Netflix's original series now have a superhero among them. Comic fans know Daredevil as a crusader. He's a Marvel character who, in addition to his superhuman abilities, has a very human disability: blindness.
Needless to say, Daredevil has quite a few fans with visual impairments — and they were looking forward to the show.
But until this week, Netflix had no plans to provide the audio assistance that could have helped those fans follow the show.
The FCC requires broadcasters to provide audio descriptions of many programs so blind people can enjoy TV along with everyone else.
But Netflix isn't a broadcaster — it's an Internet-based service. And they didn't plan to provide that audio.
In other words, the superhero would not have been able to enjoy his own program.
Robert Kingett, a journalist and activist in Chicago, is a fan of Daredevil. He's blind and also lives with cerebral palsy. And when he learned the show wouldn't have audio descriptions, Kingett recalls, "I said, 'Well, that's just utterly insane.' "
So he started advocating online. Daredevil, of all shows, should be accessible, he argued.
This week, Netflix announced it has added the option for the show — the first time it's ever done so.
"It was incredible," Kingett says. "In fact, me and quite a bit of other 'blindies' gathered around, and had a big thing of popcorn and watched the first episode in jubilance."
But Kingett and other advocates say they're not resting yet. There's tons of material online that's not accessible to the blind and people with other disabilities.
Now, some groups are making a legal argument to push for audio descriptions for online material. The Internet is a 'public space,' they argue, so the rules of the 25-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act should apply.
These questions have also been raised in the courts. Tori Ekstrand, a media law professor at the University of North Carolina, says two lawsuits specifically challenged Netflix — but turned out quite differently.
An unpublished ruling in the 9th Circuit, she says, "basically handed down a decision that said there is no requirement for Netflix to provide ... this type of closed captioning the plaintiff was looking for."
The court's reasoning was that, unlike a building, the Internet has "no connection to a physical place," she says.
Other circuit courts, however, have read the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, more broadly. Those courts, Ekstrand explains, "say Congress intended for the disabled to have access to have non-physical structures like the Internet."
Ekstrand predicts the Department of Justice, which administers the ADA, will eventually clarify what the expectations are for the Internet versus physical spaces.
NPR contacted Netflix for comment on the court cases involving the ADA and the new addition of audio descriptions for Daredevil. A spokesperson said the company was unable to comment at this time.
Ekstrand acknowledges that making Internet programming more accessible may carry additional costs for content providers. But those costs, she argues, are akin to the cost of implementing the original ADA requirements in physical spaces.
"There's a whole part of society that is essentially locked out" of the Internet as it currently exists, she says.
Statistics show that most people will experience a disability at some point in their lives, she adds. "And I know if that happens to me, I want to still be able to enjoy the Web. ... It's not just for one segment of people. ... This may actually happen to you."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Netflix's original series now have a superhero in their ranks.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAREDEVIL")
CHARLIE COX: (As Matt Murdock) I'm just trying to make my city a better place.
RATH: Comics fans know daredevil as the crusader who, in addition to superhuman abilities, has a very human disability. He's blind.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAREDEVIL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: How old were you when you got blind?
SKYLAR GAERTNER: (As Young Matt) Nine. I hear things.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: You got a gift, the kind that very few people have.
RATH: Needless to say, "Daredevil" has quite a few blind fans, and they were very much looking forward to the show. The FCC requires broadcasters to provide audio descriptions of many shows so blind people can enjoy TV along with everyone else. But Netflix isn't a broadcaster. It's an Internet-based service. And initially, there was no word about whether they would provide audio descriptions for "Daredevil." The superhero wouldn't have been able to enjoy his own show.
ROBERT KINGETT: To be quite frank, I said, well, that's just utterly insane.
RATH: Robert Kingett is a journalist and activist in Chicago. He's one of those blind "Daredevil" fans, and he also lives with cerebral palsy. When Robert heard "Daredevil" wouldn't have an audio description option, he started advocating online that this, of all shows, should be accessible. This week, Netflix announced they had added the option of audio descriptions for the show, the first time they've ever done that. Here's how it sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAREDEVIL")
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Matching each other kick for kick and punch for punch, Matt eventually hurls Healy into a discarded mirror in the alley.
KINGETT: It was incredible. In fact, me and a quite a bit of other blindies all gathered around and had a big thing of popcorn and watched the first episode in jubilance (laughter).
RATH: But Robert Kingett and other advocates are not resting. There's a ton of material online that's not accessible to the blind and people with other disabilities. And now some groups are making the legal argument that the Internet is a public space, so the rules of the 25-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act apply.
Tori Ekstrand is a media law professor at the University of North Carolina and recently wrote about these issues for The Atlantic. She says two lawsuits challenged Netflix, but they turned out quite differently.
TORI EKSTRAND: In the 9th Circuit, we had an unpublished ruling recently that basically handed down a decision that said there is no requirement for Netflix to provide necessarily this type of closed captioning the plaintiff was looking for in that case, because there's no connection to a physical place. In a number of other circuits, including the case that was heard in the District Court in Massachusetts, there doesn't need to be that connection.
The 1st, 2nd and 7th Circuits are reading the ADA more broadly to say Congress intended for the disabled to have access to non-physical structures, like the Internet. For private entities, we're going to start to, I think, see some indication from the Department of Justice about what the expectations are. The DOJ is responsible for the administration of the ADA. Hopefully, we'll find out what they think.
RATH: What about the burden this puts on businesses to do that extra coding and do some stuff that is probably going to cost them some money?
EKSTRAND: So there is a burden, potentially, and an obligation. I would argue it's no different than the burden to make a building accessible, to widen doorways, to run elevators, to offer students, say, in a school setting the types of accommodations they need to succeed. You know, we faced these costs back in 1991, and we did it. We took down buildings. We retrofitted buildings. That cost money. I'm sure people who owned these buildings weren't that thrilled. We knew we had to do it, and we did do it.
RATH: What about - just to push back on that a little bit, you know, one of the things that people have said is great about the Internet is, in a way, that it's place without rules. You don't have to have, you know, zoning rules. You don't have to, you know, have physical infrastructure. Anybody can get online and sell whatever they want to, and that's what's great about the Internet.
EKSTRAND: If one of the beauties of the Internet is it's sort of democratizing nature, there's a whole part of society that is essentially locked out. And the reality is, people don't think this about themselves, but we are all temporarily abled (laughter). We will all face a disability at some point in our life, most likely. The numbers bear that out. And I know if that happens to me, I want to still be able to enjoy the web. And having this technology is something we should all really care about. It's not just for one segment of people or for your grandmother or for a cousin, say. This may actually happen to you.
RATH: Tori Ekstrand teaches media law at Chapel Hill. Tori, thanks very much.
EKSTRAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.