Prevalence of Social Media and Disability
Social Media usage has become increasingly popular, with approximately 79% of Americans using at least one social media platform in 20191. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook are the most used platforms while Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat are slowly increasing in popularity. While each social media platform varies in popularity depending on the age of its users, it remains a part of everyday life in the digital age.
While social media promises to connect users to each other, it excludes one minority group from its benefits: the disabled community. The CDC estimates approximately 26% of Americans have at least one disability2. Approximately 13% of Americans aged 18 years and older have reported some form of vision loss3, and approximately 15% of Americans aged 18 years and older have reported difficulties hearing4. A 2011 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 54% of disabled adults use the internet5.
While there are many reasons why disabled adults are less likely to use the internet, inaccessibility is one of the major barriers to internet use. How inaccessible the internet is to you will depend on your disability, but there are a few simple ways to ensure the internet, including social media sites, are fully accessible to all in the disabled community.
Is social media accessibility legally required?
Currently, the US courts are divided on the question “Are websites ‘places of public accommodation?’”6 While US District Courts have stated Netflix is a place of public accommodation and thus must be accessible to the disabled community, there has been no firm ruling on if social media sites are subject to current disability laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires Federal agencies to make all electronic and information technology accessible to the disabled community7.
Outside of federal government websites, there is no firm decision on whether social media is required to be accessible. Social media apps must be compatible with screen reading devices, but there’s no clear consensus on how this should look. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) set standards on how to make online content more accessible to disabled people8. Social media platforms offer some of the accessibility features that are suggested in these guidelines; however, the onus falls to each individual user to use them. Meaning, individual users must make their content accessible; social media platforms do not always automatically make content accessible if the user does not.
Many users might not be aware of these features, or if they are, they don’t know how to use them properly. Dr. Rissy’s Writing and Marketing has created a Disability Accessibility Guide to help you use all the accessibility tools on social media properly.
The Accessibility Guide focuses on improving accessibility of social media with a focus on increasing accessibility for users with visual and/or auditory impairments. The guide introduces features that are options already available on social media, such as alternative-text and closed captioning (available on some platforms), and options that users must add themselves, such as image descriptions and closed captioning. Alt-text and image descriptions are incredibly essential for those who use screen readers. While text and emojis can be read by screen readers, images and graphics cannot. Alt-text and image descriptions explain what the image and/or graphic contains and can be read by screen readers.
The guide also details how to accessibly graphic design and use content/trigger warnings, which are meant to protect those with easily triggerable disabilities, such as anxiety, PTSD, and epilepsy.
The guide also details how accessibility looks on each specific social media platform and how to properly use the accessibility features. It also discusses some of the inaccessibility issues on social media platforms, such as YouTube’s plan to remove Community Captioning from its platform.
Accessibility isn’t just for the Disabled
Many of these accessibility features benefit more populations than just the disabled community. Adding closed captioning and subtitles to your videos allows viewers to watch your content without needing to turn their sound on. This is perfect for anyone who wants to watch videos in public places but doesn’t have headphones. Adding image descriptions to all your images helps those whose native language is not in the original image. Image descriptions, which appear in your captions, can be translated on most social media platforms; this is especially helpful when posting graphics. Trigger or content warnings allow users to better control what content they consume on social media.
The tools in this Accessibility Guide allow for the inclusion of the disabled community in the growing phenomenon that is social media.