Transcript of the September 21, 2022 Netflix Winner of 2022 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Nation's Blind Podcast

Voice over music: Welcome to the Nation's Blind Podcast, presented by the National Federation of the Blind, the transformative membership and advocacy organization of blind Americans.

Live the life you want.

Melissa Riccobono: Hello and welcome to The Nation's Blind Podcast. I'm Melissa Riccobono and I'm here with a different co-host this episode, Chris Danielsen.

How are you, Chris? 

Chris Danielsen: I am doing great. 

This is your roving reporter, Chris Danielson.

Not roving this month, just sitting in my little space where I co-host the podcast occasionally with Melissa.
Melissa: Well, we're really happy to have you on. And I mean, it makes complete sense why we have you as opposed to Anil Lewis. Not that Anil Lewis isn't wonderful.

And not that he's not a man of many talents and many interests and he doesn't know a lot of things about a lot of things. But this thing that we're going to talk about today on this episode is really, I think of it as one of Chris Danielson's babies.

One of the things that Chris Danielson loves extremely much. One of the things he knows a great deal about, something that he's interacted with and had interactions with providers of for many, many years. And this is audio description.

And today we're actually going to talk about Netflix, who won a Jacob Bolotin award from the National Federation of the Blind.

And I'm just excited to have Chris talk a little bit more about this.
And he actually did the interview with Netflix.

So let me stop talking and let you share, Chris, what you'd like our listeners to know all about this interview and this award.

Chris: Thank you, Melissa.

It's so great because it does actually combine two things that I'm passionate about because every year I have the privilege of interviewing the Bolotin Award winners, and they are always interesting to talk to and I always learn interesting things. And we had outstanding Bolotin award winners this year, as we do every year.

But this also has to do with audio description, which is something that I am passionate about, which is something I'm a big-time consumer of.
And we actually gave an award this year for excellence in audio description,  but not just audio description as you'll hear.

So, you know, a lot of times when we give Bolotin awards, we're giving them to companies or individuals that are doing something specifically around blindness. 

And in a way, we are with this company, but we're giving it to Netflix, and we've given a few awards like this. We gave one to Apple before, but this is a mainstream company,  but it is a mainstream company that has gone out of its way  to really be responsive to the needs of a segment of its viewership, that being blind viewers.

And over the years that we've come to know Netflix, they have really stepped up their game from going beyond any legal obligation that they might have, or any obligation under a settlement agreement that they might have, to really improve the audio description they provide, the accessibility of their app, and the accessibility of their service, and even going into authentic casting and authentic representation of people with disabilities, including blind people. And you'll hear some exciting news about that. So I'm really excited to present this.

This is another of the Bolotin interviews. So we're doing another podcast episode with that. But I'm really excited for you to hear about the work that Netflix is doing.

Melissa: And it is exciting and you know, I was pleasantly surprised. It seems as though at least sometimes when they are getting content that they haven't had before — So you know how it works.
You kind of play the “what streaming service has this show now” game, you know, sort of the ring around the rosy. So for a long time, we are huge Seinfeld fans in the Riccobono house and Hulu had Seinfeld, well, all of a sudden, BAM!, we couldn't find it on Hulu. And for a while you couldn't, You couldn't find it anywhere on a streaming platform.

It just wasn't there unless you bought it from Amazon or rented it from Apple or, you know, whatever. And then lo and behold, we heard Netflix was going to get it and that was nice.

And then not only that, but when it came up on Netflix, it actually for the first time, I believe, I don't know that it was ever audio described before, I could be wrong, but I had never seen Seinfeld audio described before. And to kind of discover an old show that I have watched each episode probably, I don't know, 50 to 100 times and now all of a sudden having them with description, that was really cool and something that Netflix did because now it's it was new content for them and obviously they took it upon themselves to provide that content.

So I mean, that's that's certainly just a small drop in the bucket of the things that that they've done. But it really was very personally and has been really enjoyable to once again rediscover a show with description and to realize all the small things over the years that I missed. So it's been really fun.
Chris: I'm re-watching all the Seinfeld episodes myself and it is something I don't know if that if that's exactly what happened with this, but I do know that sometimes when Netflix can't find audio description for something that they have licensed, they will commission it. And so that's just one of the many things that they're doing that is so great.

So I'll let their representative Elisa Beniero tell you more about what they are doing now. I think you'll find some really exciting things in the interview.

So, Melissa, unless you have any closing remarks, I guess we'll give it a listen.

Melissa: Let's just listen.

Chris: Hello, this is Chris Danielsen, and I'm presenting another in our series of interviews with our 2022 winners of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award. an individual representing Netflix, and I will let her go ahead and give her name and title.

Elisa Beniero: Hello, everyone. And hello, Chris. I'm Elisa Beniero. I am part of the Netflix dubbing team and also of the accessibility team at Netflix. So we are very, very excited to be here with you today.
Chris: Well, thank you. We're so excited to have you. And congratulations on your 2022 Dr. Jacob Bolotin award, which is being given for all of your excellent accessibility work. And I just wanted to ask you a few questions about that work. But first of all, congratulations.

Elisa: Thank you so much.

Chris: So a big reason for the award is Netflix is really above-and-beyond work in audio description, which I believe you started providing with the show Daredevil. But that library of audio-described content has grown really exponentially since then, as has Netflix's library generally.

Do you know, and can you say how many titles, movies, TV shows and other types of things you have? I mean, you're even doing description for standup comedy. Do you know how many titles have audio description now?


I can tell you how many hours of audio description we have now.

So since Daredevil launched in May 2015, as you were saying, our library has grown exponentially, exponentially, not only in English but in other languages as well.

We have started providing description in other languages first with Narcos, which had a description in neutral Spanish. And then we had Marseille, which was in French, and the number of local audio description titles is constantly growing with the growing number of local productions. I don't know if you know this, but we have created at least one audio description in over 50 languages, and our latest addition was Pashto audio description, which we created for a short documentary, Three Songs for Benazir, and we are currently working on Punjabi audio description, which will be available later this year for a thriller that is going to launch set up against small time gangs and rivalries in a fictional town in the south of Punjab.

So we're really excited for all this growth that we have and at the moment we have, I just checked this morning, 18,146 hours of audio description, and of these 11,728 are in English.

So that's the update as of this morning.


Wow. So that'll be, just for the benefit of our listeners, that's as of June 16th, 2022. So that is fabulous. And I believe, I don't know if you can confirm this, I believe that's the most of any streaming service that's out there.

Elisa: I am, I'm not super sure. So I cannot say yes or no. But I know it's a big it's a big number.
Chris: Thank you so much for the background in all the languages that you're providing audio description in. So I know that Netflix commissions audio description for all of its original programming and that's really important so that none of us are missing out on anything that happens in, for example, the latest season of Stranger Things as we watch it. That's really important to everybody right now, everybody's talking about it, but I know that Netflix also does some work to do other things to expand its audio description library, even for programming that it didn't produce. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Elisa: Yeah, for sure. So as you were just saying, we provide original language audio description for all the Netflix originals.  So a show like Stranger Things would have English audio description available.

A show that is created in another country such as Germany would have German audio description available. So we always ensure that the local language of the show is available, audio described. And we have expanded to cover also stand-up and comedy shows, as you were mentioning earlier, which we weren't doing before. But we have started doing that since 2019 and this is for original titles that are Netflix titles.
Then there's a whole other catalog of licensed titles. So the ones that are not from Netflix, but most the license agreements from 2015 and beyond have a wording included now that requires the content partners to also deliver audio description if it is available. Now, sometimes this is not available, so depending on the contract terms, we may want to pursue audio description at Netflix's cost.

So this is more the area that we control a little bit less because it depends on what is available but we may be able to provide audio description for as well.

Beyond the original language, we have also created audio description in additional languages, but so far this has been more of an ad hoc basis.  This depends on maybe the topic of the show or even its popularity. So some examples where we have created audio description in other languages would be Bird Box, which was actually the very first show to have audio description in multiple languages. We did 11 languages for that show and then most recently we have had Bridgerton for which  we created a total of six languages and maybe the most popular, Squid Game, for which we created, after launch, 14 languages of audio description. And that holds true also for anything that is documentary or unscripted content.

One of my favorite was Crip Camp: The Disability Revolution. We managed to create 16 languages in audio description. Or we had Rising Phoenix, for example, which had ten languages audio-described. Now this is a very ad hoc approach that we have adopted so far, but we are actively working to move away from this approach and consistently expand the availability of audio description and also subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing across our entire catalog.

So starting this year and into 2023, we will make these features available in more languages, including Spanish, Portuguese and French. And the goal is to reach a total of 20 languages.

Chris: That is fantastic to hear because one of the great things about Netflix is that there is international content available and it's great that people who speak different languages will be able to consume that, not only consume the content but consume it with audio description.  And we appreciate so much that Netflix, you know, depending on the availability, will also commission audio description for licensed content in some circumstances. So you're really going, as I said, above and beyond what some other services are willing to do. What role has customer feedback played in these efforts? It seems to me like Netflix is particularly responsive to hearing from its customers about, you know, including our blind and low-vision customers about audio description and the quality of audio description.

So I wanted you to talk a little bit about that.

Elisa: For sure. You may know this already, but at Netflix, we are feedback culture everywhere and it holds true also when talking about audio description and accessibility in general. 

I can give you a little bit more context around how feedback has played into audio description, specifically because both formal and informal feedback actually helped us reshape our style guide.

So the style guide that are used by our partners and writers to create audio description for Netflix, our mission is to ensure that the audio description we create serves the community the right way. And so we sought out the feedback from the community throughout the process.

The most recent revision that we made to our style guide was completed in February of 2021, and the goal of this revision was to be more mindful and inclusive when it comes to describing identities in general. And this update was driven specifically by feedback from the audience and changes in social awareness as well. What happened is that in 2020 one of our audio description partners actually reached out to us with interest of conducting a focus group to better understand how to describe race in audio description. And we were very thrilled to partner with them to conduct this focus group, which was completed in November of 2020, and we conducted this focus group with six blind and visually impaired people again in order to better understand how to describe race in audio description and during these focus groups, we talked to the participants about how they've heard race being described, how they would like it to be described, and like if they had any feedback in general on how the guidelines were phrased.

We learned that leaving it up to the describer whether to describe race or not, which was how we had it phrased in our style guide originally, could actually introduce bias when race is not described or just described for people of color as it serves to highlight race almost in a negative light whereas the job of description isn't to call things out, it's to tell the viewer what is happening on screen.

So we took this feedback at heart and we updated the style guide to reflect these learnings and stressed the importance of representation.  But this is just one of the examples.

We have heard your feedback as well. So we implemented other changes such as including the audio description credits and the audio tracks so that the community knows who has been writing the audio description, who was narrating it, which wasn't available before, or we have also listened on the guidance on how to cover, for example, subtitles that are usually added on the original content to cover any difficult-to-hear dialog.

And you can see all these changes reflected in major hits like Bridgerton and other content across the catalog. And we truly could not be happier that the community trusts us enough to provide us with the feedback that we need to make these changes and show up better for the entertainment needs. So any feedback is always really welcome for us.

Chris: Well, thank you. And it's obvious you're taking it to heart. You know, I watched the first season of Bridgerton and I could tell that there was a real emphasis on the diversity  of that cast as well as on some other elements that are particular to that piece, like the costumes and the dancing and stuff like that. It's a really rich description template for that show and for other shows as well.  I've just noticed the quality continuing to improve. So you touched on this a little bit in talking about that, but one other thing that is important to the blind community besides audio description, particularly with the new adaptation of All the Light We Cannot See coming out, is authenticity in representation and casting and storytelling. Can you talk a little bit about Netflix's commitment to those things?

Elisa: Yeah, absolutely. So diverse and inclusive representation on screen of people in all their variety is truly a key ambition of Netflix, and diversity comes in many forms. Gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, people living with disabilities. There's more than 1 billion people living with some sort of disability and ensuring that more people from these communities have the ability to tell their stories or see their lives reflected on screen is truly important to us. I'm not sure if you're aware, in May of this year, we actually launched a new collection called Celebrating Disability with Dimension, and it features over fifty shows and films with characters or stories about people living with disabilities.

And we are actually excited for our partnership with organizations such as Respectability or Easter Seals because they had a lot and they ensure we ensure through them that our creators have access to experts who can provide thoughtful guidance in this area. And we are truly excited for upcoming originals, such as All the Light We Cannot See. We cannot wait to see the debut of these two blind talents that we managed to cast for this show. And we go beyond what you see on screen, also behind the scenes. So when we talk about audio description, for example, we keep diversity at heart and we want to make sure that our casting is inclusive as well.

We have had some examples with some documentaries such as Disclosure or Homecoming or the show Selfmade, but we also constantly partner with the community to also know that we are doing the right job as we describe things. One example would be Rising Phoenix, for which we actually conducted a focus group with the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK, and that was actually to review the audio description before it was available on Netflix. And the reason behind all of these partnerships is to improve what we offer for our audience in terms of content, ensuring that everyone is being represented and can see themselves. And when it comes to audio description, ensure that we improve our English and non-English description to get better and representing diverse voices across the world.

Chris: That is really fantastic and so meaningful, especially to the disability community as we're just starting to see ourselves represented by people with disabilities on screen, so that is really exciting. Is there anything else exciting that you can preview for us at this time?
Elisa: Well, we are not big fans of spoilers over here.
Chris: Well, that makes sense!

Elisa: No, but truly our approach has always been to let the community lead the way in helping us determine where we should innovate next. Right now, as I was saying, we want to focus on broadening our existing features in more languages and we want to listen more intently to what our members need. So if you have any ideas, we are all ears. If you have any feedback, we are here ready to listen and see what we can do next.

Chris: And finally, we obviously wanted to honor Netflix by presenting the Dr.  Jacob Bolotin Award, but I'd love for you to talk about what does it mean to Netflix to have received this award from the blind community?
Elisa: Well, first, we are so humbled to be receiving this award from the NFB and the community as hearing that we have done a good job in this work matters most to us when we hear it directly from the community who benefits from it. Dr. Jacob Bolotin was an innovator.  And innovation in entertainment, by giving everyone around the world the chance to see their lives reflected and participate in the entertainment conversation, is a driving motivation for us. So this award affirms that we are on the right path and is added motivation for us to continue improving on behalf of this community.

So from everyone here at Netflix and the Accessibility Team, thank you so much for the award.

Chris: Well, thank you for the work that you're doing and thank you for joining us again today.

It's been a pleasure to talk with you Elisa.

Elisa: It was my pleasure, Chris.

Chris: So there's the interview. I hope I did a good enough job for everybody to realize the many great things that Netflix is doing in the area, not only of audio description, but of authentic representation. We've got the show All the Light We Cannot See coming soon from Netflix that they went out of their way to cast two blind actors in, that are previously unknown, but they felt like the authentic representation was so important that they have essentially given  the starring roles in this new series to two previously unknown blind actors. One British and one American, I believe.  So that's really exciting. 

The exciting things they're doing with making sure that audio description is available in more languages because they have so much great international content, and now those of us who are blind, if content was produced in a foreign language, will still be able to enjoy much of it with English audio description and English, either the subtitles read or English dubbing.  So it's really an exciting time. And they've just done, they've just gone out of their way  to make the viewer experience and the representation experience so much better for those of us who consume their content in a way that's different from the way that many people consume it.

Melissa: And I completely agree. And just a couple of things that I was thinking of when you were talking, first of all, as far as representation and these two before previously unknown actors that they have cast now, what an opportunity for those actors.

And I mean, I hope that other people are taking note not just for those actors, but for actors and actresses that are going to follow in their footsteps, because there's many blind people who want to be actors or actresses and should have that chance. And so it's got to start somewhere.

And good for Netflix for starting it out and that's a wonderful thing and really as it should be.
I mean, I hope we get to a time in our history where this isn't a big you know, this isn't big news, but right now it's big news. I mean, it absolutely is.

Chris: Right.

Melissa: Secondly, as far as content in other languages and that type of thing, it's so important if we have access,  if it's being dubbed into English, we should be able to have it described.

And again, you know, you might shake your head and you might say, why is this important?

But we live in the world, right? And we have the right to live in the world. And part of living in the world is knowing what people around us are watching or enjoying and being able to enjoy the same things that our sighted colleagues, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children are enjoying and having those common experiences is really important. I mean, that's one of the ways that we live in the world. And I would say,

Chris, that's one reason I know I like audio description.

I assume it's the same for you that it really helps me feel like I do know exactly what happened on a TV show and I can discuss it.

Chris: Well, exactly. I mean, you know, just think about, you know, so Stranger Things is one of the biggest shows on television.

Not just on Netflix, it it's hugely popular and we all as blind people got to experience the latest season of Stranger Things in a way that is authentic to everybody else, you know, to the way that we experience it and is comparable to the way that everybody else experiences, so that when we're at work the next day at the water cooler or the coffee machine or wherever we discuss what we're watching on television, you know, there's no gap.

I can remember so many times when I would be talking with a sighted friend or a sighted colleague about a show and say, well, I didn't really understand the ending because there was no dialog.

So yeah, I would get a spoiler that I didn't realize and I'm like, oh, is that what happened?

Melissa: Oh, that's what happened! 

Chris: Right? Well, that doesn't happen anymore when a show is audio described or when it's available to us because we're like, Oh, can you believe that's what happened?

Oh, okay. Oh, my gosh. Wasn't that terrifying?

You know, if you're talking about Stranger Things in particular or, you know, so one of the things that they've done is that we can, you know, hopefully they're not going to prove me wrong once, you know, when I say this.

But I think they've gotten to the point where we can pretty much count on that if it's original Netflix content, if it's a new show, it will be audio described from the outset and we'll be able to enjoy it just like everybody else and all the other things they are doing are so important.

You know, it should not have taken the entertainment industry this long to get to authentic casting, but I applaud Netflix and the other producers of All The Light We Cannot See for realizing there is no other way to do this but to cast blind actors to play this, this young woman at different stages of her when she is a little girl and when she is a teenager who is the primary focus of the story.

So really a fantastic thing. And I'll tell you another fantastic thing they did, because we did the interview obviously before that, before we presented the Bolotin Awards. And of course, many of our listeners will know that the Bolotin Awards come with a cash prize. And Netflix said, we appreciate that you want to give us five thousand dollars, but we will just give it back to the National Federation of the Blind toward your Give 20 campaign. And so they did that and that helped us reach the match so that we got all our dollars doubled that all of us donated to the Give 20 campaign.

So that was a really fantastic thing as well.

Melissa: Definitely, and classy. And I mean, I wouldn't, I would not have faulted them for taking the money.

But, you know, really, it is very classy and just shows that they're committed to this no matter whether there's money tied to it or not.

They just know it's the right thing to do.

Chris: And they are proud of the Bolotin Award. I heard, I can't verify this, but I heard that they actually mentioned it on a shareholder call that they had.

Melissa: Oh, wow. So you're not a Netflix shareholder? You weren't on that call? 

Chris: No, I was not on that call. I was not on that call. But anyway, but I heard that they had mentioned it, they're very proud of it. They're very proud of the work they're doing in accessibility and inclusivity. And, you know, they've gone from doing it because they were basically, you know, they basically had reached an agreement with the, with the National Association of the Deaf and some other groups to be more inclusive. But now they've really embraced it and made it a part of their culture, which is what we want entities to do whenever they do anything that has to do with accessibility.

Melissa: And we say all the time, accessibility for some, improve the experience for all.

I can't tell you how many times I have sighted friends that say, you know, I actually enjoy the audio description, or I never knew about it before, but now that I watch something with it, it points things out that I didn't notice or that I wouldn't notice, or I really enjoy being able to have it in my ear while I'm cleaning the house or something, and I can still follow what's going on.

And so, again, it's not, of course, it's for the blind, but it's not just something that blind people like and appreciate. 

And of course, there's career opportunities and not just for blind people, but also for sighted people.

We need people to write the description.

We need people to read it.  So it's just it's a great field and I hope it just continues to grow and grow and grow.

Chris: Right. Right. To your point, before we wrap up, there was actually an article in the Wall Street Journal of all places about how sighted people are enjoying audio description.

So it really is starting to take hold. And it was in the context of another Netflix show, Bridgerton, that they were mentioning this. And I will leave it to the listeners imagination, especially if they're familiar with Bridgerton to find out why they, or to think about why the audio description of that show would be particularly interesting.

Melissa: (Laughs) Oh. Oh, well, you know, maybe when people give feedback about this episode, they can talk about some of their favorites. You know, we mentioned Seinfeld.

My other favorite one was the Baby-Sitters Club show because I was able to watch that with my daughter and kind of introduce her to Baby-Sitters Club books that I had read when I was, you know, right around her age. And, you know, so that's another one of my favorite Netflix audio description memories.

But please share, feel free to share with us what are some shows that you really enjoyed that have been described or what shows would you like to see described in the future?

And then of course, as always, we would love to hear from you about what  other things, because we're not just going to have Bolotin Award interviews for the rest of the year.  We are definitely going to be coming back with some different types of content and we need to know what it is that you, our listeners, would like to hear about.

And so please give us that feedback, the information at the end of the episode gives you all the information you need about how to make that happen.

But we would love to hear from you.

Chris: We absolutely thrive on your feedback. Even if you write in to say, If I have to hear Danielsen go on and on about audio description one more time, I am going to throw something.

Melissa: (Laughs)

Chris: So yeah, so we mentioned a couple of them at the in the outro and also just so you know, you can also reach us on Twitter at NFB voice and on Facebook by searching for the National Federation of the Blind.  There are also specific ways that you can reach out to the podcast, and if you use the voicemail, we may even put your voice  on the air, with your permission of course.

Melissa: It's always fun, it's been a long time since we've been able to do that.  You know, a lot of people write us by email and no, that's great. But, you know, if you have a minute, you want to actually give us a little sample of your voice, we might want to put you on the air. So there you go.

Chris: That having been said, also remember that you can live the life you want. 

Melissa: And blindness is not what holds you back.