Netflix reaches deal to end lawsuit over closed captioning of streamed movies, TV shows

Netflix Inc. has reached an agreement with the National Association of the Deaf to ensure that all movies and television shows it streams on the Internet will be closed-captioned for the hearing impaired within two years.

The association, along with the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired and Massachusetts resident Lee Nettles—who is deaf—sued the California-based company over the issue in 2010. In June, a federal judge in Springfield found Netflix and other online providers that serve the public are subject to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the first ruling in the country to recognize that Internet-based businesses are covered by the act. Such Web-based businesses did not exist when the law was enacted in 1990, but according to the judge, it was intended to adapt to technology changes.

Nettles, who works at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Springfield, said Netflix discriminated against the hearing impaired by forcing them to pay for more expensive DVD rentals, many of which are close-captioned.

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Netflix began streaming shows in 2008 and started captioning them in 2010. Currently, 90 percent of programming hours viewed are closed captioned, according to the company.

“We got the attention because we were pioneers to streaming video, but the interesting thing is we are so far ahead and much more evolved in providing quality captioning than any of the other streaming services,” said Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland.

Friedland said he did not know how much the closed captioning requirement will cost the company.

Other streaming services, such as those offered by Amazon.com, iTunes, and Hulu, will now also be compelled to offer closed captioning, said Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, who represented the plaintiffs in the suit. The case has wide implications for the 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States who want to be part of the social mainstream, she said.

“Deaf and hard of hearing people need 100 percent of the content to be closed captioned so that they can access this wonderful new service in the same way that hearing people can,” Mayerson said.

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