Disability and Social Media Accessibility
Mon, 01 Apr 2019 || By Content Contributor

At the last quarter of 2018, Instagram launched new accessibility tools called alternative text (Alt. text). The feature provides automated or customised audio description of the pictures uploaded in Instagram, and subsequently allows people with visual impairment to enjoy the application. Early this year, we also witness the development of Live Transcribe by Google, an app that delivers real-time transcription on one’s screen to aid people with hearing loss. With vast and robust improvements of social media these days, the development of accessibility features can be overlooked, even less prioritised. Initiatives pioneered by social media giants would pave the way not only for people with disability to empower themselves through technology but also for other tech companies to view accessibility features as a fixture in their technology development.


Disability and “Digital Divide”[1]


ICT, especially social media, has the potentials to empower people with disability (PWD) in building social supporting system and advocacy of disability issues.[2] Studies have shown that social media is one of the most important sources of information for PWD.[3] The technology fosters the creation of online-based disability communities where users can share stories and seek support. Campaigns and stories of experience living with a disability can reach a wider audience, generating awareness and pressure to build more inclusive communities. Prejudiced narratives against PWD can be rewritten by PWD themselves as they can determine what information they want to share.[4] It helps the public to understand that disability does not equate to helplessness and reinforces that PWD has a sense of agency in their own lives. Furthermore, social media can support PWD in employment and disaster preparedness efforts.[5] In short, social media has potentials to remove barriers for PWD to enjoy results of technological innovations, especially in their social life.


However, social media may not be as inclusive as we may desire. Denis Boudreau of Accessibilité Web has compared five social media platforms in 2011 and suggested that these popular platforms provide only limited accessibility, ergo discouraging PWD to enjoy their maximum benefits.[6] The development of accessibility tools, in spite of its current existence, is rather slow. We only saw the introduction of Automated Alt Text by Facebook in 2016 and by Instagram just recently. YouTube, for example, was criticised for not providing accessible video contents until in 2010 they introduced automated closed captioning (CC) feature, whose captioning quality is still lacklustre. Users often opt to use alternative online portals, supplementary keyboard shortcuts, and online support groups.[7] Several examples of accessible portals are Easy Chirp and Access: YouTube.[8]


Secondly, we are facing the technological gap between people who have a disability and those who do not. In the US for example, 54% of households with PWD has access to the Internet, a low number in comparison to 81% of households without PWD.[9] It can be attributed to many factors. For example, technology equipment with additional accessibility features can be very expensive.[10] Another reason would be the inability for PWD to have equal access and support to employment or income.[11] It discourages them to acquire means that support the use of social media, such as proper internet connection and gadgets. The explanations above suggest that the lack of social media accessibility is rooted in a broader issue regarding the unequal or insufficient access to welfare and social support for PWD. Empowering PWD through technology requires the society also to address the roots that cause disability to exist - "An impairment on its own would not lead to a disability should there be a completely inclusive and comprehensively accessible environment."[12]

Where to go from here


At one end of technology development, it is imperative for the public and Disabled People Organisations (DPOs) to continuously advocate and give pressure to social media giants to develop more accessibility features. After all, improved accessibilities can enhance the productivity of PWD and increase their participation in the platform.[13] However, it is also crucial for the other ends - such as content creators and social media users - to produce more accessible contents. There are many guidelines available for individual or institutional social media users to improve their contents’ accessibility.[14] Among others are providing CC or subtitles in video contents - as automated captioning is often inaccurate, writing descriptions of uploaded photos, and using hashtags correctly, especially in Twitter. The use of plain texts or language that is easy to understand can also help people with cognitive disability to access the contents. 


There is a growing shift in perceiving disability from “impairment” or medical conditions to “social model of disability." The social model of disability explains "disability" as a result of environments carrying barriers and being unable to provide people with impairments to participate in society.[15] Therefore, communities need to remove these barriers to accommodate PWD in addressing disability. The collaboration between tech companies to incorporate accessibility tools and communities to create accessible contents would be one of the ways to do so.


Editor: Anisa Pratita Mantovani

Written by Indriani Pratiwi


[1] The term ‘Digital Divide’ refers to “the gaps in access to information and communication technology (ICT)”. OECD, Bridging the Digital Divide, accessed at 30 March 2019, available at https://www.oecd.org/site/schoolingfortomorrowknowledgebase/themes/ict/bridgingthedigitaldivide.htm.

[2] For example, Facebook has become a platform for thousands of PWD who participate in hundreds of private groups. June B. Furr, Alexis Carreiro, and John A. McArthur, "Strategic Approaches to Disability Disclosure on Social Media," ibid.31, no. 10 (2016): 1365.

[3] Multiple sources cited in Deepti Samant Raja, “Bridging the Disability Divide through Digital Technologies,” 2016 World Development Report, available at http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/123481461249337484/WDR16-BP-Bridging-the-Disability-Divide-through-Digital-Technology-RAJA.pdf, 16.

[4] N. Bowker and K. Tuffin, “Dicing with Deception: People with Disabilities’ Strategies for Maintaining

Safety and Identity Online,” Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 8 (2, 2003), Accessed August 30 2005, http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol8/issue2/bowker.html., in ibid, 1357.

[5] Deepti Samant Raja, “Bridging the Disability Divide through Digital Technologies,” 19.

[6] Media Access Australia, "Sociability : Social Media for People with a Disability," (Ultimo, NSW 2012), 8, https://mediaaccess.org.au/web/social-media-for-people-with-a-disability, 8-11.

[7] Ibid, 11.

[8] Queen’s University: Accessibility Hub, Social Media Accessibility - Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, 30 March 2019, available at https://www.queensu.ca/accessibility/how-info/social-media-accessibility.

[9] Tecla, What is the Digital Divide and How Does it Affect People with Disabilities?, 27 June 2017, available at https://gettecla.com/blogs/news/what-is-the-digital-divide-and-how-does-it-affect-people-with-disabilities

[10] Raja, “Bridging the Disability Divide through Digital Technologies,” 9.

[11] Studies have shown that there is a gap between PWD and those without disability in accessing many aspects of living, such as formal education and employment. Raja, "Bridging the Disability Divide through Digital Technologies," 5-6.

[12] Al Ju’beh, K. (2015). Disability comprehensive development toolkit. Bensheim: CBM, 13, in GSDRC Applied Knowledge Science, Definition of Disability, November 2015, https://gsdrc.org/topic-guides/disability-inclusion/background/definition-of-disability/

[13] PEAT, Becoming an Accessible Technology Advocate, accessed on 30 March 2019, available at https://www.peatworks.org/content/becoming-accessible-technology-advocate.

[14] Queen’s University: Accessibility Hub, Social Media Accessibility - Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube;  Digital Gov, Improving the Accessibility of Social Media in Government, accessed at 30 March 2019, available at https://digital.gov/resources/improving-the-accessibility-of-social-media-in-government/; Accessible U, Accessible Social Media, accessed at 30 March 2019, available at https://accessibility.umn.edu/tutorials/accessible-social-media.

[15] People with Disability Australia, Social Model Of Disability, accessed on 30 March 2019, available at https://pwd.org.au/resources/social-model-of-disability/.