Accessible Social Media

Image shows AMI Digital Content Manager Peter Armstrong speaking in front of a screen, which shows the following text: "AMI: We Believe in an Accessible World. Serve over five million Canadians who are blind, partially sighted, deaf, hard of hearing, mobility or print restricted." A photographer sits in the front row setting up a picture. Image courtesy of Anna Tymoshchuk.

If media isn’t inclusive, it shouldn’t be called social media.

Audiences that are blind or partially sighted want the same experience as everyone else, according to the AMI Research Panel

That means if “social media” isn’t accessible to everyone who wants to be a part of the conversation, we shouldn’t call it social.

I recently presented sessions about this topic at Social Media Week independent Toronto (#SMWiTO), the National Campus and Community Radio Conference (#NCRC35) and the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians’ (AEBC) AGM (#AEBCConf16). I called the sessions “Socially Accessible” as a play on the term “socially acceptable.”

Although the audiences at these conferences were very different, there was a shared sense of excitement about people starting to talk about making social media more accessible and a genuine curiosity about how we, as content creators, can help each other accomplish that goal.

Content Creation Must Catch Up with Technology

Many participants said they had no idea that Twitter and Facebook have dedicated accessibility teams. Many were unaware of accessibility tools that those platforms offer, such as alternative text (alt text) on Twitter.

But what stood out the most is that when asked, almost everyone attending my #NCRC35 session said they would implement accessibility best practices into the workflows of their radio content and discuss media accessibility topics during their on-air programs.

I truly believe individuals and brands would like to do the right thing and make their social media content accessible, but many aren’t aware of the free tools that are available and how quickly assistive technology is evolving.

At AMI, we’re fortunate to have such loyal support from the blind and low vision community and we use research from that community to guide all of our decisions and regularly test our digital products.  We’re also in the business of information sharing.

Alternative Text on Twitter

On March 29, 2016, Twitter announced, “Starting today, anyone can make Tweets with images accessible to the visually impaired.” Well, not quite.

I found out about this news on Twitter, of course, and immediately started testing the new accessibility tool. Unfortunately it was only available for Twitter’s mobile apps, but I was able to add up to 400 characters of alt text for each photo I uploaded. Wait a minute. Is Twitter already giving us more than 140 precious characters to describe something?

But that’s where the good news ended. I added four great images to a tweet because that’s best practice to get your tweets noticed. It was a lot of typing on my phone, but well worth it. After publishing the tweet, I was only able to test the alt text by turning on the voiceover feature on my Android. Fair enough.

The devastating news came when I was testing the tool with my colleague Kelly MacDonald using his @AMIKellyMac Twitter account.  Kelly is the host of AMI-tv’s Blind Sighted with Kelly MacDonald and uses talkback tools to navigate his iPhone. He’s charismatic, hilarious and his personality is a perfect fit for Twitter.

Kelly also likes photos. That’s why we were both devastated when we realized alt text couldn’t be added to photos when using assistive technology like talkback controls. That means Kelly, who is blind, couldn’t add alt text to a photo so other people who are blind could enjoy his content.

Let’s give Twitter the benefit of the doubt that it was a simple oversight. Maybe a developer assumed a person who is blind or low vision would not want to share images. Maybe things would be different if Twitter heard the room full of people who are blind cheer when I suggested alt text be a mandatory field during the AEBC conference.

Testing with real users from that community could have helped Twitter make this accessibility tool inclusive prior to its launch. Testing may have also inspired Twitter to refer to this community as “people who are blind or partially sighted” as opposed to, “the visually impaired.” At AMI, we prefer to put the person before the disability.

Twitter Accessibility Tools for All

Fortunately, I was able to reach out to our friends at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and connect with accessibility expert Jason Fayre, who recently experienced the same frustration with alt text on Twitter. He recommended the third-party Twitter app, Twitterific, which allows assistive technology users to add alt text.

Fast forward a few weeks and as I was putting the final touches on my presentation material, I decided to check the Twitter blog to see if there were any new releases. On May 26, Twitter announced users could add alt text to images using any variety of devices, such as apps, web-based or assistive technology. Good thing I did my research before presenting!

This is one of many anecdotes that accessibility professionals often experience as they navigate the ever-changing media landscape. We can help by sharing accessibility tips with each other and with the brands that are, often unknowingly, creating barriers for people with disabilities and preventing our digital communities from being socially accessible.

Please share your stories and questions about making social media accessible to everyone who wants to be part of the conversation. Tweet me @PeterBArmstrong and follow @AccessibleMedia for the latest AMI programming and accessibility news.