- Heather Dowdy, Netflix’s first director of product accessibility, told Insiders what drives her.
- Having grown up with deaf parents, she was aware of the gaps in the subtitles and when they were “screwed up”.
- Netflix has found that 80% of its viewers use subtitles at least once a month.
It wasn’t until she was a kid watching TV at a friend’s house that Heather Dowdy realized people didn’t always use subtitles.
Dowdy, who was hired as Netflix’s first director of product accessibility last year, watched shows like “Family Matters” at home growing up in Chicago in the 1990s.
The subtitles would always run because her parents are deaf. “My parents had it automatically,” she told Insider.
This experience informs her job at Netflix, where she is tasked with making the platform more accessible to people with disabilities.
Having deaf parents, she is constantly aware of mistakes and gaps in the subtitles, she said. “Because I’m privileged to hear it, I was able to say, ‘Oh, you really screwed that up — you’re missing the really important point.'”
In fact, some people with hearing loss call closed captions “craptions,” she said.
According to the US Census, 11.5 million Americans have some type of hearing impairment, ranging from difficulty hearing conversations to complete hearing loss.
But TV subtitles are used far more often today than by the deaf or hard of hearing.
According to the company’s internal data, about 40% of Netflix’s global users use it all the time, while 80% use it at least once a month. Dowdy said that’s partly because people are looking at more than one screen at a time, so text helps them follow the story.
“That’s more than people with a disability — that’s many other people who will benefit from technology that was originally developed to assist people with hearing aids,” she said.
The fact that her work reaches a much wider audience than people with disabilities is a plus for Dowdy. “That’s really what my role is about — there are so many benefits when you look at the disability community and then understand how we all benefit,” she said.
“The great thing is that we don’t need to know if you have a disability, we just focus on what exactly the feature is that allows you to participate.”
“Feedback is crucial”
Dowdy said people who are hard of hearing or deaf aren’t involved enough in the captioning process. “Feedback is critical to making sure we’re on the right track,” she said, noting that the focus groups she runs are “not holding back on feedback at all.”
She proactively works with disability organizations and holds focus groups, which is a first for Netflix. A rep for the streamer told Insider that prior to hiring Dowdy, he was primarily responding to the disability community.
Feedback from blind and partially sighted people has expanded Netflix’s audio descriptions or additional audio explaining visual elements of a show for blind or partially sighted people, including “things like the texture of skin and hair and all these other things that add context”, said Dowdy.
The subtitles for Netflix’s latest series, Stranger Things, which aired in May, received praise for their vivid audio descriptions, such as “wet wavy tentacles,” “wet tracks squelch,” and “unearthly zip.”
“There are people who thought it was too much for them, even on the new series,” Dowdy admitted, “but the point is that people are watching and getting involved, and I take charge of that, I can’t access it at all.'”
This year, President Biden appointed Dowdy to the US Access Board, the government agency that deals with accessibility.
She has published internal accessibility guidelines and made shows and films featuring characters with disabilities easier to find on the platform by creating collections of content and has begun rolling out “badges” to indicate when films have audio descriptions and subtitles.
“It’s really a journey”
Dowdy graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. She said she always wanted to use her degree to improve access to technology for people with disabilities.
She then worked for Motorola as a product manager on the Accessibility Engineering team before joining Microsoft, where she led a program that funded AI startups focused on accessibility technology.
It is driven by the fact that disabled people can be left behind by technology or faced with second-rate options. For example, she said it was frustrating that she couldn’t share content from YouTube or Instagram with her deaf friends because of the poor quality of the automated transcription.
Dowdy once went to the movies with a deaf young person she was mentoring. They received a handheld device that showed subtitles for the film. As the film began, it became clear that the device was out of battery. “The theater didn’t think they needed to be charged between films,” she said.
“I was challenged in how I can take one person’s personal experience and give them access and more people like them — and then for everyone,” Dowdy said.
That fits with their approach to accessibility: “They dissolve for one and extend it to many.”
“It won’t be perfect”
Netflix outsources its subtitles to third-party agencies and they are either automated or manually written. Dowdy has no preference: “We are open to any combination and any path that brings us to scale and quality.”
“I think it’s really important to understand where technology can really complement humans,” she said. “I’ve seen where you can have such a hybrid approach, where the technology can take you that far and then people are able to correct the context needed and really bring it in in some way.”
Dowdy’s next challenge is to create subtitles and audio descriptions in more languages for Netflix users. Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and French will be launched over the next year and the platform will eventually offer accessibility in 20 languages.
Dowdy wrote in a May blog post that “for decades, your access to entertainment was determined by where you live and what language you speak,” meaning that until recently, people who needed audio description or closed captioning “were only able to enjoy a story , if it was made in their native language.”
She said Netflix, like all platforms, has a way to achieve accessibility: “It’s really a journey and it’s not going to be perfect — it’s a constant iteration.”