Focus on the accessibility of Netflix Growing up with deaf parents
- Netflix’s first director of product accessibility, Heather Dowdy, told Insider what drives her.
- Growing up with deaf parents, she was aware of gaps in captions and when they “messed up.”
- Netflix has found that 80% of its viewers use subtitles at least once a month.
It wasn’t until she watched TV at a friend’s house as a child that Heather Dowdy realized people didn’t always use subtitles.
Dowdy, who was hired as Netflix’s first director of product accessibility last year, used to watch shows like “Family Matters” at home when she grew up in Chicago in the 1980s. 1990.
The subtitles would always be on, because her parents are deaf. “That’s what my parents automatically had,” she told Insider.
This experience shapes her work at Netflix, where she is responsible for making the platform more accessible to people with disabilities.
Having deaf parents meant she was constantly aware of mistakes and gaps in captions, she said. “Because I’m privileged to hear, I could say, ‘Oh, they really messed up – you totally miss the really important point. “”
In fact, some people who are hard of hearing call the captions “craptions,” she said.
According to the US Census, 11.5 million Americans have some kind of hearing loss, ranging from difficulty hearing a conversation to complete hearing loss.
But TV subtitles are now used much more than by people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
About 40% of global Netflix users use them all the time, while 80% use them at least once a month, according to the company’s internal data. Dowdy said this was partly due to people looking at more than one screen at a time, so the text helps them follow the story.
“It’s more than people with disabilities – it’s a lot of other people who benefit from technology that was originally, you know, created to help people with hearing aids,” she said.
The fact that his work reaches a much wider audience than people with disabilities is a plus for Dowdy. “That’s really what my role is about – there are so many benefits to looking at the disability community and then understanding how it benefits all of us,” she said.
“The great thing is that we don’t need to know if you have a disability, we just focus on what exactly is the feature that allows you to participate.”
“Feedback is crucial”
Dowdy said people who are hard of hearing or deaf are not sufficiently included in the captioning process. “Feedback is key to making sure we’re on the right track,” she said, noting that the focus groups she organizes “don’t hold back feedback at all.”
She proactively engages with disability organizations and hosts focus groups, which is a first for Netflix. A spokesperson for the streamer told Insider that it primarily reacted to the disability community before hiring Dowdy.
Feedback from blind and visually impaired people has enriched Netflix’s audio descriptions, or additional audio that explains a show’s visual elements for people who are blind or visually impaired, including “things like skin and hair texture, and all these other things that add context,” Dowdy said.
The subtitles for Netflix’s latest series of “Stranger Things,” which aired in May, received praise for vivid audio descriptions such as “tentacles rippling wetly,” “silent wet footsteps” and “unearthly whispering.” .
“You’ve got people who thought it was too much for them, even in the new show,” Dowdy acknowledged, “but the thing is, people are watching and being included, and I’m going to take over ‘I can’t access it at all.'”
This year, President Biden named Dowdy to the US Access Board, the government agency that works on accessibility.
It released internal accessibility guidelines and made shows and movies with characters with disabilities easier to discover on the platform by creating content collections, and began rolling out “badges” that indicate when movies have audio descriptions and subtitles.
“It really is a journey”
Dowdy attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. She said she always wanted to use her degree to improve access to technology for people with disabilities.
She then worked for Motorola as a product manager with the accessibility engineering team, before joining Microsoft, where she led a program that funded AI startups focused on accessible technology.
She is motivated by the fact that people with disabilities may be left behind by technology or given second-rate options. She said it’s frustrating, for example, not being able to share content from YouTube or Instagram with her deaf friends, due to poor quality automated transcription.
Dowdy once went to the movies with a deaf kid she mentored. They received a portable device that showed the film’s subtitles. When the movie started, it became clear that the device had run out of battery. “The theater didn’t think they needed to be billed between movies,” she said.
“I was so challenged on how to take a person’s personal experience and open it up to them and other people like them and then everyone,” Dowdy said.
This matches his approach to accessibility: “You solve for one and you extend it to many.”
“It’s not going to be perfect”
Netflix outsources its captions to third-party agencies, and they are either automated or written manually. Dowdy has no preference: “We are open to all combinations and all avenues that allow us to evolve and quality.”
“I think it’s really important to understand where technology can really complement humans,” she said. “I’ve seen where you can have such a hybrid approach where, you know, technology brings you this far and then humans are able to correct and really bring in that context that’s needed.”
Dowdy’s next challenge is to create subtitles and audio descriptions in more languages for Netflix users. Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and French will be rolled out over the next year, and the platform will eventually offer accessibility in 20 languages.
Dowdy wrote in a blog post in May that “for decades your access to entertainment was determined by where you lived and what language you spoke,” meaning that until recently people who had needing audio descriptions or subtitles “could only enjoy a story if it was done in their local language.”
She said Netflix, like all platforms, has a ways to go when it comes to accessibility: “It’s really a journey and it’s not going to be perfect — it’s a constant iteration.”