Netflix sued for lack of captions on 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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