Updated: Mar 5
In 2020, Heather Dowdy joined the Netflix team as its first director of product accessibility. Having grown up with her deaf parents, she watched TV with subtitles and was very aware, as a hearing person, of the gaps and mistakes in subtitles that often miscommunicated the important points of whatever it was she was watching. Her personal experiences have greatly influenced the work she does at Netflix, where she is working towards making the platform more accessible.
Accessibility Benefits Everyone
Subtitles are just another example of a technology that was designed to support people with disabilities but has turned out to be very beneficial for non-disabled users as well. According to Netflix’s internal data, “about 40% of Netflix global users use them all the time, while 80% use them at least once a month” and, as Dowdy explains, that's due in part to people watching more than one screen at a time, so text helps them follow the story.
Getting the Right Feedback
Although the original purpose of subtitles was to aid those who are hard of hearing or deaf, Dowdy notes that they aren’t included enough in the process of making subtitles. It is crucial, she explains, to get honest feedback from them to ensure Netflix creates inclusive and successful products. Netflix’s audio descriptions, which have received praise for their richness and vividness, are a result of the incorporation of feedback by blind and visually impaired people. Some viewers expressed that they found some of these vivid descriptions to be “too much” for them, but Dowdy emphasized that "the point is people are watching and are being included, and I'll take that over 'I can't access it at all.'"
Netflix and Accessibility
In her time at Netflix, Dowdy has organized proactive engagement with disability organizations and focus groups that have helped make Netflix much more inclusive.
Dowdy’s work has been valuable in many ways; she has published internal accessibility guidelines and helped make productions with characters with disabilities easier to discover on Netflix. She acknowledges, however, that Netflix, like all platforms, has a long road ahead when it comes to accessibility and recognizes that it is not going to be a perfect journey to get there but a process of constant iteration, feedback, and adjustments.
The frustrating and common thread of disabled people being left behind by tech either by only having second-rate options offered to them or by not being included altogether, inspires Dowdy everyday to make Netflix more accessible. When it comes to accessibility, her mindset is that if you solve for one, you can extend the solution to many.
"I've been so challenged with how to take a person's personal experience and open up access for them and more folks like them — and then for everyone," Dowdy says.
Her next goal is to work on providing audio descriptions and subtitles in more languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and French and hopes that they will be able eventually offer accessibility in 20 languages for Netflix users.