Dear Netflix, We Can’t Hear You! Signed, 50 Million Americans

Dear Netflix, We Can’t Hear You! Signed, 50 Million Americans
April 4, 2013

by: Barbara J. King, NPR
Recent scientific research links hearing impairment with dementia. Commentator Barbara J. King says widespread availability of closed-captioned films could help.

Netflix was ordered to close-caption all its films by next year.
Justin Lane/EPA /Landov

Addicted, that’s what we are: My husband and I are addicted to BBC television shows. We watch BBC series via Netflix streaming, the “instant” option available to Netflix customers.

This past weekend, we chose a show called The Last Enemy starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Like thousands of others, we are impatiently awaiting the reappearance of Cumberbatch and his co-star Martin Freeman in the BBC Sherlock Holmes series, but Season 3 won’t come to the U.S. until 2014. We hoped The Last Enemy might ease the pain of the wait. It started off great, and we were hooked.

Episode 2, however, unlike Episode 1 and the initial two seasons of Sherlock Holmes, lacked closed-captioning, even though it was listed as closed-captioned on the Netflix website. (Subsequent episodes lack closed-captioning also.)

For us, that was a deal-breaker. My husband has a moderate degree of hearing loss, and without closed-captioning, what should be a fun activity rapidly became an exercise in frustration. Even though my hearing is intact, I also had trouble without visible words on the screen because the show involves fast-paced dialogue and thick accents. After about 20 times of hitting the remote’s pause button and asking each other what we just heard — or didn’t hear — we gave up.

Why does the slight ruination of our weekend viewing plans merit a blog post? Because many millions of other Americans are in my husband’s boat. In her new book Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You, Katherine Bouton notes that 17 percent of the U.S. population has some degree of hearing loss. It’s not only older people, either, she notes: 19.5 percent of 12-19-year-olds have at least slight hearing loss; 5 percent of these young people are considered to have some degree of serious impairment.

Not all hearing loss is alike. Bouton notes that the deaf community in the U.S. today is vibrant, with its own language, full of accomplished people in “just about every profession.” By contrast, she writes, the hearing impaired “live in a kind of limbo, not really part of the hearing world but not part of the Deaf world either. Many are unwilling to acknowledge their hearing problems publicly.” Bouton’s own story underscores this last point: For two decades, she endeavored to keep her own hearing loss secret as she worked in high-powered journalism.

It’s no secret, though, that some people are less than happy with Netflix’s services to the deaf and hearing-impaired communities. A Massachusetts woman who is deaf, working together with two deaf organizations, sued the company in 2010, saying that a lack of closed-captioning on its instant-streaming shows violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. A judge agreed: Netflix was ordered to close-caption all its films by 2014.

Possibly you are thinking: First-world problem! That’s a comment I get pretty often here at 13.7, when I’m tackling an issue that a reader dismisses as less than critically important. So let me explain why Netflix’s forthcoming compliance with the ADA is good news from the scientific side of things.

A 2011 paper by Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins University, summarized by Bouton in her book, offers a startling conclusion: There’s a strong correlation between hearing loss and dementia. Lin studied 639 people aged 36 to 90, some of whom had hearing loss at the study’s inception, but none of whom had dementia. A median time period of 12 years later, with scientific controls applied for effects of age and medical conditions, those who did have hearing loss at the start had a greater incidence of dementia. “The risk of dementia,” Bouton reports, “increased with the degree of hearing loss. The use of hearing aids seemed to have no effect.”

An association between two variables is a tricky thing because it doesn’t imply a cause: There’s no proof that a hearing impairment leads to dementia.

Bouton asks the key question: How might hearing loss and dementia be related? She reviews three possibilities. Social isolation often results from hearing impairment and may itself be a risk factor for dementia. Or, the brain may be so overworked by trying hard to hear others’ speech that working memory may be affected (this is called the “cognitive overload” idea). Finally, there may be some underlying cause common to both hearing loss and dementia.

Or maybe more than a single factor is at work.

Perhaps in the future, scientists will be able to disentangle these various possibilities. (That hearing aids seem to have no effect strikes me as particularly surprising.)

One thing is already clear: more closed-captioning would help the situation. It would combat both a feeling of isolation and any cognitive overload resulting from straining hard to hear felt by those with hearing loss.

Netflix and other companies that share film or TV content with paying customers can and should ensure that the spoken dialogue is comprehensible to all. It makes no sense for Netflix to offer a series of episodes, some closed-captioned and others not, as happened to us. (A Netflix customer representative readily agreed when we contacted her and promised to look into the problem.)

Watching a film shouldn’t be an unpleasantly challenging strain or a pleasure rendered impossible altogether. Whether solo or shared, it should be an engaging brain treat available to all, no matter the working status of one’s ears.

Barbara King’s book How Animals Grieve has just been published. You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit

Netflix and National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Reach Historic Agreement to Provide 100% Closed Captions in On-Demand Streaming Content Within Two Years

from a press release:
Netflix and National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Reach Historic
Agreement to Provide 100% Closed Captions in On-Demand Streaming
Content Within Two Years
(October 10, 2012) Netflix Inc. and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), a nonprofit organization, have submitted a joint Consent Decree to a federal court in Springfield, Mass., ensuring closed captions in 100% of Netflix streaming content within two years.
NAD, along with the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired (WMAD/HI) and Lee Nettles, a deaf Massachusetts resident, brought suit against Netflix seeking that commitment in 2010.
The agreement indicates the parties’ mutual intent to increase access for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to movies and television streamed on the Internet. Netflix began its closed-captioning program in 2010. Netflix has increased captioning for 90% of the hours viewed but is now committed to focusing on covering all titles by captioning 100% of all content by 2014. Captions can be displayed on a majority of the more than 1,000 devices on which the service is available.
Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of NAD, the lead plaintiff in this case, said, “The National Association of the Deaf congratulates Netflix for committing to 100% captioning, and is thrilled to announce that 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people will be able to fully access Netflix’s Watch Instantly services.”
“We have worked consistently to make the broadest possible selection of titles available to Netflix members who are deaf or hard of hearing and are far and away the industry leader in doing so,” said Neil Hunt, Netflix Chief Product Officer. “We are pleased to
have reached this agreement and hope it serves as a benchmark for other providers of
streaming video entertainment.”
Netflix will also improve its interface so that subscribers will be better able to identify
content that has been captioned in the period until 100% captioning is achieved. The
parties have asked the court to maintain jurisdiction of the case for four years to assure
compliance with the terms of the Decree, and plaintiffs will monitor Netflix’s progress.
“We’re so pleased that Netflix worked jointly with plaintiffs to devise a reasonable and
workable way to achieve 100% captioning. The Decree is a model for the streaming
entertainment industry,” said Arlene Mayerson, Disability Rights Education & Defense
Fund’s Directing Attorney. “DREDF hopes that this is the beginning of opening the
Internet for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in streamed entertainment, education,
government benefits, and more.”
The Consent Decree is available here:
10-10-12.pdf regarding National Association of the Deaf, et al. v. Netflix, Case
No. 3:11-cv-30168.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in
Berkeley, CA, the Oakland, CA law firm Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson P.C.,
and the Boston, MA law firm Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C.
Netflix is represented by David F. McDowell and Jacob M. Harper of Morrison &
Foerster LLP.
# # #
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is the nation’s premier civil rights
organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of
America. NAD represents the estimated 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of
hearing and is based in Silver Spring, MD.
Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired (WMAD).
WMAD is an advocacy membership organization of individuals who are deaf and
hearing impaired in western Massachusetts.
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF)
Founded in 1979 by people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities, the
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) is a national law and policy center
based in Berkeley, CA and is dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights of
people with disabilities.
Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson P.C.
Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson P.C. is a national law firm based in Oakland, CA that represents plaintiffs in civil rights, employment discrimination, ERISA employee benefit and pension litigation, and wage and hour Overtime litigation.
Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C.
SRBC is a Boston-based civil litigation firm with 26 lawyers and more than 80 years of success in managing complex cases for local, regional and national clients.