UX of People with Disabilities: Advancing Accessibility in Social Media

The power and promise of social media is still out of reach for some people with disabilities who do not have the same ease-of-use and benefits as non-disabled users.

by Alice Wong on April 7th, 2015

I will admit it: I am one of those annoying people that post pictures of food on social media. Breakfast, latte art, a mouth-watering burrito…it’s my kind of TMI. Posting photos and sharing images is second nature, with little thought to the infrastructure behind it. However, I recently had the opportunity to interact with people with disabilities about their experiences accessing social media and learned how I was complicit in using social media in an inaccessible manner.

I’m a Council Member of the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities. Our agency recently partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office on Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and hosted three national online dialogues on policy issues relevant to social media and people with disabilities. My colleagues at NCD, Janice Lehrer-Stein, Jonathan Kuniholm, and Benro T. Ogunyipe, and I teamed with Katia Albanese and Hope Adler of ePolicyWorks, an initiative of ODEP, to decide on the themes, craft two questions to frame the conversation for each dialogue, and co-moderate them. Hosted between March and August 2014, we used IdeaScale’s cloud-based platform so participants could post ideas and comments and vote on their favorite ideas. Each dialogue spanned approximately two weeks to allow users to participate frequently and engage with others. Here are the top ideas from each dialogue and quotes from some participants.

A landing page for the online dialogue. Reads 'Join the Conversation', includes a link to download the dialogue's final report, and the text 'The White House's Champions of Change are proving that when the playing field is level, people with disabilities can excel in STEM, develop new products, create scientific inventions, open successful businesses, and contribute equally to the economic and educational future of our country. And that is why NCD and ODEP hosted this dialogue – to gather insight, ideas and recommendations on how to take the necessary steps to ensure job opportunities in the STEM fields are open to everyone, including people with disabilities, and that individuals with disabilities are able to secure and succeed in those positions.'

Dialogue #1: Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media: The User Experience

(43 total ideas, 175 comments and 431 votes from 379 registrants)

  • What are some creative solutions you’ve used to make social media more accessible for you?
  • What are your recommendations to social media companies on how to create more accessible features and services?

Top Idea #1: Alt text for images on social media

I notice that several of my friends take the time to write text descriptions for each image for people who use screen reader software…Wouldn’t it be great if there was a built-in prompt on Facebook or Twitter that allows you to write a brief description of the image every time you upload one? The same for Pinterest and Instagram.

Via participant msschwan: “In addition to having an alt text prompt also suggest a couple brief bullet points and/or an example of the correct/best practice alt text – this would display the first-time an image is uploaded and for subsequent images, this information could be accessed/referenced as desired. Also, suggest an option for the alt-text to be empty (set to null) for some images…this is better accessibility and usability.”

Dialogue #2: Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media: The Tech Perspective

(13 ideas, 73 comments and 65 votes from 206 registrants)

  • What are some creative solutions you’ve used to make social media more accessible for you?
  • How should social media companies go about integrating these ideas (and ones like them) into the design and development of social media online tools and apps?

Top Idea #1: Human oversight for video closed-captioning

I recently attempted to follow an online video via automatically generated ‘Closed Captioning.’ It was utter gibberish… People who rely on assistive technology should somehow be informed, whether ‘Closed Captioning’ was produced with human oversight or was automatically generated.

– Via cynthiaparkhill

User craig.s commented: “It would be nice to have everything transfer from speech to text correctly, and with the right persons voice and a silent room it can be really accurate…Many times there is room noise also. That will kill any text to speech software. The way I go about it is that I copy the auto-transcribe file, rename it and then edit through the Youtube CC editor. It can be time consuming, but it works.”

Displays the interface for the online conversation, with Dialogue #2 displayed (text excerpted below). The interface has a tally of votes, option to vote the displayed idea up or down, and comments from participants, as well as usage statistics for the topic.

Dialogue #3: Encouraging People with Disabilities to Pursue Careers in STEM  

(39 ideas, 139 comments and 274 votes from 193 registrants)

  • What can be done to encourage people with disabilities to pursue careers in the STEM fields?
  • What can be done to support the successful employment of individuals with disabilities in the growing STEM fields?

Top Idea #1: Job Shadowing, Internships, and Work Experience

“I believe the best way to get our Transition-aged youth excited about careers in the STEM fields is to offer them the opportunity to participate in some work experience while in high school doing paid or unpaid work in a company in the field. Job shadowing is a great way to learn more about a career field of interest! Teens should also be encouraged to consider pursuing higher education in STEM fields, with appropriate accommodations and supports in place.”

– Via kwilcox2

Participant Tom commented: “I think job shadowing and internships are critical to encouraging people to pursue careers in STEM fields. However, I think this can start at a much earlier age then transition-aged youth. I have met many elementary school kids with disabilities that were incredibly advanced in math and science. Providing real world experiences to these kids at a young age can give them the motivation to push on through future hurdles.”

The Role of Online Dialogues in Improving Accessibility

A mobile phone with various social media icons, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest and others.

Photo CC-BY Jason Howie, filtered.

These online dialogues are part a new federal initiative promoting open, transparent, and participatory governance. Mike Reardon of ODEP commented:

“The most important feature of the ePolicyWorks online dialogues is that they are accessible and usable for everyone…We had real examples of how people with disabilities were using and relying on social media to do their work, connect with others and get important information… Crowdsourcing has offered ODEP the opportunity to partner with a number of agencies, like NCD, to share resources, engage stakeholders and build strong, collaborative relationships.”

All the information gleaned from the dialogues (e.g., demographic data and participation metrics) was provided to NCD, which used it in formulating new policy recommendations. The events also help NCD forge new relationships with the technology and STEM communities that it did not have before.

Crowdsourcing, while not new, is another tool that can be used by social media companies and the tech industry to harness the knowledge and UX of people with disabilities. On the utility of these online dialogues, NCD Council Member Janice Lehrer-Stein said:

“As a person who relies on auditory translation of social media sites, I find that despite years of engagement with social media companies, barriers continue to exist…many social media sites have adopted icon or graphic labels for portions of their sites that do not translate into auditory form. One of the many significant recommendations from our crowd-sourcing dialogue centered on ensuring that there are word labels accompanying icons that are clearly translatable by text reading technology. This simple change would allow blind or low vision users to identify content on social media sites with greater facility, at little cost or change in meaning or organization of the site. In this manner, our crowd-sourcing dialogue helped to identify efficient and economic means for making positive change and ensuring greater inclusion for people with disabilities.”

As a disabled person who does not have any difficulty using social media, it is hypocritical to fight for accessibility that affects me while continuing practices that support inaccessible online environments. After co-moderating these online dialogues, I now include descriptions for almost every photo I post on Facebook. This slows down my sharing activity, but I take my time because I know people who use screenreaders like VoiceOver are unable to ‘see’ the content of the image. Many people in my social networks have a variety of disabilities and if I espouse equal access and disability rights, how could I post videos without captioning or images without descriptions?

Image of an Instagram photo posted by the author, with alt text in the description: 'Image of a bean and cheese burrito, cut in half diagonally resting on a white plate'.

Accessibility Must Be Baked In

While the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, the digital landscape remains a disabling environment to many people when navigating websites and using devices and various social media platforms (see El Gibbs’ article in Model View Culture’s March issue). I came away with four important takeaways from my involvement in the NCD/ODEP online dialogues:

1) Accessibility needs to be ‘baked in,’ integrated into every department of a social media company (e.g., software engineering, product management, communication and marketing, usability, user experience, interaction design) rather than ‘layered on,’ added as an afterthought or in the middle of a product’s development;

2) Accessibility doesn’t end when a product or app is launched. Accessibility is from cradle-to-grave for any device, website, online service or app. Updates and user feedback is critical in maintaining and improving existing products as the environment constantly evolves (this case for example);

3) People with disabilities are innovative in finding workarounds and creative solutions on their own when using social media. Waiting for companies to improve their services and products may take a while and users with disabilities have a wealth of knowledge on how to improve accessibility for themselves and others; and

4) Accessibility is a civil and human right; the power and promise of social media is still out of reach for some people with disabilities who do not have the same ease-of-use and benefits as non-disabled users, shutting them out of opportunities and increasing inequality further.

In addition to gaining valuable expertise from users with disabilities via crowdsourcing and online dialogues, social media companies and the tech industry overall needs to change the way they think about accessibility. In a February 3, 2015 piece by Anne Gibson, “Reframing Accessibility for the Web,” she writes: “We can reframe accessibility in terms of what we provide, not what other people lack. When we treat all of our users as whole people, regardless of their abilities, then we are able to approach accessibility as just another solvable—valuable—technical challenge to overcome.”

I agree with Gibson ad infinitum. Shifting from individual ‘functional limitations’ as the source of access ‘problems’ to a re-conceptualization of accessibility that is imbued into the entire digital ecosystem (e.g., institutional culture, individuals and communities, content, processes, policies, practices, hardware, software) is a step closer toward real social and disability justice.

** Special thanks to the following people for allowing me to use their March 6, 2015 presentation “Using Crowdsourcing to Engage Stakeholders and Inform Disability Policy” [PDF download] for the 30th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference: Mike Reardon, U.S. Department of Labor’s Office on Disability Employment Policy; Katia Albanese and Hope Adler, ePolicyWorks; and Janice Lehrer-Stein, National Council on Disability.