Netflix and other streaming video services like it are amazing; they provide access to thousands of TV shows and movies literally at your fingertips. That potential gives them a lot of power, but also responsibility — they have to cater to as many people as possible.
Rather appropriately, a show about a blind superhero marks a turning point in accessibility for streaming video — Netflix’s Daredevil is the first piece of content on the video streaming giant that supports audio description, an extra audio stream that provides narrated descriptions of onscreen events to blind or vision impaired fans of the show.
Audio description is an audio stream that accompanies the visuals of any supported broadcast; it’s no different from the regular English dialogue and music that comprises any show’s soundtrack, or a director’s commentary on a DVD. Audio description, though, mixes in a narration track that describes the activity happening on screen — “Daredevil walks towards the closed door, and removes his mask.”
It’s a small tweak to an existing program, but provides a massive improvement in the quality of programming for a viewer that is blind or otherwise visually impaired. It’s almost poetic that Netflix chose Daredevil as its marquee title for audio description, but it’s the first step in an important journey towards all shows being audio description-capable. (Audio description is, of course, entirely optional for sighted viewers.)
In Australia, ABC iView has recently started trialing audio description as well; it’s currently only available on the iOS version of the app for iPhones and iPads, but will be rolled out to the desktop version of the catch-up and streaming service in May, to Android devices in June and the HbbTV Freeview Plus platform in July.
These are small changes to our existing video streaming services, but they’re hugely significant. Online video has traditionally lagged behind television and cinema in offering accessible features to disabled users, despite the much more customisable and powerful platforms that they have, so this is great to see. Bravo, Netflix. Bravo, ABC.