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Netflix Plans to Expand Audio Descriptions, Subtitling in More Than 10 Additional Languages

Bridgerton - Season 1 - Closed
Courtesy of Netflix

This year, Global Accessibility Awareness Day falls on May 19. And Netflix is using the occasion to announce major plans to expand the global translations of its audio descriptions and subtitles for customers who are blind, deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The streamer will expand audio description (AD), subtitles for the deaf or hard-of-hearing (SDH) and dubbing in more than 10 additional languages throughout the year starting this month — so that more Netflix members with disabilities can experience shows and films made in another country in their local language. That’s not the norm in the entertainment industry at large.

Netflix is starting with French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian, and expanding from there to Asian languages including Korean and Japanese as well as European local languages. That will build on Netflix’s work to date to make its global originals catalog available in a broad range of languages no matter where the film or show was locally made.

The efforts are led by Heather Dowdy, Netflix’s director of product accessibility. The former Microsoft and Motorola Mobility exec, who has 15 years’ experience in the tech industry, joined the company in August 2021.

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Netflix is adding a badge to its menus indicating that a title supports audio description (AD).

Dowdy is a CODA — a child of deaf adults — and the Chicago native learned sign language at six months old. “It really is a personal drive for me,” she said of Netflix’s stepped-up accessibility initiative. “It used to be far and few between when my parents and I could all watch something together.”

Netflix already makes a large amount of content available with AD and SDH already. Looking forward, Dowdy said, “we’re focused on scale — to continue to provide the quality we’re known for but at scale. Our whole goal is about delighting members. It’s about including everyone.”

Today, Netflix supports more than 11,000 hours of audio description — which provides additional audio commentary that explains what’s happening on screen for those who are visually impaired — in more than 30 languages. Netflix’s U.S. members have used audio descriptions to stream more than 500,000 hours of “Lucifer” and more than 350,000 hours of “Ozark.” And viewers have consumed nearly half a million hours of “Seinfield” with AD, which Netflix provided for the reruns licensed from Sony Pictures. In November, Netflix’s audio descriptions won a “game changer” award from the American Council of the Blind.

Meanwhile, about 40% of Netflix members use subtitles globally. In six countries, the No. 1 most-watched title on Netflix in the past month among those using subtitles is Shonda Rhimes’ popular “Bridgerton” drama series.

Of course, Netflix has hit some bumps in the road as it has taken local productions to viewers in other parts of the world. When “Squid Game” — the company’s surprise South Korean mega-hit of last year — hit the service, many complained about the subtitles’ shoddy Korean-to-English translations. (Netflix says it has improved those since the series first premiered.)

“The goal is to keep improving and take feedback from the community,” Dowdy said.

With “Bridgerton,” for example, Netflix worked with the blind community on audio description guidelines to determine the best way to represent race and gender identity in AD. That resulted in descriptions that provide information on skin tone and hair texture. “That implementation wouldn’t have happened without the community feedback. It’s a better description of what’s happening,” Dowdy said, adding: “The audio descriptions are pretty steamy for some of those scenes.”

In addition to the additional language translations, Netflix also is rolling out new badges on its service to show which titles are available with AD.

And as part of celebrating stories of people living with disabilities worldwide, Netflix will launch a collection called “Celebrating Disability With Dimension,” featuring more than 50 stories of characters and people from across its catalog who are living with disabilities. The company also plans to host accessibility screening events to bring AD and SDH to movie theaters.

Netflix released a featurette about Dowdy and her work at the company: