Social media fails the disabled?

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Despite their constant updates and additional features, social media platforms fail to deliver when it comes to making their services and products accessible to disabled individuals

Social media has been a boon for our generation. Especially now, when social distancing has become the way of life — it has become even more important. However, much like everything else in the world, social media has its limitations and one of them, that sticks out like a sore thumb, is the often inaccessible nature of social media platforms for persons with  disabilities.

From time to time social media platforms come up with features that try to bridge the gap in their platforms for accessibility, but the overall theme seems to be that of an afterthought. 

Recently, social media giant Twitter introduced one such feature in their app. Almost after a year of introducing voice tweets, Twitter after being heavily criticized for the lack of captions finally added the feature. Though the feature is a welcome change, the fact that it took the social media giant almost an year to add it does not make it come across as a platform that looks to evolve with a holistic and inclusive approach. 

And it’s not just Twitter that seems to be evolving, being criticised, and then adding features for greater accessibility. Almost all social media platforms are guilty of failing to provide a seamless experience for people with disabilities. Some even lack the basic features that would make it accessible to them. 

A small example of this much larger problem can be found when one looks at YouTube. Launched in 2005, within a year it had around 25 million views, yet it wasn’t until 2009 that machine-generated automatic captions were added to the platform.  Even platforms which have been launched in recent times fail to include accessibility features, a prime example being Clubhouse which faced heavy criticism for its lack of accessibility features. 

Talking about the problems in the development and design of social media platforms, 21-year-old Shameer Rishad, founder of the Javed Abidi Foundation-disability rights activist ( also the nephew of Javed Abidi who was one of the pioneers in creating a cross-disability movement in India), says that lack of empathy is one of the biggest problems when it comes to the design and development of social media platforms. This lack of empathy he emphasizes is on the part of designers of social media platforms “they design platforms with persons without disabilities in mind” he says.

Platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Reddit all have their limitations and design flaws when it comes to making social media accessible. The situation gets even worse when one looks at the picture based platform, Instagram. It took the platform almost 8 years to add alt text, Alternative (Alt) Text is meant to convey the “why”  or a description of the image, which alienated blind individuals from the platform.  

Primarily they — social media platforms — should be designed in a way that is accessible to all, however the lack of basic additions like alt text to images and videos make them inaccessible for many. “They have tried to make certain changes to the platforms, which is a step in the right direction” says Shameer but there is still a long way to go. 

Additions like alt text for content and videos are a positive step but it is yet to be ensured that for deaf individuals, especially in India, ISL (Indian Sign Language) becomes mainstream. “For people who are deaf – ISL which is very important is available in very few platforms and used by only a few content creators. And even when it is there are no standardised guidelines for interpreter or ISL boxes exist. “There are international guidelines but no standardised Indian guidelines” explains Shameer.

As for easing the gap, and “not coming up with interventions on their own” — rather devising solutions is of paramount importance, says Shammer. He adds that “Social media platforms should have a human rights approach to disabilities not a charity or a medical approach, they feel that are here to fix a problem — that should not be the case, it should be treated as a social construct and look at their companies more holistically and have people with disabilities on board when designing interventions”. 

Further he says that they should have a consultative process in place with persons with disabilities when designing apps and platforms, so that the gaps in their accessibility features can be filled — it is only then that social media can become more inclusive. 

As of now, Twitter introducing captions for voice tweets is a step in the right direction and other tech giants should follow suit. In that past tech giants have taken up projects where they have worked on ensuring greater accessibility, yet not all of them have materialised. 

As for a long term solution, tech companies need to have a consultative board that will help them adapt as and when changes need to be made and apply universal design applications 

It is “sad to see that disability is the last thing on everyone’s mind even after years of campaigning for the same,” says Shameer and adds that companies “don’t need special intervention but need specific intervention and should look at the business opportunities that will come their way if their platforms are more accessible. 

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