In the sixth episode of Netflix’s “Daredevil,” the titular superhero, who acquired superpowers in the accident that blinded him, is trying to keep a wounded baddie from bleeding out on the concrete and calls his new friend Claire (Rosario Dawson), a nurse, for advice. “It’s not as easy as it looks in the movies,” Claire tells Daredevil, whose real name is Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox). “I don’t really go to the movies,” Matt jokes, referring to his impaired vision. “I like records, though.”
But being blind doesn’t actually prevent someone from enjoying movies and television: Dialogue still resonates even if you can’t see the person speaking the lines, and with a little help, audio description tracks can fill in for the visuals. Netflix was so busy focusing on its blind superhero’s powers, though, that it initially skipped that step. “Daredevil” was released last weekend without audio description, an omission and contradiction that disability rights advocates — who for years have been pressing Netflix to be more accessible to all viewers with disabilities — were quick to seize on.
As Andrew Pulrang, who blogs about culture and disability, wrote the day after the show was released, “The show indulges in a few blindness cliches, like face-touching and wishing to see again. But the show does interesting things with these themes and they feel more earned and specific than usual … But while you watch, ponder the fact that while blindness is an integral part of the Daredevil story, Netflix so far has not provided an Audio Description track that would enable blind viewers to enjoy the show fully. It’s bad corporate citizenship for Netflix to neglect Audio Description as it does for all shows, but it’s laughably terrible PR for them to leave it out of this show in particular, and to fail to respond meaningfully to people who have been asking about it since last summer.”
Today, Netflix vowed to do better in a blog post from director of content operations Tracy Wright.
“We’re expanding our accessibility options by adding audio description on select titles, beginning today with our new critically acclaimed series, ‘Marvel’s Daredevil,’ ” she announced. “In coming weeks, we’ll add more titles, including current and previous seasons of the Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning political thriller ‘House of Cards,’ Emmy award-winning comedy-drama series ‘Orange is the New Black,’ as well as Tina Fey’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and the epic adventure series ‘Marco Polo.’…We are working with studios and other content owners to increase the amount of audio description across a range of devices including smart TVs, tablets and smartphones.”
Robert Kingett, who founded the Accessible Netflix Project, hailed the decision, saying it marked progress from his previous conversations with Wright and other Netflix employees.
“Earlier responses resulted in them telling me that they weren’t responsible for the described content, that it was up to the studios to give that described content to them regarding TV shows and movies that already had audio description on the DVD,” Kingett wrote in an e-mail.
But he emphasized that he hoped Netflix would make even more significant progress on audio descriptions and hopefully set an industry standard.
“I’d like Netflix to include the audio description track by default if it is available on the DVD, either the USA audio description or the UK audio description. The tracks are already created so I am sure it wouldn’t be hard to get them and use them. Naturally, I’d want all future original content described as well,” he suggested. And “I’d also like to see other companies, such as Hulu, follow suit.”
Audio description tracks aren’t the only thing disability rights advocates would like to see Netflix and other streaming services improve. “There [are] still major problems with web and mobile accessibility on these platforms, such as the web player not being screen reader friendly at all,” Kingett noted. “These companies should include a core accessibility team to ensure everything is usable on the web and on the app.”
After all, if Matt Murdock can clean up Hell’s Kitchen, Netflix ought to be able to make its fantastical worlds a little clearer to its blind customers.