Social networks and accessibility: A not so sad picture

This post originally was written in December 2011 and had a slightly different title. Fortunately, the landscape has changed dramatically since then, so it is finally time to update it with more up to date information.

Social networks are part of many people’s lives nowadays. In fact if you’re reading this, chances are pretty high that you came from Twitter, Facebook or some other social network. The majority of referrers to my blog posts come from social networks nowadays, those who read me via an RSS feed seem to be getting less and less.

So let’s look at some of the well-known social networks and see what their state of accessibility is nowadays, both when considering the web interface as well as the native apps for mobile devices most of them have.

In recent years, several popular social networks moved from a fixed relaunch schedule of their services to a more agile, incremental development cycle.. Also, most, if not all, social network providers we’ll look at below have added personell dedicated to either implementing or training other engineers in accessibility skills. Those efforts show great results. There is over-all less breakage of accessibility features, and if something breaks, the teams are usually very quick to react to reports, and the broken feature is fixed in a near future update. So let’s have a look!

Twitter

Twitter has come a long way since I wrote the initial version of this post. New Twitter was here to stay, but ever since a very skilled engineer boarded the ship, a huge improvement has taken place. One can nowadays use Twitter with keyboard shortcuts to navigate tweets, reply, favorite, retweet and do all sorts of other actions. Screen reader users might want to try turning off their virtual buffers and really use the web site like a desktop app. It works really quite well! I also recommend taking a look at the keyboard shortcut list, and memorizing them when you use Twitter more regularly. You’ll be much much more productive! I wrote something more about the Twitter accessibility team in 2013.

Clients

Fortunately, there are a lot of accessible clients out there that allow access to Twitter. The Twitter app for iOS is very accessible now for both iPhone and iPad. The Android client is very accessible, too. Yes, there is the occasional breakage of a feature, but as stated above, the team is very good at reacting to bug reports and fixing them. Twitter releases updates very frequently now, so one doesn’t have to wait long for a fix.

There’s also a web client called Easy Chirp (formerly Accessible Twitter) by Mr. Web Axe Dennis Lembree. It’s now in incarnation 2. This one is marvellous, it offers all the features one would expect from a Twitter client, in your browser, and it’s all accessible to people with varying disabilities! It uses all the good modern web standard stuff like WAI-ARIA to make sure even advanced interaction is done accessibly. I even know many non-disabled people using it for its straight forward interface and simplicity. One cool feature it has is that you can post images and provide an alternative description for visually impaired readers, without having to spoil the tweet where the picture might be the punch line. You just provide the alternative description in an extra field, and when the link to the picture is opened, the description is provided right there. How fantastic is that!

For iOS, there are two more Apps I usually recommend to people. For the iPhone, my Twitter client of choice was, for a long time, TweetList Pro, an advanced Twitter client that has full VoiceOver support, and they’re not even too shy to say it in their app description! They have such things as muting users, hash tags or clients, making it THE Twitter client of choice for many for all intents and purposes. The reason why I no longer use it as my main Twitter client is the steep decline of updates. It’s now February 2015, and as far as I know, it hasn’t even been updated to iOS 8 yet. The last update was some time in October 2013, so it lags behind terribly in recent Twitter API support changes, doesn’t support the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus screens natively, etc.

Another one, which I use on the iPhone and iPad, is Twitterrific by The Icon Factory. Their iPhone and iPad app is fully accessible, the Mac version, on the other hand, is totally inaccessible and outdated. On the Mac, I use the client Yorufukurou (night owl).

Oh yes and if you’re blind and on Windows, there are two main clients available, TheQube, and Chicken Nugget. TheQube is designed specifically for the blind with hardly any visual UI, and it requires a screen reader or at least installed speech synthesizer to talk. Chicken Nugget can be run in UI or non-UI mode, and in non-UI mode, definitely also requires a screen reader to run. Both are updated frequently, so it’s a matter of taste which one you choose.

In short, for Twitter, there is a range of clients, one of which, the EasyChirp web application, is truly cross-platform and useable anywhere, others are for specific platforms. But you have accessible means to get to Twitter services without having to use their web site.

Facebook

Facebook has come a long long way since my original post as well. When I wrote about the web site originally, it had just relaunched and completely broken accessibility. I’m happy to report that nowadays, the FB desktop and mobile sites both are largely accessible, and Facebook also has a dedicated team that responds to bug reports quickly. They also have a training program in place where they teach other Facebook engineers the skills to make new features accessible and keep existing ones that way when they get updated. I wrote more about the Facebook accessibility changes here, and things constantly got better since then.

Clients

Like the web interfaces, the iOS and Android clients for Facebook and Messenger have come a long way and frequently receive updates to fix remaining accessibility problems. Yes, here too, there’s the occasional breakage, but the team is very responsive to bug reports in this area, too, and since FB updates their apps on a two week basis, sometimes even more often if critical issues are discovered, waiting for fixes usually doesn’t take long. If you’re doing messaging on the desktop, you can also integrate FaceBook Messenger/Chat with Skype, which is very accessible on both Mac and Windows. Some features like group chats are, however, reserved for the Messenger clients and web interface.

Google Plus

Google Plus anyone? 🙂 It was THE most hyped thing of the summer of 2011, and as fast as summer went, so did people lose interest in it. Even Google seem to slowly but surely abandon it, cutting back on the requirement to have a Google+ account for certain activities bit by bit. But in terms of accessibility, it is actually quite OK nowadays. As with many of their widgets, Google+ profits from them reusing components that were found in Gmail and elsewhere, giving both keyboard accessibility and screen reader information exposure. Their Android app is also quite accessible from the last time I tried it in the summer of 2014. Their iOS app still seems to be in pretty bad shape, which is surprising considering how well Gmail, Hangouts, and even the Google Docs apps work nowadays. I don’t use it much, even though I recreated an account some time in 2013. But whenever I happen to stumble in, I’m not as dismayed as I was when I wrote the original version of this post.

Yammer

Yammer is an enterprise social network we at Mozilla and in a lot of other companies use for some internal communication. It was bought by Microsoft some time in 2012, and since then, a lot of its accessibility issues have been fixed. When you tweet them, you usually get a response pointing to a bug entry form, and issues are dealt with  satisfactorily.

iOS client

The iOS client is updated quite frequently. It has problems on and off, but the experience got more stable in recent versions, so one can actually use it.

identi.ca

identi.ca from Status.net is a microblogging service similar to Twitter. And unlike Twitter, it’s accessible out of the box! This is good since it does not have a wealth of clients supporting it like Twitter does, so with its own interface being accessible right away, this is a big help! It is, btw, the only open-source social network in these tests. Mean anything? Probably!

Conclusion

All social networks I tested either made significant improvements over the last three years, or they remained accessible (in the case of the last candidate).

In looking for reasons why this is, there are two that come to mind immediately. For one, the introduction of skilled and dedicated personell versed in accessibility matters, or willing to dive in deep and really get the hang of it. These big companies finally understood the social responsibility they have when providing a social network, and leveraged the fact that there is a wealth of information out there on accessible web design. And there’s a community that is willing to help if pinged!

Another reason is that these companies realized that putting in accessibility up-front, making inclusive design decisions, and increasing the test coverage to include accessibility right away not only reduces the cost as opposed to making it bolt-on, but also helps to make a better product for everybody.

A suggestion remains: Look at what others are doing! Learn from them! Don’t be shy to ask questions! If you look at what others! have been doing, you can draw from it! They’ll do that with stuff you put out there, too! And don’t be shy to talk about the good things you do! The Facebook accessibility team does this in monthly updates where they highlight stuff they fixed in the various product lines. I’ve seen signs of that from Twitter engineers, but not as consistent as with Facebook. Talking about the successes in accessibility also serves as an encouragement to others to put inclusive design patterns in their work flows.

25 thoughts on “Social networks and accessibility: A not so sad picture”

  1. Great article… about time someone spent some time highlighting the issues in social media. You also forgot to note the lack of Described Video capability in youtube…

    p.s. There are a lot more accessible twitter clients on windows and other platforms than mentioned.

  2. We received good feedback about the accessibility of Instantbird from blind users. Instantbird is cross-platform and supports twitter. You may want to try it for twitter, and if you do and encounter accessibility issues, the feedback is definitely welcome.

  3. JDS, care to elaborate more on the Windows clients that are accessible? I know I probably left out one or two iOS ones, and I didn’t mention Syrinx for the Mac since that one’s development is basically on hold.

  4. This is a really useful look at the current state of play and makes for rather bleak reading. For years I’ve been raising concerns around the potential for exclusion with social media and it’s sad to see that things aren’t getting any better.

    How can we apply pressure on these companies to make their products more inclusive?

  5. Thanks for the great article. The board at GAATES has many concerns about the lack of general lack of accessibility in social media – some questioned whether we should even have a presence using a format that people with disabilities cannot access.

    In the end GAATES has decided to have a presence using social media as that is where people are going for information, and we have our information available in an accessible format on our main sites. http://www.GAATES.org and http://www.GlobalAccessibilityNews.com.

    Interesting information in your article that I will share with the board though.

    thank you
    Marnie Peters
    Admin. Assistant to GAATES President Mukhtar AlShibani

  6. Just another page of reasons why I do not associate myself with these so-called ‘social’ networks. Makes my life more easy than I actually realised. For the hell of it I went to the Twitter web site to check out the layout and the sign-up form fields are not even labelled! How inaccessible is that?

  7. I think google plus is now a little bit more useable with screen readers than it was upon its launch.
    The vidget responsible for managing circles is enhanced using aria markup it conveis like a dialog where individual circles show up as a labelled checkboxes.
    Reading streams can be done within the browse mode however it’s not as efficient as it could be.
    I find google plus more attractive than facebook my-self.

    Huh and about identi.ca and all the other status.net powered sites. I have followed its development since early days but was not successfull into getting some friends to convert into it from twitter. So although even if it’s accessible the most out of these we need to figure out usability of the other inaccessible counterparts if we’d like to stay in touch and be “social”.

  8. Great article. Wish I had seen it earlier when I was asked to comment on this topic recently and had to write out a rather lengthy response.

    BTW, I thought I would check out Identi.ca. I had heard of it but never subscribed. First, I tried to see if my Twitter name (jebswebs) was already used and the Identi.ca search engine spit back garbage. So following directions to send in a bug report, I tried to create an account and after filling in all of the required info, I received back an Internal Server Error with this message: “A banned user has registered from this address.”

  9. Hi Gabriel,

    thank you for the link to the study! I browsed it, and it mirrorw my findings, and my findings were done a year later than this study. So in terms of 2011, advancements in the accessibility of social networking sites hasn’t really improved. Very sad!

  10. The Qube is another accessible twitter app. Many of the people I’m connected with in the blind community use this one in Windows. Also for iOS on the iPhone there’s Focus on FaceBook, which is very accessible but the updates are slow.
    I agree with your view on the regular facebook app for iOS and under Windows. I hate it now. I used to get on Facebook quite alot. Even created some pages for non-profits that I’m involved with. But since they changed the site I go there as little as possible. Most of my facebook updates are posted via The Qube client for Twitter.
    I wonder if as many disabled people as we could reach were asked to go and fill out facebook’s accessibility form if we could overwhelm them to the point that they would start fixing the problems???

  11. good thing i don’t use social networking fullStop! i started getting facebook invites a few years ago but as much as i tried no go! none of the buttons were labelled and i ended up deleting the facebook invites can’t stand it! i don’t believe in it! twitter i’ve never tried to use because i’m not confident enough to try it. I do however like using skype. question is, can i be given a choice whether to update it or not? If not then i wouldn’t know what to do with it. I know that there is gw skype but with it in beta there are stil bugs so am reluctant to take the risk. I’m not a social networking person. I’m in the old school still believing in emails and face-to-face communication. Makes me sound old doesn’t it!

  12. Hi Marco

    Thanks for a great article. I was doing a project on accessibility of social networks for the BBC last year and my findings were roughly the same as yours. Most people, me included use mobile facebook, because it is so much easier than the normal site which I personally dislike a lot these days because of the timeline we all have to upgrade to. Do you know whether this is JAWS accessible? If not, I wouldn’t feel so safe using facebook anymore as I wouldn’t know what was on there. I don’t like the facebook ap for iPhone anymore either for the reasons you and others have mentioned.

    Twitter was used a lot more, but what strikes me, especially when reading this article, is that there is a very slim knowledge out there on how to find a suitable client in order to make your preferred social network accessible. I used to use twitter INC for my iPhone, but changed to Twiterrific on recommendation from my friends who use VO, which works well, but I find it almost a little too plane, so I’d be interested in checking out the app you mention.

    I wish there was more information out there about which apps where accessible and also on the social networks themselves. For example, apple could perhaps include something about vO accessibility for every app? Maybe that’s tedious, but for people who don’t have advanced knowledge of these things, it would be very helpful.

    Finally, I found out that a lot of the people I studied used the Zone, social network specifically designed for the blind. I went on it to check it out, and it was wonderfully easy to navigate, though, it’s not my cup of tea as I think a social network for blinds only is a little sad. I also think it’s a shame that the social networks which might be the most accessible, tend to be the least known ones.

    Hope I don’t come across as moany, but this is a topic which engages me a lot.

    Keep up the good work.

    Linn

  13. Great post, Marco. We always comment on the inaccessibility of things, on how bad things go and so on, and I think it’s necessary to give positive feedback on things that are getting better. Social networks are definitely getting better and better and this is good news. I would like to share a new Twitter client for Windows that has recently come out: its name is TWBlue and you can try it out at http://www.twblue.es

  14. Identi.ca was in 2013 changed from StatusNet to Pump.io, which is completely different. It was recommended to use special client software instead of the Web site to access it. Two desktop clients are Dianara and Pumpa. The company was renamed from Status.Net to E14N.

  15. Pump.io supports links, images, formatting, but no groups or hashtags or microblog-like default length limit. StatusNet is still used by other people, including FSF, who apparently took it for its “GNU social”.

What are your thoughts?