Online Town Hall Tackles Social Media Accessibility Barriers

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 31, 2014
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A virtual town hall meeting to gather ideas to help people with disabilities better use social media has lasted nearly a month.

Adding captions to photos, providing voice-control options and transcribing audio messages are among ideas tossed around at “Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media—The User Experience.”

The National Council on Disability (NCD) and the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) are hosting the forum, which concludes April 4. Members of the public may submit ideas and vote on suggested solutions. NCD and ODEP plan to use the information in collaboration with social media providers to make social media more accessible for people with disabilities.

“Social media is transforming how we engage with customers, employees, jobseekers and other stakeholders,” said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, in a news statement. “But when social media is inaccessible to people with disabilities, it excludes a sizeable segment of our population.”

Ideas Abound

The virtual town hall meeting began March 14, 2014; by March 25 it had attracted 314 users and elicited 29 ideas, 75 comments and 211votes. Emily Ladau is a disability rights advocate who has Larsen syndrome, a rare genetic disorder causing respiratory difficulties, abnormal curvature of the spine, and skeletal malformations. She would like to see basic voice-control options that work with a user’s operating system.

“Much of my employment responsibilities are related to use of social media, as I coordinate and manage content for multiple companies,” said Ladau, who also blogs about disability issues. “I am able to type quickly and move a mouse, but I often find my wrists in pain at the end of the day because my work exacerbates my carpal tunnel syndrome,” she stated in the online discussion, noting that she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from using her hands to transfer herself into, and push, her wheelchair.

“While I know dictation software is available, it would be great for social media platforms and Internet browsers in general to become more friendly to basic voice control options that work with your computer’s operating system,” she wrote. “The newest Mac operating system has built-in dictation for text areas, but how about dictation to quickly navigate among and scroll through different options and pages?”

Recommendations from others included ways social media companies can be more mindful of people with visual impairments. Among them: add a built-in prompt on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to allow a person to write a brief description of an image when it is uploaded.

“If people had the option as they are downloading to add descriptions or [make] a transcript it would make a difference,” Brett Bingham wrote. He envisions adding a symbol that would pose a question asking if the user wants to make the posting accessible to the blind or hearing impaired, and a box to fill in.

“If it was quick and easy, with a nice thank you at the end, it might help change how people share on social media,” he said.

Stephanie Fuller, who has experienced accessibility problems, would like social media users to have the ability to choose the text and background color of messages, as a lack of color contrast can make text difficult to read. She’d also like to be able to change the font size without overriding the entire web browser.

“Font size and color both can really determine whether or not someone is able to read the site.”

While much of the discussion centered on barriers for people with visual-related disabilities, the moderator encouraged ideas from those with other disabilities.

“Little or no attention is paid to those with dexterity impairments and who use speech recognition software,” said Teigan Hockman, who has found she absorbs information better with transcriptions of video. “I have bad verbal processing, and honestly I just hate videos.”

Trigger Warnings

Hockman also thinks a blacklist feature should be available for all social networks. The feature would block certain content or give a warning that there was troublesome content (such as a flashing gif that could prompt a seizure) on a page. In one current online tool, x-kit, users can create their own blacklists using “tw,” which stands for “trigger warning.” X-kit is described as a set of extensions designed to make Tumblr much easier to use.

“I can’t look at fast, flashy things, so I have ‘tw: epilepsy’ blacklisted, as well as anything to do with insects because of a severe phobia,” she said.

“There are trigger warnings on television shows, movies, and video games,” Hockman pointed out. “Why not social media?”

And using add-ons “to stop auto-play on gifs, videos and music [have] saved me many a migraine,” she added.

Registration for the current town hall meeting is at http://NCD-ODEP.SocialMedia.ePolicyWorks.org.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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