Anti-social: Feds wonder why social media companies drag feet on accessibility issues

The Federal Communications Commission hosted a panel of experts Thursday to talk about the challenges and ongoing need to make social media platforms more accessible to those with disabilities. But there was one group of representatives notably absent from the proceedings: the social media companies themselves.

Of the major social media networks discussed Thursday, only representatives from LinkedIn and open source content management system Drupal attended the FCC’s “Accessing Social Media” event.

Justin Herman, who leads federal social media efforts at the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said one top social media firm declined an invitation because the company knew their “accessibility was terrible.”

“You’ll find this a lot, that platforms and applications are quite familiar with the fact that they are not very accessible and they can do better,” Herman said.


Another panel member, Janice Lehrer-Stein, chair of the Access and Integration Committee for the National Council on Disability, said in the past she has reached out to Facebook as a private citizen in order to start a dialogue about accessibility. When Lehrer-Stein — who is blind — first delved into Facebook, she “was very challenged,” but said the company was very open and “discussed issues that were barriers” in her use of the platform. Those discussions helped serve as inspiration for meetings NCD held with a number of federal agencies, including the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Labor Department, on how the government can make social media accessible. They also led to a number of online dialogues hosted on ePolicyWorks that created benchmarks for departments to focus on, including captioning online videos. Last week, the FCC voted to require captions on online videos starting in 2016.

“One of the primary focuses is trying to determine the means for opening up social media to people with print and hearing disabilities, along with mobility and intellectual disabilities,” Lehrer-Stein said. “There are tremendous benefits to making social media accessible.”

Mike Reardon, a policy supervisor with the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, said making social media accessible to the disabled only goes so far: The services have to work well or frustration is going to quickly set in. “For a lot of people, they don’t realize there is a difference between accessibility and usability,” Reardon said. “A service can be 508 compliant, but barely usable. Usability is a much more important standard for us than accessibility.”

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities.

Reardon said creating a dialogue with platform developers is crucial, otherwise nothing will ever progress. He cited his discussions with HackPad after people complained about accessibility issues for SocialGov’s Social Media Accessibility toolkit. “We can’t demand perfection, nothing is perfect out of the box,” Reardon said. “We do need to make sure, however, that there is a feedback loop to the developers.”


FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai spoke about some of the efforts to create accessibility to social networks, highlighting EasyChirp, a web-accessible Twitter alternative that has been optimized for the disabled. “Think about what a great thing that is,” Pai said. “There’s so many millions of people thanks to EasyChirp that are able to access the same platform and participate in the public square.”

While workarounds do help, Herman was dismayed by the lack of attendance from the social media companies. “We’re talking about emergency management information that will save lives and there’s empty seats here today,” Herman said. “I think that should really make people upset.”

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