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Summary:

Netflix is being taken to court over not providing accessible videos for the hearing impaired. In a lawsuit, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) accused Netflix of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing captions for most of its streaming videos.

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CNN isn’t the only company being targeted by rights activists for lack of captions in its video streams; Netflix also is being taken to court over not providing accessible videos for the hearing impaired. In a lawsuit filed Thursday, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) accused Netflix of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing captions for most of its streaming videos.

According to the lawsuit, the ADA requires that all “places of entertainment” provide “full and equal enjoyment” for people with disabilities. The NAD seeks to classify Netflix’s streaming website and associated consumer electronics applications under those terms, making it in violation of Title III of the ADA.

The lawsuit was filed despite work Netflix has done over the last several years to add captions to its streaming titles. It first announced the availability of captions on a limited number of streaming titles last spring, but it has been slow going: In February, Netflix announced it had added captions to titles that account for about 30 percent of all streaming, with plans to expand to 80 percent by the end of the year.

In a statement, Arlene Mayerson, Directing Attorney of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund said:

“There is no excuse for Netflix to fail to provide captions so that deaf and hard of hearing customers have access to the same movies and TV shows as everyone else… Netflix admits that there is no technological issue. For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, captions are like ramps for people who use wheelchairs.”

Netflix might disagree with the characterization, as it has been pretty vocal about the technological barriers that exist to adding captions. Two years ago Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt outlined the difficulty it faced in adding Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange (SAMI) files to its video assets, for instance.

Client support is better now, enabling Netflix to reach PCs as well as the Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, Google TV-powered TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes and the Boxee Box. But it still has a challenge in adding subtitles to new devices. While Netflix’s iPad and iPhone apps recently added captions, support for other CE devices — like the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Roku box — won’t be available until later this year.

Netflix isn’t the only streaming provider that is being hit with such a lawsuit: Earlier this week, the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) and four individual plaintiffs filed suit against CNN for violating California’s Civil Rights Act by not providing captions. That lawsuit seeks class action status for all deaf and hard of hearing residents in California, and is seeking statutory damages from CNN parent Time Warner.

The Netflix lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 36 million Americans that are either deaf or hard of hearing. In addition to NAD, the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired and Lee Nettles, a deaf Massachusetts resident, were also named as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Massachusetts, Western Division.

Netflix has declined comment on the lawsuit, saying it doesn’t comment on legal issues.

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  1. Sued? As far as I understood it was a corporations onus to decide what services they want to deliver, and when. When was the last time you saw captions at the movie theater? Maybe they should be sued too. If it isn’t what you want, don’t pay!

    1. Last time I saw captions at a movie theatre? Yesterday.
      In fact I was going to go see a movie at one time and it turned out it was captioned so we had to wait to go to a later showing so we would be able to watch the movie without annoying ass text all over the screen.

  2. David Mazur Friday, June 17, 2011

    Interesting, but FWIW I think this is probably an uphill battle because Netflicks doesn’t have an arguable nexus to a physical place. The pendulum is currently swinging against these sorts of cases with case earlier this year in which Facebook and Viacom defeated ADA claims.

  3. Why doesn’t this apply to movies at the cinema? Just wondering.

    1. There is a technical device that Deaf people can use when they go to the movies. It’s called rear windowed captioning and it is a small rectangular screen that fits in the cup holder, and is adjusted to reflect captions that are projected from the back of the theatre. No text appears across the movie screen, and only a person using the small screen will see the captions.

  4. Wilson Davalos Friday, June 17, 2011

    Netflix doesn’t even have to pay licensing fees for CC. They can use one of the open source solutions.

  5. Netflix will win. They have 30% done and they project 80% by the end of the year. They are WORKING on it. This is a cash grab pure and simple.

  6. “According to the lawsuit, the ADA requires that all “places of entertainment” provide “full and equal enjoyment” for people with disabilities.”

    Wouldn’t that not apply to Netflix? The “place of entertainment” would be the users HOME.

    1. Netflix isn’t providing the home. Perhaps NAD can sue the homeowners, collectively.

  7. Megan Brody Friday, June 17, 2011

    How much are they going to charge for this? I’d rather wait until it comes to Netflix. Or keep my viewing occupied through services like TVDevo website which offers both live and on-demand programming from around the world.

    1. @Megan, Captioning will be part of the $7.99 subscription price. Also, I hope you’re not astroturfing for TVDevo.

  8. This is not a cash for grabs lawsuit. This is not a pity party. You all don’t understand how much it helps to have CC. Turn the tv on mute and try watching it. It’s just like vision…most people need glasses. How would you feel if somebody said “This isn’t what you want, don’t pay for it because you need glasses to see it”. It’s mind boggling how people think these days. Really. Have these situations put in your shoes and you will know how it feels.

  9. I’m appalled at the comments here. It shows the ignorance of the writers. 1 of every 7 people in America has a hearing loss. We depend on the captioning to make the audio accessible so that we can enjoy the same benefits as those without hearing loss. To say, “if you don’t like it, don’t pay” is heartless, Dan.

    For what it is worth, we are also suing movie theaters for access, as well. There are ways of making the captions available without having the text on the actual scree, just like Sarah pointed out. Unfortunately, only 1 or 2 movies a week are ever captioned and there are only a few theaters that offer the captioning.

    This law suit, Robert, is not at all about “cash grab”, as you say. We are not seeking monetary damages. We are seeking accessibility.

    Keep in mind that if there were captions on Netflix, there is a pool of 36 million viewers who would potentially subscribe. That’s $287,640,000 a MONTH that Netflix could reap. Instead of looking at this as a burden, businesses should be looking at it as an untapped revenue stream!

    1. You missed one key detail, Netflix already provides captions for 30% of their content and intends to provide 80% by the end of the year. For those who still believe in magic, software doesn’t just develop itself instantly.

      Apparently the only way they can make people happy at this point is to invent a time machine so they could have had the CC functionality written into their software years ago. Still worthy of a lawsuit?

      1. except the technology IS there. They are dragging their feet, NAD has been requesting this for a LONG time and it is only 30% now?. Most of the captions are already even made too! Ever notice that a large majority of dvds (all from the major companies) have subtitles/captions?

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