ofili said. “It’s awesome to have a platform to do that; it was just an incredible experience. I want to enhance the experience for those with disabilities that don’t have the access when they go to see movies in theaters when they’re an audience member, or when they’re watching a film on television or some type of show. The audio description is lacking in those instances. There’s improvements that need to be made, but it’s improved over time. We still have a long way to go. Netflix was able to roll up their sleeves and [show] that motivation and tenacity, thanks to Heather.”
She added: “I do love Netflix because of the access. Their platform on social media shows everything [with captions], which is amazing. It’s absolutely phenomenal. I’m like, ‘Yes, yes! This is the way to go. This is what we need in our community.’ It’s so inspiring. I want other entities to be inspired to do the same thing. I think it’s an awesome, wonderful beginning. We want to continue to move forward and use technology to give us accessibility and continue to improve and problem-solve and spread this message in Hollywood and the entertainment industry.”
Smith concurred. “We definitely need that kind of gargantuan organization [like Netflix] because someone has to start somewhere,” she said. “Who better than a big company like Netflix to set that up and build those policies, and make sure that we can continue to build that bridge between the production company, and then the studios as well collaborating together to share the information to use tech within their program to make the content accessible. For Netflix to do that, as a huge company, is so inspiring. It’s really going to impact the greater industry.”
Ultimately, Netflix’s accessibility screenings are about human rights.
“[Disability is] part of being human, and it’s part of our human rights [to have access]. If someone doesn’t have access, then no one [does], period,” Smith said.
She continued: “My philosophy is you can have diversity in the workplace, but you can’t have inclusion if you don’t have the access. There’s no way to have inclusivity. Inclusion for all means equitable access for all people involved.”
Netflix’s recent accessibility screenings were held at theaters in the UK, New York, and Los … [+]