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Deaf Group Sues Netflix Over Lack Of Captions On Instant Viewing

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Lawyers representing the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) aren’t quite sure what proportion of Netflix’s streaming content is available with captions–but they’re sure it’s not enough. The NAD claims that by only maintaining a tiny slice of captioned titles, Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) is violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. The move makes clear that litigation by disabled activists will stay active in the internet era.

Lawyers representing the NAD argue that websites are a “place of public accommodation” and are subject to the ADA, just like public places of business in the physical world. That argument was successful when the National Federation of the Blind won a $6 million settlement from Target in 2008. The settlement also forced Target to re-code parts of its website in a way that made it more easily used by blind internet users, who typically browse the web using software that turns web pages into speech or Braille.

Groups representing the blind have been aggressively pushing companies to alter their websites for several years. While Target fought the claims in court, many other large companies, including Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN), Priceline, and Radio Shack, have come to agreements with disability rights groups without litigation being necessary.

But this appears to be the first ADA action over video-streaming, and NAD hasn’t been as assertive as blindness groups in using the ADA in the internet world.

The lawsuit acknowledges that the plaintiffs aren’t aware exactly what proportion of Netflix streaming content is available with captions, and quotes two outside sources with wildly divergent statistics. The Phlixie website estimates that Netflix’s Watch Instantly offers 13,811 captioned titles out of a total of 45,432 titles, or just over 30% of its instant content. But the third-party database Instant Watcher says that Netflix offers just 509 streaming titles with captions out of a total of 12,588 streamed titles. (Instant Watcher defines an entire TV season as one “title,” which explains much of this disparity.)

“We have tried for years to persuade Netflix to do the right thing and provide equal access to all content across all platforms,” said NAD President Bobbie Beth Scoggins in a statement on the suit. “They chose not to serve our community on an equal basis; we must have equal access to the biggest provider of streamed entertainment.”

Netflix didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit. According to the lawsuit, a Netflix executive said in February that plans to offer captions on 80% of its streamed titles by the end of 2011.

»  More on the lawsuit from Disability Rights and Education and Defense Fund

»  Read the full complaint [PDF]

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