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Nov 13, 2018

My Journey into Audio Description At Netflix

When I started working at Netflix nearly four years ago, I felt all the emotions you would expect to feel starting a new job: excited, nervous, optimistic. During the interview process, I heard so much about the culture but had no idea what to expect. Months after settling into my role on the Content Operations team, I thought I had a good understanding of what the ‘Freedom & Responsibility’ culture meant. I found that I was trusted to do my job without being micromanaged, I was able to set my own schedule based on the work that needed to be done, and I had a strong relationship with my manager in which I could give and receive open and honest feedback. I had seen it for myself -- working for Netflix really does live up to the reputation in all the ways I had hoped for.

However, it took a while until I was able to find my way around this unique work environment with seemingly no limitations on what you’re able to pursue and accomplish. For the most part, I had my day-to-day role down, as much as one would expect in the first few months, but I wanted to do more -- I just didn’t know how to go after it. I was surrounded by so many talented people and everyone was moving a mile a minute. Netflix is different. If you want to be a part of something, you are encouraged… to just go for it. You don’t have to jump through hoops to get things moving and it’s because of the culture that exists that I was able to do so with my foray into the world of Accessibility.

It was just a few months into my time here at Netflix when I had heard hallway conversations about an initiative my colleagues were working on, something called Audio Description. I had never actually heard of Audio Description until that day. For those that don’t know, Audio Description -- or AD (and sometimes referred to as Descriptive Audio or Video Description), is an optional narration track that describes what is happening on screen, including physical actions, facial expressions, costumes, settings, scene changes and more. The track is primarily used by the blind and visually-impaired audience to help them better understand and connect to a story by filling in the missing pieces that a sighted viewer would otherwise understand through the visualizations on screen. If you’re curious, try it out for yourself. Within the Netflix service, select the ‘Audio Description’ option in the Subtitles & More section on your device.

By April 2015, my colleagues had spent the better part of a year preparing to release a catalogue of about 100 titles with Audio Description for the first time -- and by the time I had heard what they were working on, they were just a few weeks out from the big launch. The enthusiasm and anticipation from the team was infectious.

However, just as the excitement was building, we had launched the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, a story about a blind superhero, without AD. As you would expect, the public response wasn’t great. After understanding and acknowledging the impact of the mistake, the team quickly made AD for the series available on Netflix and it became the first Netflix Original with AD. In the weeks following, our team released AD for several more titles as the tracks were completed or delivered by our studio partners.

Not making the Daredevil launch was a miss for us, but it was the way in which my colleagues came together in response to the public feedback that inspired me. There were honest conversations and quick solutions. If anything had exemplified the Netflix culture to me thus far, it was this. But more importantly, this event made me realize how impactful AD was to those who used it. For many who are blind or visually-impaired, having access to AD means having the opportunity to participate in conversations about their favorite TV series or movies and sharing in the same joy and excitement that comes with watching something great. The fact that we were starting to produce all these wonderful, global, culturally-relevant stories across age, race, religion, culture, geographic background, and language, but that not everyone could enjoy them equally was disheartening. Fortunately, there was something we could do about it -- and that meant working to make our content accessible for all. This was a monumental realization for me and in that moment, changed my path at Netflix.

After all this, the prospect and excitement of getting to work on something so meaningful had my attention. At the time, my manager was incredibly supportive when I told him I wanted to join these efforts. I jumped in where I could and started reaching out to our studio partners and others to try and find AD wherever it existed for content that we were already licensing. In some cases, AD is made available during TV broadcasts and theatrical releases. It was my goal to bring as much of that AD to Netflix as I could. What started as a one-time project three and a half years ago has turned in to so much more. Since then, a few others with the same dedication to making content accessible, have formed a small, but mighty, Accessibility team here at Netflix. We have made it our priority to help find AD for our licensed content and to ensure that our Scripted Originals launch with AD. We’ve since positioned ourselves as a go-to resource for all things Accessibility within our team and across the company, and that’s all because we are given the freedom and trust to pursue our passions within Netflix. We all have our day jobs -- but we’re on a mission to make sure our amazing stories reach all audiences. We meet regularly to share news, updates, the projects we’re working on, and my favorite part -- pie-in-the-sky ideas for what’s possible in the future.

Since the Daredevil days, we’ve come quite a long way. What started with AD for one series has expanded to over 7,500 hours of Audio Description available on Netflix. And just as exciting, we now have AD available in 28 languages around the world. In 2017, the American Foundation for the Blind honored Netflix with the Helen Keller Achievement Award for our efforts in Accessibility.

I’m proud of the progress that has been made since I joined the effort in 2015, but I know we have so much further to go. In the next year, we will continue to move forward and try new things. We’re experimenting with new technologies that would allow us to provide AD across a greater number of titles. We’re also exploring creating AD in multiple languages across the same title, which is a challenging and exciting endeavor. And, most thrilling for me because I work in this area of content, we’re expanding our offering to add AD for our Unscripted series as well. Coming soon, you’ll start to see AD for some of our favorite shows like Queer Eye and Nailed It!, among others.

The work that I do with Audio Description and Accessibility is not my direct role at Netflix, nor was it work assigned to me by someone else, it’s just something I do because I love it. But the amazing part is, I am not special or unique in this regard. Everyone at Netflix is given the opportunity to work on things that mean something to them -- and I see it everywhere. It’s inspiring, it’s contagious, and it’s how we get great things get done.

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