Increasing social media accessibility

Like service dogs, which assist the visually impaired in the physical world, technology exists to make websites more useful to people with disabilities. A new federal initiative seeks to accelerate and expand its use.

Guide dog

Like service dogs, which assist the visually impaired in the physical world, technology exists to make websites more useful to people with disabilities. (Stock image)

Social media is transforming how government and public bodies interact with the public, but a new initiative aims to improve the accessibility of social content among end-users of differing abilities.

The effort, led by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), encourages federal agencies and companies to improve access to social technologies, a necessary effort that's importance is magnified given a recent World Health Organization report that states more than 1 billion people worldwide are disabled.

That's a huge chunk of the public audience, and often disabled individuals are most in need of services and information provided by the government, according to Justin Herman, new media manager at the General Services Administration's Center for Excellence in Digital Government. GSA coordinates the interagency working group in which the accessibility initiative has been developed.

"There has been a rush to meet and take advantage of new technologies, but when you have video, images and other information that are not treated properly, it can create increasingly large barriers between people with disabilities and being able to access that technology," Herman said. "The speed at which technology develops makes it hard just to stay on top of things ... a lot of times these small things we can do to ensure accessibility get overlooked. We want to make social media better, for everyone."

The initiative outlines common accessibility issues and addresses usability tips, as well as resources and training available for social media managers. Common tips include:

  •  Spell out acronyms;
  •  Use prefixes such as "PIC," "VIDEO" or "AUDIO" before media so users with screen-readers know what to expect;
  •  Include a "contact us" form so users can e-mail someone if they have questions.

The bottom line, said Mario Damiani, policy advisor for ODEP, is that agencies do not want to exclude anybody. If 15 percent of the world is disabled in some way, he noted, you do not want that percentage of people potentially missing out on key information during a national disaster or major event.

"If you're going to use social media, and this is especially important if you're in government through Section 508 [of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act], you have to be inclusive of people with disabilities," Damiani said. Section 508 requires all government website content be equally accessible to people with disabilities.

Not only does increasing accessibility enhance customer service and bolster citizen engagement, Damiani said it levels the playing field for disabled individuals in a job market that finds an increased number of job postings on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

Damiani offered examples to demonstrate the importance of accessibility.

"Let's say a company wants to hire someone and they put out a status on Facebook that says 'We're hiring' with a picture below with details," Damiani said. "Someone with a screen-reader might catch that there is an opening, but they wouldn't get the details.

"Or let's say a company has a recruitment video they put on YouTube," he said. "If there are no captions, how is somebody who is deaf going to get anything out of it? The same goes for podcasts, you're going to want a simultaneous transcript to make sure everyone is getting content."

Herman said the accessibility conversation is already producing results in the world of applications, but stressed the accessibility initiative is a "working document" that will be modified as new information, techniques and technology come into the fold. It is, however, something agencies can begin to adopt immediately and learn from.

"Even if something is 508-compliant [that] does not mean it is fully accessible," Herman said. "We want to continue working with leaders in the 508 community across government – we want to take on that mantle in this increasingly emergency technology to stay a step ahead in accessibility."

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