I have some pretty strong opinions about online video captions–in short, I think every video creator should be using them, and for a variety of reasons. I’m actually working on an entire article about that subject, but couldn’t ignore the news announcement over the weekend that Netflix and Time Warner have both been sued (in separate suits) for failing to caption online videos.

Netflix & Time Warner Sued For Lack of Captions

Netflix has been sued by the National Association of the Deaf for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). How did they violate that law? By not providing captions on all videos in their streaming service. And the National Association of the Deaf is pretty upset about it.

Here’s a direct quote from Arlene Mayerson, an attorney representing the group:

“For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, captions are like ramps for people who use wheelchairs.”

From the actual lawsuit verbiage:

“While streaming (video) provides more access to entertainment to the general public, it threatens to be yet another barrier to people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

Since I’m on such a roll with the quotes, let’s hear Netflix’s response, from Steve Swasey, who is their official spokesman:

“We’re aware of and sensitive to the concern.”

Well, now… that was enlightening. Netflix claims there are technical issues keeping them from being able to caption every streaming film offered. The National Association of the Deaf thinks that’s hogwash, since several titles actually do have captions already (if it’s possible to caption one, why not all of them).

Time Warner’s lawsuit is basically the same kind of thing–they don’t provide captions on all their streaming video content at CNN.com, and an advocacy group (not the National Association of the Deaf) has sued them in partnership with three individuals.

Should Netflix & Time Warner Offer Captions?

Heck yes. Video providers need to wake up and smell the “right thing to do” here, and get on the caption bandwagon. There are tens of millions of people in the world suffering from hearing loss (as of a recent doctor’s visit, it turns out I’m one of them, though my issue is relatively small), and those people deserve to know what’s going on when they stream a movie to their laptop.

It’s a great PR move to provide captions free of charge. But as much as I want to grab Netflix and shake them by the shoulders on this issue, I can’t bring myself to call them out. Because while I believe they should offer captions, I don’t believe they should be made to do so.

Should They Have To?

Heck no. That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Did the movie theaters provide captions for deaf people who ventured out to see Green Lantern this past weekend? No they did not. Nor should they have to.

Arlene Mayerson is simply wrong to compare captions on video to ramps outside buildings. It’s apples and oranges. Let me continue her analogy a minute… let’s say a man in a wheelchair uses a ramp to get into a ski shop. Once inside, is he legally allowed to demand the shop create a pair of skis that will work with his wheelchair so that he can finally go skiing? No… he’s afforded the right, by law, to be able to freely enter the store. Not to dictate what that store sells.

So online, hearing-impaired individuals should have the same access to every website hearing individuals can access. And they do. But they should not be extended the legal right to dictate what kind of content those sites contain.

To put it another way, here’s what one Yahoo commenter had to say on the article linked above:

“If I am deaf and don’t know how to read then Netflix MUST provide me with a reader that knows sign language. (or I’ll sue).”

Exactly… there are limits to what we can force a company to do. If I have a shellfish allergy, and I go to Red Lobster, even if I order a burger… I don’t have the right to dictate that the restaurant maintain two separate kitchens… one that cooks the shellfish and one that cooks everything else. I don’t have that right. That’s not reasonable, and neither is the request to force captioning.

(Also, I can’t believe I just quoted a Yahoo commenter.)

It Should Never Have Come To This

Shouldn’t captioning be easier by now? I mean, YouTube has a system in place (that, granted, is still in beta) that lets me upload a text file of what’s being said in my video, and it just creates and spits out captions naturally after that. Are you telling me that Netflix can’t find some temps to type out the scripts to films and create caption files? Or work with film studios, who are generally all creating caption files anyway for their films’ DVD releases?

They’re claiming it’s a technology issue, which I find hard to believe. There are plenty of streaming video sites that offer captions… including Netflix themselves… so it’s possible. I also can’t believe it’s a cost issue–again, hire some starving college kids to type out movie scripts.

It’s possible that it’s an issue of cost-to-revenue ratio–meaning, maybe Netflix thinks they have so few hearing-impaired customers that the cost to create the captions isn’t justified. But that’s faulty reasoning–after all, if you build it they will come… maybe the hearing-impaired customers will sign up in droves once Netflix adds captions?

Regardless, this is a huge mess. I doubt the lawsuit will succeed… but strange things have happened. But even if it fails, Netflix is going to take a small hit from the PR on this thing, because they look like a filthy rich corporate giant who doesn’t care about disabled people. Which should provide enough public pressure to see them at least increase the number of titles that have captions, if not add them to every title.