December 29, 2023

Netflix’s First-Ever Director Of Product Accessibility, Heather Dowdy, Is Pioneering Tech Inclusion

Heather Dowdy is Netflix’s Director of Product Accessibility, with a unique and inspiring story. 

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), Dowdy’s life at the intersection of race, disability, gender, and socioeconomic status uniquely positioned her for her role at Netflix. 

Her journey showcases the power of resilience and innovation in overcoming systemic barriers, particularly in the tech industry.

Early Life For Dowdy

From a young age, Dowdy was immersed in hearing and Deaf cultures, navigating two worlds and recognizing the need for access and connectivity.

She became an interpreter for her family and church, witnessing firsthand the communication challenges faced by her Deaf parents. 

This experience sparked her love for technology and her mission to serve people with disabilities. 

However, Dowdy faced significant roadblocks as a Black woman in the tech industry, encountering skepticism about her capabilities. 

Despite this, she was determined to break barriers and contribute to accessibility.

Career Milestones

Significant achievements in enhancing accessibility have marked Dowdy’s career.

Dowdy began her career at Motorola, ensuring the first-generation Android devices were accessible.

She then moved to Microsoft, where she played a pivotal role in the AI for Accessibility program, collaborating with startups, academic institutions, and disability organizations.

Most recently, Dowdy’s time at Netflix had her focused on making entertainment and TV accessible, acknowledging the importance of joy in the realm of justice. 

Her work has been crucial in making Netflix’s content more inclusive, with advancements in audio descriptions and subtitles in over 40 languages.

Impact and Advocacy

Dowdy’s efforts extend beyond technological innovations.

She is acutely aware of the broader societal challenges faced by Black and disabled communities. 

Her advocacy addresses the intersection of race and disability, particularly in the context of police interactions and systemic injustices like the school-to-prison pipeline.

She emphasizes the “disability divide,” highlighting the systemic barriers that contribute to high unemployment and low education rates among people with disabilities. 

Dowdy’s approach to inclusive AI principles is focused on acknowledging and reducing bias, designing the future without being shackled by the past, and ensuring the representation of people with disabilities in solution development.

Legacy and Vision

Inspired by activists like Judy Heumann, Dowdy is committed to leaving a legacy of disability inclusion. 

She understands the importance of storytelling and representation in media, as evidenced by Netflix’s “Celebrating Disability with Dimension” project, which features over 50 series and films about people living with disabilities.

Sara Keenan

Tech Reporter at POCIT. Following her master's degree in journalism, Sara cultivated a deep passion for writing and driving positive change for Black and Brown individuals across all areas of life. This passion expanded to include the experiences of Black and Brown people in tech thanks to her internship experience as an editorial assistant at a tech startup.