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Debra Ruh

  Employability & Technology


Ensuring Social Media Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities

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Most social media platforms such as blogs, social networks, podcasts, and file sharing services are not accessible to persons living with some form of disability. It's time we included the more than a billion people worldwide into the most popular way of communicating online, says Debra Ruh.

I am a big fan of social media. I use it to highlight the value of including everyone in society, with a special emphasis on the community of people living with disabilities (PwD) and accessible Internet and Information and Communications Technology (ICT). I believe that we (the community of PwD) are finding our voices via social media; however, there are some significant accessibility issues that should be addressed.  

Image: Social Media has to be accessible for persons with disabilities in order to ensure their full participation in online communication

Image: Social Media has to be accessible for persons with disabilities in order to ensure their full participation in online communications

Blogs, podcasts, social networks and other social media platforms have increasingly become the communication tool and medium of choice for most of us, allowing users to communicate, receive information, distribute content and follow updates within and outside our networks easily. Unfortunately, most social media applications today do not adequately address accessibility and are difficult to use with assistive technology, which makes them inaccessible to many users with disabilities.

Consider that one out of every three households in the U.S. is impacted by disabilities, and according to the World Health Organization one in seven people are impacted by a disability worldwide. Do we really want to exclude as much as 15% of the population from social media? This group comprising more than a billion people worldwide is a key influencer of the public’s perceptions, and while social media can bring the world to those who can use it, there are still many who cannot.

As an example, WebAIM’s May 2012 screen reader survey indicated that only 54.2% of screen reader users surveyed found social media sites to be “very accessible” or “somewhat accessible”, while 33.7% of respondents said social media sites were “very inaccessible” or “somewhat inaccessible”. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement here.

Some common accessibility issues with sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube include:

  • Lack of section headings
  • Poor color contrast
  • An inability to navigate using keyboard only
  • Missing text equivalents for images
  • Inability to resize text
  • Videos lacking captioning

Social media is part of electronic and information technology; thus, government agencies must comply with Section 508 accessibility when using any of these web-based tools. In addition, non-governmental organizations using social media may have more responsibility to ensure accessible content in the future, as the U.S. Department of Justice may issue regulations for websites under Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Presently, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act covers topics such as captions on internet videos.

The use of social media websites is becoming an important part of the workplace. These communication tools have the potential to create a significant impact on organizational and professional reputations. It is important for organizations to develop a social media policy to properly portray, promote and protect the institution, and it is critical to blend accessibility into that policy.
Here are a few tips for making the content you put out via social media more accessible:
  • Provide additional ways to contact your organization such as an 800 number, a Contact Us form or a general contact e-mail address for more information
  • Always put your main content first and put hashtags and @mentions at the end of a post – this is particularly important for screen reader users
  • Photos, Videos and Audio
    o If a tweet contains an image, video or audio indicate this at the beginning of the content using the prefix [PIC],  [VIDEO] or [AUDIO]o In addition, if a Tweet or Facebook post includes one of these items, be sure to link back to the webpage that contains the image, video or audio with a full caption/transcript
  • Avoid the use of acronyms, abbreviations and text messaging shortcuts
  • If you are linking to a PDF document, make sure the document is tagged properly and accessible.  If it is not, also provide a link to a text alternative
  • For blogs, ensure proper HTML markup is used such as headings, paragraphs and lists to help orient users and ensure clarity of the content
There are some great tools available to make social media more accessible to users with disabilities:
  • EasyChirp is an alternative to Twitter designed with accessibility and assistive technology in mind. 
  • Twitter provides a long list of keyboard shortcuts for keyboard only users.
  • Facebook also provides a small set of keyboard shortcuts.
  • AppleVis, a website created to collect information on the accessibility of apps developed for iOS devices, includes a free, accessible LinkedIn app.
  • Easy YouTube provides an alternate, fully accessible interface for viewing YouTube videos.
  • Easy YouTube caption creator is a content creating tool that generates a standard format caption text file which can be attached to YouTube videos.
  • Google offers an accessibility app for the Hangout feature on Google+.
  • Wordpress, a popular open source blogging tool with many free plugins, allows you to host a page on your own server, giving you more freedom to customize the software for accessibility.
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