Sunday, April 14, 2019

Does Social Media Need To Step Up Its Accessibility Game?

Back in the 80s Tim Berners-Lee was launching the World Wide Web, Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates had become the wealthiest person in the world, and Mark Zuckerberg was busy being born. 

Fast forward a few decades and all these formerly young-spry tech-preneurs are aging. Even Zuckerberg will age out of the young professional category in a few years.

Chart showing percentage of people with disabilities. Under 5: less than 1%, 5-17: 5.4%, 18-64: 10.4%, 65+: 35.4%
Source: Rehabilitation Research and Training Center
on Disability Statistics and Demographics
Technology was not designed by or for those with disabilities. However, as the population ages, whether it's visual, auditory, cognitive, or physical, their likelihood of acquiring, or having those close to them acquiring, a disability increases. 

Designing for all should be "a part of," not "apart from" the development process. But is it? Is accessibility baked into to the development process? 

Let's take a look by looking at social media examples.


 You must take ten steps too many on Twitter to use alt text

Their site says: 
When you Tweet photos using the Twitter app for iOS or Android, or on, you have the option to compose a description of the images so the content is accessible to people who are visually impaired.
Who wouldn't want content to be accessed by people who are visually impaired? This should be a feature, not an option.

Twitter has not stepped up its accessibility game. 


Facebook is a bit better. It auto generates alt text using object recognition. However, to customize the alt text, it still takes too many steps. 

The steps to add captions are too complicated. Rather than go through a confusing list of steps, captions should be auto-generated, then users should be able to go in and edit them.

Facebook has work to do in their accessibility game.


Facebook purchased Instagram, so it's no surprise, that they also auto generate text that can be customized. However, like Facebook, rather than bake in the customized alt text option, you must navigate your way to it

Adding captions. Not so easy. This article takes you through the process while acknowledging what a hassle it is.

Instagram needs to step up their accessibility game.

And the award goes to...


The least accessible of these social media platforms is SnapChat. There's even a user who started a petition to bring attention to the issue. USAGov provides a complex guide on making accessible stories, but mainstream users won't have time for that. Some innovative users have found ways to hack accessibility, but accessibility should be a feature, not a hack.

SnapChat has a ways to go to meet the needs of their disabled users.


The most accessible social platform of those presented is Google's YouTube. It auto generates captions. No extra effort for the video creator. If the captions are wrong, you can edit them without too much effort.

While there is always room for improvement, YouTube is doing a good job. Others should take note.

The power of the Web is in its universality.
Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Looking Back - Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law (29 U.S.C § 794 (d)) applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others. 

In 2009 Berners-Lee expanded that view finding the World Wide Web Foundation to promote Internet accessibility and equality for all. In 2018 Berners-Lee kicked off a global campaign that included a “Contract for the Web,” urging governments, Internet companies and users to commit to a set of principles to protect the openness and accessibility of the Web. The Washington Post reported that upon the campaign’s unveiling, more than 50 organizations had endorsed the principles underlying the contract, including the French government, Facebook and Google.

The Verdict - Yes: Social Media Needs to Step Up Their Game

Though it is only Federal agencies that are "required" to make digital content accessible, tech companies need to step up their accessibility game too. It is a moral, ethical, and financial imperative for technology companies to develop and iterate their platforms with audience in mind following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Tech companies can start by having the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Checklist in hand as they develop and update their platforms to be designed for all.

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