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.

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