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Silicon Valley Finds it Harder to Ignore the Blind

As companies like Netflix and Uber go from start-ups to tech giants, they are finding it harder to ignore people with disabilities, especially the blind.
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/ Source: NBC News

As companies such as Netflix and Uber go from start-ups to tech giants, they are finding they have to do more to adapt their services to people with disabilities, especially the blind.

When "Daredevil," a show about a blind superhero, premiered earlier this month on Netflix, fans petitioned the streaming company to add audio description. Netflix added it the following week. A federal judge ruled on Friday that Uber had to face a lawsuit claiming that some of its drivers refused to transport seeing-eye dogs. Most struggles visually impaired people have with technology, however, don't make headlines.

They involve glitches, hard-to-use interfaces and other barriers that keep disabled customers away.

"Is it appropriate for major companies to simply ignore the fact that there are people who want to use these fun, exciting — and in some cases, necessary — technologies?" Mark Richert, director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), told NBC News.

Making technology accessible to the blind is not only "the right thing to do," he said, but a financially sound decision as well. According to the AFB, there are nearly 21 million people in the U.S. who can't see or have trouble seeing even with the aid of glasses or contact lenses.

"There is definitely a market to be reached out there, and a pretty significant one at that."

Taking the red pill

"The Matrix" totally blew Tommy Edison's mind — just not right away.

"Everyone was like, you need to see 'The Matrix,' it's the greatest movie ever," he said. He rented it three times but just ended up confused. "I couldn't follow it to save my life."

Edison has been blind since birth. He also really loves movies. His YouTube channel, "Blind Film Critic," has nearly 25,000 subscribers. Some movies are easy to follow along with just by listening to the dialogue, but "The Matrix," with its special effects-laden action scenes, was not one of them.

He didn't realize how much of a difference audio description could make until his sister bought him a second copy of the movie — this time with a verbal play-by-play.

"All of a sudden, I understood the greatness of 'The Matrix,'" he said. "It was the first movie I saw with audio description and it changed my life."

Watching "Daredevil" with your eyes closed can be a confusing experience. Turn on the audio description and suddenly the facial expressions, costumes and action become clear. Lines like, "Hazardous materials barrels are toppled in the street, as rescuers help the injured," help clarify what just sounds like sirens and people crying.

Netflix told NBC News that it is "actively committed" to adding similar audio descriptions to other shows, starting with its original series like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black."

Edison was thrilled when he heard about the successful petition and hopes Netflix keeps expanding its offerings, especially when it comes to movies. On the top of his wish list: "Goodfellas," one of Edison's favorite films, even though he hasn't seen it with the audio description.

"I wonder what I might have missed," he said.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation that required the major networks and top cable channels to provide around four hours a week of audio-descriptive programming.

That means many prime-time and children's shows are now accessible to the blind. The problem? Cable providers and Web companies don't always make it easy to find them.

Only Comcast has hardware and software that let blind people easily find programs with audio descriptions, according to both Richert and Edison.

(Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

Streaming services like Netflix can also be difficult to use, both men said, because the feature that reads titles and descriptions out loud doesn't always work very well.

No dogs allowed?

Not being able to watch a movie can be annoying. But without the ability to drive, transportation services like Uber and delivery services like Amazon can be even more vital to the blind.

Amazon might occasionally be difficult to use for the visually impaired, Richert said, but many of them still use it. He said he orders stuff from the Amazon app often. That is a big help when driving to the supermarket and picking out specific products isn't a viable option.

The blind community has a more complicated relationship with Uber.

Amy Dixon, a sommelier and para-triathlete, remembers trying to summon an Uber car in winter with her seeing-eye dog, Elvis, in Connecticut. She used the app and got confirmation the ride was coming. With one percent vision in one eye, she saw a car stop right in front of her and was notified by Uber that her car had arrived.

As she grabbed the handle, the car drove off and she received a notification that her ride had been canceled. Dixon is convinced that the driver refused to pick her up because of her dog, something traditional taxicabs have also done to her. Uber fired the driver responsible, the company told NBC New York last year.

Elvis got over it pretty quick.

"It was pretty cold out," Dixon said. "She wasn't too happy to have to wait for another 20 minutes for another Uber, but it happens."

Other blind Uber customers weren't as forgiving about their own experiences. Several plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in California claimed Uber drivers yelled "No dogs" before driving away. Uber is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit.

"We remain confident in the facts surrounding this case," an Uber spokesperson told NBC News. "It is Uber’s policy that driver partners are expected to comply with local, state and federal laws regarding the transportation of service animals, and we have consistently communicated this policy to drivers nationwide."

There is a bigger issue at stake than Uber's customer service record, said Richert. Traditional cab companies are legally required under the Americans with Disabilities Act and many state laws to pick up customers with seeing-eye dogs. Ride-hailing services like Uber have often insisted that they aren't a traditional "travel service" like cab companies, but are instead simply connecting independent drivers with passengers.

That distinction could mean a lot when it comes to whether Internet companies that serve people with disabilities are liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Overall, Richert said, tech companies should pay more attention to the needs of the disabled. That includes during software updates, when useful features are sometimes broken, he said, "either inadvertently or through deliberate indifference."

No company is perfect when it comes to designing products for the visually impaired. But one comes pretty close.

"In the blind community, people have absolutely have flocked to Apple," Richert said.

The company's VoiceOver feature makes controlling iPhones, iPads and Macs without sight incredibly easy, he said. It uses spoken instructions and descriptions to guide every swipe and click. Edison is also a fan.

"I love Apple," Edison told NBC News. "Accessibility is built into everything they sell. It works for everybody."