Facebook Accessibility

Posted on Apr 11, 2009

A recent blog post by Glenda Watson reported a recent TechCrunch article concerning Facebook’s commitment to providing accessible social networking services to people with disabilities. Which is of course a most noble and necessary pursuit.

Carl Augusto, President of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), describes in a recent blog post the specific challenges to providing accessible social media content, and how efforts with Facebook’s development teams has enabled barrier-free access to the popular website:

Social networking sites present some especially difficult challenges. For instance, images are an important part of the site experience, but it is rare that photos get described. Even while in the middle of reading a page, comments or links can change in ways that are undetectable to the screen reader or fall outside the viewing window of screen-magnification. From our very first interaction, Facebook has been responsive to our feedback and committed to finding solutions to these problems.

Among the improvements to Facebook include help center page dedicated solely to accessibility, a feedback stream to collect and channel feedback, and a number of design changes to improve usability. These are all good things. Ms. Watson, however, feels that people with disabilities other than vision get somewhat shortchanged in discussions about web accessibility. I think she has a very good point:

According to stats from the AFB, 21.2 million Americans have reported experiencing vision loss. Yet, According to the U.S. Department of Labour, more than 50 million Americans with disabilities. And that is only in the United States! Why are more than half of us ignored by the press when reporting on web accessibility initiatives?

Among the design flaws mentioned by Ms. Watson include those that negatively affect people with neurological disorders (such as flashing visuals), a lack of captioning for media content, and hardware inputs that are difficult for people with motor skill deficiencies.

I can add my own experience to this discussion. While conducting research on the use of virtual worlds among people with disabilities, the ratio of blind users to overall subjects interviewed was perhaps less than one to four. While I’m not by any means hoisting my findings as conclusive, I will agree that discussions of accessibility need to elevate beyond those with vision impairments.