Deaf activists launch campaign against Netflix

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Deaf and hard of hearing activists have launched a social media "bombing" campaign, an online petition and a federal lawsuit to get Netflix to provide better access to subtitles for its online streaming movies.

Netflix is the nation's leading provider of streamed television and movies over the Internet. Online "instant-play" streaming video is quickly becoming the main way that Americans watch movies and even television shows.

But without subtitles, some 36 million deaf or hearing-impaired Americans are being left out of this media revolution.

Sebastian St. Troy, a consumer-rights activist in Texas, initiated the social media "bombing" campaign, urging the public to bombard the company's Facebook page with comments telling Netflix to "get on top of" the issue, as one commenter put it.

"My daughter has a hearing disability," the commenter wrote, "and captioning is VITAL to her understanding of programming. This is something Netflix should be on top of, as a large portion of your audience and potential audience is hearing-impaired. Please consider making this a priority."

Another Facebook commenter told Netflix, "Please caption live-stream movies so we can enjoy what others take for granted."

St. Troy has also launched an online petition via Change.org, asking Netflix to make it easier for users to find what is currently available with subtitles, "as Netflix works towards providing subtitles for all of the current and future Netflix content."

St. Troy, who is living with HIV, lost most of his hearing last December, probably as a result of a non-cancerous brain tumor. Since then, he said, "I've learned how few entertainment options exist for the deaf and hard-of-hearing."

"I have always greatly enjoyed movies and have been an avid Netflix subscriber," he commented in an email note to this reporter. "As I started to lose my hearing depression was the largest challenge, along with frustration, as I could no longer enjoy films."

"I learned how to use the closed captioning on my DVD player and television, but my frustrations increased when I could no longer watch films on Netflix because they didn't offer captioning on a majority of their streaming content," he wrote. "What little content offered by them with subtitles had limited search options, which caused even greater frustrations."

Researching the issue, he said he found "years of promises by Netflix to provide subtitles," with little progress.

St. Troy previously supported other successful campaigns on Change.org, so starting an online campaign there was "the obvious choice," he said. "As a consumer, and knowing that if enough customers take action when a company doesn't provide for the needs of customers, I decided that I wanted to affect change."

Clara Long of Change.org says the online campaign is based on today's reality that "companies' reputations (like our reputations) are displayed and created online."

"Online activists fill Netflix's Facebook page with comments pointing out that they are not taking the deaf and hard of hearing into account and that affects Netflix's reputation," she said. And over 1,200 people have signed the online petition so far.

Meanwhile, the National Association of the Deaf filed a federal lawsuit against Netflix on June 16. The lawsuit charges the entertainment giant with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide closed captioning for most of its "watch instantly" movies and television streamed on the Internet.

The New York Times has described Netflix as the "only major player in the online-only video subscription business," with over 60 percent of streamed video services market share, the association noted in announcing the lawsuit.

"The deaf and hard of hearing community has repeatedly expressed concerns - via letters, petitions, blogs, and social media - to Netflix about its failure to provide equal access to 'Watch Instantly'," the NAD said.

"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.

"They chose not to serve our community on an equal basis; we must have equal access to the biggest provider of streamed entertainment. As Netflix itself acknowledges, streamed video is the future and we must not be left out."

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all "places of entertainment" provide "full and equal enjoyment" for people with disabilities. Arlene Mayerson, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said, "For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, captions are like ramps for people who use wheelchairs."

The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that Netflix's behavior constitutes a violation of Title III of the ADA, and to require that Netflix provide closed captions on all of its streaming content.

In addition to NAD, other plaintiffs include the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired and a deaf Massachusetts resident.

St. Troy said he is optimistic that with the online campaign and the lawsuit, "Netflix will be forced to do what is right - provide subtitles for all of their streaming content."

Update, 7/1/11: A reader in California, Don Cullen, has informed us that he filed a class action lawsuit against Netflix in March over the same issues, charging the company with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and California law. See more information here.

Photo: MoneyBlogNewz CC 2.0

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  • High profile hearing impaired advocates have done cyberbullying campaigns too. One high ranking closed captioning advocate had been doing a supersecret cyberbullying campaign for six years against another hearing impaired advocate before she got caught last July. This discovery could impact everything from closed captioning, deaf education, TRS-VRS access, movie theater captioning, and related advocacy campaigns. The big upshot is that the advocacy stance and the civil rights of people with hearing impairments could be sent backwards by as much as 30 years.

    Posted by Nesmuth, 09/18/2012 11:15am (2 years ago)

  • If any of you folks want to know the truth about the deaf society y'all hearing about in the news this be the page that says it all : http://tinyurl.com/true-deaf The truth is all there and you can not call my bluff.

    Sign language students, my apologies, for bringing out this kind of truth of the people you'll want to be working with in the future but its a lot better you find out now as in early than later on when it could get very painful.

    As for deaf advocates, I too am one, I was one of your cheerful guards till the deaf centered society stole a lot from me. But, I'm still the deaf advocate and deaf activist only in a totally different direction to raise up the deaf society to a better state of life than they are in and I'm using very odd and explicit tools to accomplish this so pardon me for doing it the way I am doing it.

    Posted by Richard Roehm, 07/18/2011 2:23am (3 years ago)

  • A recent Peoples World article written by Teresa Albano : "Retired, but fighting: ARA stands up for Social Security (video)" has no subtitles in that video? The article does tell you what Barbara Easterling exactly says in the video. How many deaf people do you think are left out ?

    Posted by beth, 07/18/2011 1:23am (3 years ago)

  • i'm hard of hearing and without CC i readly don't enjoy a movie because i don't understand it

    Posted by de, 07/12/2011 7:47pm (3 years ago)

  • Subtitles are also necessary for average Americans to enjoy foreign films.

    Posted by Nick Phillips, 07/07/2011 5:51am (3 years ago)

  • I can understand where the deaf activists are upset with Netflix (not all movies have the Subtitle button) but I think it's going a bit too extreme. And what makes matters worse, they want to sue. Sue for what, human error? Why can't the activists and the people that run Netflix just come to some kind of understanding misses the lawyers and all the court toom drama. It wasn't done to degrade anyone, so just let sleeping dogs lie. Come on, people, get over it!

    Posted by gary, 07/06/2011 11:18pm (3 years ago)

  • This hits close to home! My 97 year old, immobile but still intellectually alert father can not enjoy movies or TV programming unless subtitles are provided, as he has become stone deaf. As almost all the DVD rental places in our area have closed or are in the process of closing, his options are fewer and fewer. We have talked about linking up with Netflix but their limited use of subtitles is a real problem. We would have to confine ourselves to foreign-language films, because we could always be sure that those would have English-language subtitles. So I am signing myself on to this worthy campaign.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 06/29/2011 9:18pm (3 years ago)

  • I made a video and I'm positive you all will get the whole essence of the message.

    The Deaf Schools Are A Disservice To The Taxpayers (OPEN CAPTIONS)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeO3JyqpwYs and enjoy!

    And a lot of the evidence to some of the points in the vlog can be found in here http://www.tinyurl.com/deafbabies and too bad if the sign language deafies can't handle the truth. They would probably attack the truthseekers like me instead as they been doing that for 15 years already and I'm used to it as it dont stop me at all.

    Posted by Richard Roehm, 06/29/2011 7:58am (3 years ago)

  • Susan,
    Thank you for the amazing article. Hopefully with various media outlets joining forces with us by writing about the issue, then positive change can occur and businesses everywhere will know that equal access should be the norm, not the exception. The Deaf and hard of hearing communities make up such a large number of people that I'm surprised at how many businesses actually ignore such a customer base.

    Posted by Sebastian Barrett St.Troy, 06/28/2011 5:11pm (3 years ago)

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