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Netflix’s new Director of Product Accessibility, Heather Dowdy, talks about being a CODA, making Netflix accessible to everyone, and more

What band-aids are to band-aids and Kleenex is to facial tissues, Netflix is ​​to streaming videos. All are so synonymous with their respective products that they go from being a mere brand to a cultural icon. Everyone knows Kleenex. Everyone knows Netflix. They define what they represent.

In the case of Netflix, however, a lesser-known element of the company is its commitment to accessibility and serving people with disabilities. Overseeing this commitment is the responsibility of Heather Dowdy, Director of Product Accessibility at Netflix. She joined Netflix last August from Microsoft, where she worked on accessibility in various capacities for almost five years. In a blog post published on Thursday, Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Dowdy shares her personal connection to disability — like me, she’s a lifelong CODA — before announcing Netflix’s latest plans to make its content more accessible and inclusive . The Los Gatos-based company expands the number of supported languages ​​of audio description (AD) and closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH). Beginning this month through early next year, subscribers will have access to AD and SDH in more than 40 languages. Additionally, Netflix added badges on web and iOS to make these helper features more easily identifiable.

“[We’ve] Made major investments, particularly in our accessibility features. And when we look at our service and look at how people are using our service, it’s fascinating to find that so many people are using these accessibility features,” Dowdy said in a recent interview with me over a conference call. “There are about 40% of our members [who] Watch our content with subtitles and subtitles turned on; this is more than that [people] with disabilities. [It speaks to] The notion of when to break up after one can be extended to many.” Dowdy also pointed to shows such as Lucifer Includes “half a million hours” worth of audio description while ozark is worth “hundreds of thousands of hours”.

“We are very aware that people are accessing our content through these accessibility features, and we want to continue to innovate to ensure we can reach even more members with disabilities,” she said.

When asked if he could help the disability community and join Netflix, Dowdy replied unequivocally, “I was born to do it.” Her lived experience as CODA has driven her affinity and sensitivity to accessibility and assistive technologies, particularly those aimed at the deaf and hard of hearing. strongly influenced. Dowdy is very proud of her place in the Black Deaf community and tells me she feels like a “bridge” to the deaf and hearing world when it comes to having conversations that her family wasn’t a part of. Dowdy has been working in tech for the last fifteen years, and joining Netflix was an opportunity for her to bridge the gap in accessibility and entertainment. For her, that was “the next frontier”; She watched Netflix as that Place where she could delight people with disabilities and engage them in cultural conversations such as “Joy really is for everyone. As much work needs to be done on tools that we continue to need in the disability community, there is also a need for joy,” she said. “[There is] a need to be included in that very culture that is having relevant conversations happening around us. And I wanted to make sure our members with disabilities were part of that conversation, and I wanted to make sure that technology can continue to be a bridge to give them access to entertainment.”

To that end, Dowdy and Netflix don’t settle for a few software tweaks. Netflix today announced the Celebrating Disability with Dimension project, its first-ever collection of what Dowdy describes in the post as “over 50 series and films featuring characters or stories about people with disabilities.” The goal in compiling this collection, Dowdy told me, is to recognize that members of the disability community have countless stories worth telling. After all, with more than a billion people worldwide living with some form of disability, the disabled population is the largest marginalized and underrepresented group on the planet. Such representation is of tremendous value to Dowdy, who strongly believes that actively showing different types of people on screen helps articulate different perspectives and perceptions. The breadth and depth these stories bring to filmmakers and audiences is vital to the betterment of society at large. “I think inclusive storytelling, particularly like what we’re seeing on Netflix, is a vehicle for building empathy,” Dowdy said. Select countries will also have what Netflix calls accessibility screenings. The idea, as Dowdy writes in the post, is to “bring these with you [accessibility] Bringing functions outside of the living room to life and discussing ways to make entertainment more accessible through innovation.”

The truth of the matter, Dowdy explained, is that the disability community “has been here all along.” So it makes sense to want to normalize and tell their stories. In fact, the pandemic has only re-emphasised the importance of accessibility and assistive technologies. Dowdy and his team are very aware of the stakes; You’re one of many companies – certainly one of the largest – investing significant resources in this space. “I think we’ll continue to see the importance of really showing the full spectrum of the lived experience of people with disabilities,” Dowdy said.

Broadly speaking, Dowdy wanted to emphasize that while Netflix’s accessibility work to date has mostly been done behind the scenes, the company’s efforts have not gone entirely unnoticed. The American Council of the Blind recognized Netflix for its excellent implementation of audio description with the Audio Description Game Changer Award at last November’s Audio Description Awards Gala. The honor, along with other feedback, has motivated Netflix to work even harder to make the service as accessible as possible. Dowdy is particularly proud of how, with support from the Council, her team was able to enrich audio descriptions to better include attributes such as race and gender. “I love continuing to work with the disability community to make this happen [user experience] Providing feedback and continuing to make our service more enjoyable,” she said.

The feedback Netflix has received has inspired great confidence. That’s why the company decided now was the time – on this year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day – to lift the curtain and share.

“We think now is a great time, especially with Global Accessibility Awareness Day, to really just celebrate the work that’s been done,” Dowdy said. “Feedback from disability organizations has certainly helped us feel more secure because we don’t want to talk about what we’re doing – we want the community to do it [talk].”

Looking to the future, Dowdy and his team are committed to continuing on the path they have started and making Netflix even more accessible to everyone. Working at the intersection of accessibility and technology is evergreen; there will always be more to do. Dowdy won’t let her charges rest on their laurels.

“I think there’s just more stories to tell…there’s so much more [experiences] that we can tell through storytelling,” she told me. “And I’m really excited to be a part of Netflix’s focus on that.”

The WeAreNetflix YouTube channel posted a video of Dowdy talking about growing up with deaf parents in south Chicago and why accessibility and assistive technology are so important to them.

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