When Marvel’s much-anticipated Daredevil premiered on Netflix on April 10, the disability community, especially the nerds with disabilities, looked forward to the series in appreciation of the genre, the comic books, and in particular, the blind protagonist, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil. Unlike other popular superheroes with disabilities that might be cyborgs, mutants, or aliens, Matt Murdock became blind in an accident, a very human and mundane event, nothing supernatural or alien about it. Yes, the radioactive isotopes that he was exposed to gave him certain abilities, but his lived experience as a blind man in a non-blind world also gave him certain skills that became as useful as his heightened senses, ability to take a beating, and mastery of the martial arts.
Very soon after the release of Daredevil on Netflix, people began to realize that blind Netflix users could not enjoy Daredevil’s adventures since the series did not come with audio description.
Most online streaming movies and shows on Netflix provide subtitles in English and several other languages, but no audio description. People with disabilities have encountered accessibility issues with online content for years, advocating for captioning, accessible websites, and audio description. With such a high profile series on Netflix and a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court stating the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to Netflix because it is “not connected to any actual, physical place,” this irony was just too rich and irresistible for mainstream media to ignore. Multiple articles pointed out this disparity here, here, and here.
Below is a Q&A with two accessibility advocates (some of the answers have been condensed for space):
Jamie Berke, member of the Accessible Netflix Project, Caption Action 2, and the National Association of the Deaf.
As founder of the Accessible Netflix Project, describe the history of the project and the team of volunteers involved.
Robert: The Accessible Netflix Project started in 2012 out of sheer frustration. I began asking around the blind community, seeking help from the blind and the visually impaired about Netflix accessibility. I wanted to pursue some heavy action, because I had been reading about blind and visually impaired people having all sorts of problems with Netflix accessibility with the added wants from a few people in the community that wanted audio description.
I knew how the media could change things. I am a journalist after all. I wanted to use my journalism talent and writing gift to document this, to document, 1.) that Netflix just brushed off our comments and concerns, and 2.) to document what other blind people wouldn’t do, and would rather shout to an email list about.
It first started off with me and a few passionate bloggers. The 4 core team listed on the Accessible Netflix Project team members page? That was us. We were pouring blood, sweat, tears, anger, frustration, happy hope, and desire into a blog for the world to see. Working in media, I knew that mainstream media didn’t even know about this stuff, so we were going to document everything for everybody. News, advocacy attempts, everything. We were going to show the world what was happening with Netflix accessibility…Little did we know, we had a vast following. If they wanted to learn about Netflix accessibility, people knew that the Accessible Netflix Project would have the latest.
For non-disabled people who don’t know too much about accessibility, why are captions and audio descriptions so important for people with disabilities?
Robert: Captions are essential, simply put. Things should be captioned especially since the captioning techniques are becoming more and more open sourced. It’s just a matter of willingness to do it. Captions allow people who are deaf or hard of hearing to enjoy a TV show or movie, simply put.
Audio description is the same thing, but you have arguments in the blind community that audio description isn’t accessibility, that you can still use your imagination. This is certainly true, but what about in scenes where there are textual storytelling elements, such as scenes where people are texting, or conveying messages or plot advancements through emails or gestures, or through another language where there’s subtitles. To be frank, I don’t think your imagination would do well there.
Being a writer, I make a living utilizing my imagination, but often times, the picture I perceive is wrong, as evidenced by the discussions afterwards when my friends are describing a characters visual trait that completed some aspect of the character or otherwise… I’d say, to experience what audio description means, watch the Passion of the Christ blindfolded and then tell me how your imagination served you.
Audio description is there to fill in the puzzle pieces. Audio description is there to read the subtitled heavy scenes or to describe the minute facial expression that becomes relevant later on in the plot. I’d just like to add that audio description doesn’t just help blind people but it helps autistic people as well because it describes a lot of facial expressions. It also allows people to expand our vocabulary because these writers have to choose the exact word that conveys just the right amount of information within a certain time frame. For instance, when I saw Star Wars on the old DVS VHS tape, I learned that “decks” means the same thing as “hit” based on the context of the scene and the sentence. I was about eight at the time and loved the DVS version of Star Wars, by the way.
Jamie: Captions and audio descriptions are important for people with disabilities because without them, we can’t get the full experience that non-disabled people get. Deaf people can’t understand the program. Blind people can’t get the full “picture” of what is going on.
Many online providers of content claim that they are exempt from accessibility requirements under the ADA, what’s your response to those arguments?
Jamie: You must be thinking of businesses like Netflix. My response is that these days, with the Internet so central to our lives, the Internet needs to be considered a place of public accommodation. The law needs to catch up with reality.
For people unfamiliar with CVAA, describe the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act and why it’s so important.
Jamie: The 21st CVAA in a nutshell, for Deaf people, it requires that when traditional television is captioned and then shown on the Internet, it is required to be captioned. But that is a narrow mandate that allows professional content created solely for the Internet to not be required to have captions. That’s the huge loophole there and that’s why Caption Action 2 is here to push for captions online.
Describe your interactions with Netflix regarding audio descriptions and other accessibility issues. Do you think there are people at Netflix who are starting to get the message?
Robert: I think Netflix is starting to finally see the business side of this, how much new subscribers they will get if they drop in a few thousand dollars to make audio description for their original shows and the fact that they won’t even have to pay third parties to get the audio description track if it’s on a DVD. They are finally seeing why they should do this. I’ve had blind and visually impaired people write to me and tell me they will now create a Netflix account and pay for a subscription. I believe this is huge advancement from when we started emailing them two years ago. I am happy that Netflix has chosen to lead the way in streaming media accessibility, but it hasn’t been easy getting here. As I said, a lot of my team and I have poured blood, sweat, and tears into this campaign, the emails, the LinkedIn messages, the phone calls. Everything.
Netflix weren’t cooperative at all, and to an extent still don’t fully get it. For example, about the web player being inaccessible and everything, or actually having a link on the website to tell people where the described content can be found. We’ve asked but didn’t get a sincere reply. We got the standard PR reply that we strive to make Netflix work for everyone, thank you for your time, but I seriously think they are beginning to get accessibility. Certainly, they don’t understand it at all, but they are starting to get it.
This is huge compared to years ago, where phone calls would never be returned or emails would be ignored, or the fact that Netflix kept telling us that it wasn’t their responsibility to provide the audio description when we asked that they take the audio description on the DVD and use it in the streamed version as well. It’s a huge step forward from a Netflix representative telling us “Thank you but accessibility and audio description won’t happen anytime soon. Thank you though!” Overall, I’m glad they are starting to get it.
What do you make of the timing of Netflix’s announcement that they would offer audio description starting with Daredevil, four days after the premiere of the original series?
Robert: Of course people can’t create audio description over night, but I believe that our campaign helped to push it out. My suspicion is that they recorded part of the audio description when we first made a stink over at our blog back in November of 2014 and the pressure we started to put on them then. As with other things, we didn’t hear anything. I think Disability Rights advocates helped behind the scenes a lot when I contacted them in 2013. I think Netflix reluctantly started moving forward, but now they had lawyers poking their nose in as well. They still didn’t want to do it, but then our social media campaign happened and I think that’s what finally broke the silence. I’m not an idiot. I know audio description can’t be created overnight, but I also believe Netflix were forced to get SOME of their ducks in a row, because of all of the media attention we kept fueling. Working in media and with PR, that’s a blow companies don’t want, bad press, so I believe that helped too. To be fair, it was an unbelievably stupid PR decision to NOT implement this from the start. I guess they thought mainstream media wouldn’t care about audio description.
What’s the reaction of the blind community about Netflix’s announcement, at least among the communities you are connected with?
Robert: For the most part it’s jubilant all around. I mean utter ecstatic! People who never had a Netflix account are creating one now because they know Netflix will add audio description to other shows in the future. This could include kids shows, so parents with blind children are thrilled, almost everyone is.
Of course, you have some blind people who like to point out fallacies. One, of which, is that audio description isn’t accessibility. While it’s certainly not traditional accessibility, I ask the fellow people why do they have to waste energy telling the whole Internet that audio description isn’t accessibility, when they could just shut up and turn it off? These are the very people who didn’t even read our blog to begin with. To them, I will proudly say shut up and turn audio description off if it destroys your world. Be happy that people who need it or want it have it available now.
It’s always cool to see characters with disabilities in the comic book universe to see characters with disabilities. Tell me about your thoughts on Daredevil/Matt Murdock and what you like about him.
Robert: I love Daredevil. Then again, I’d love him even more if he were as gorgeous as Denzel Washington or some other sexy black guy, but here you have a guy who doesn’t have any super powers. Here’s a guy who gets wounded in battle, and who overcomes so much simply because he doesn’t have any super powers. I know I’m missing some of the root of Daredevil because I was never able to read the comic books, but here’s a man who has fought alongside others such as Peter Parker and others and has to overcome his human limitations to do extraordinary things. I like him outside of the costume too. I love his wit. I know we would be the best of friends if we met for coffee or something. We both have a darkly humorous outlook on life.
I don’t know if you’ve finished all 13 episodes of Daredevil with audio description, but how do you like it so far?
Robert: I am on episode four and one thing I am really impressed with is instead of having one describer read all the subtitles, there’s another actor reading other subtitles from a different character so it sounds like dialogue. I love the narration and the writing. I feel that the writing is really epic. I’ve heard some bad audio description before. Trust me, I used to review described performances and movies for mainstream media, so I believe this is really good, including the tone of voice used, delivery, everything.
How do you rate the quality of the audio description of Netflix’s Daredevil? What are the hallmarks of excellent audio description?
Robert: I think that good audio description lies within the writing. The writing has to match the content. You know? For example, if you’re watching a really dirty movie with audio description that’s clearly meant for adults, I think a good AD writer will say “He fucks her” when appropriate rather than say “he fornicates with her.” I think audio description lies in the hands of the writer, but the writer has to understand and embrace the style and tone of the film they are describing otherwise audio description will be something that removes you from the experience.
Most people don’t realize how much web content is still inaccessible for blind people and other people with disabilities — what are some things you’d like explore that all non-disabled people can access?
Robert: I’d like companies to include audio description on their streaming platforms, especially if it’s on the DVD, if we’re talking streaming business. I also think it should be standard for any public company to have a core accessibility team that evaluates, consults, provides technical support, and assist in development to make sure everything runs smoothly and to ensure everything is accessible. Multiple disabilities should be hired on this team, as well so it will serve a broad audience and employ many people at the same time.
You now have an online petition telling HBO NOW to include audio description. What other groups are you planning to focus on in the future?
Robert: We plan to tackle as many streaming services as we can, this includes Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, ETC. We want to provide our resources and expertise to make web media an easier place to navigate around from the accessibility side, not just audio description.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Robert: Writing can make a difference. Don’t ever listen to people when they say that writing an email or a blog… won’t work or won’t do anything. People will notice what you’re trying to do. It may take years, but just keep writing and fighting for what you believe in.
I wonder if the success of the petition was due to the convergence of the disability community and Daredevil fans pissed at the idea of blind fans not having the same quality experience as non-blind people. I’d like to think nerd culture has an innate sense of justice and that accessibility goes hand-in-hand with equality and social justice.
In Marvel’s Daredevil, some characters look at Matt and probably think, “He’s just a blind man. How tough can he be against insurmountable corruption and apathy?” I would say the case of Robert Kingett, the badass members of the Accessible Netflix Project, and other supporters shows how large multinational corporations should be careful when underestimating the power and reach of the disability community.
While Netflix renewed Marvel’s Daredevil for Season 2, it is not known (or officially confirmed) whether it will be audio described according to the Accessible Netflix Project even though it is available for Season 1.