Social Media Sites' Handicap Hurdle

As governments turn to Facebook and its ilk, they aren't paying enough attention to the needs of the visually or hearing-impaired.
October 2009
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Governments have jumped on the social media bandwagon: friending, tweeting and posting video clips. It's all about sharing. Except that some would-be followers--the visually and hearing-impaired--may be as cut off from Facebook and YouTube as a wheelchair user is from climbing a rock-strewn mountain trail.

Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act requires that persons with disabilities be able to access information and data on U.S. government Web sites along with everyone else. While state and local governments don't fall under these requirements, many of them have their own laws addressing accessibility based on federal regulations. But few apply them to social media sites. "A lot of agencies take painstaking steps to make their Web sites accessible," says Paul Spicer of TecAccess, an accessibility consultancy. "Then they throw these social media sites up all over the place."

The Missouri Department of Conservation, for example, uses Facebook and Twitter but doesn't focus on their accessibility. Why? "We don't put any original content on them," says Kevin Lanahan, an interactive media supervisor. The Twitter posts link to the department's main site, which is accessible. What goes on Facebook is mostly a collection of news feeds. If those social media sites were the only way the department communicated with constituents, Lanahan says, accessibility would be an issue. As it is, he contends, they are just a repackaging of information that is already being supplied.

Even so, the visually or hearing-impaired may be cut off from social media discussion that informs or enlarges on a particular issue. Most social media Web sites have a CAPTCHA feature, CAPTCHA standing for "completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart.'' It usually appears as squiggly letters that humans can detect but machines can't. The visually impaired rely on machines to read screens for them, and the machines can't make out a CAPTCHA. Technology to produce an audio CAPTCHA is available, but it is not always employed and its quality often is poor.

There is a legal case to be made that the Section 508 accessibility rules do not apply to social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook, even when used by governments, because the sites themselves are privately owned and operated. Some advocates, however, argue that this evades the spirit of the federal law, even if it does not violate the literal language.

The fact is that social media tools aren't necessarily inaccessible. Governments can remove barriers when posting their content. For instance, a government using YouTube can provide closed captions, something Missouri's Lanahan says his agency does with YouTube and Flickr material.

Interfaces exist for Twitter that allow the visually impaired to use the site, such as But people often abbreviate in their tweets. Sighted people can fill in the missing letters and understand the words. It's more difficult when hearing those shortcuts. If "RT," meaning "retweet" in Twitter lingo, is written in lowercase letters, a screen reader might say "rut" instead of "R-T."

Government agencies can improve their tweets by putting together a list of acronyms or synonyms or just being thoughtful about what they abbreviate. Then, if they need to write a short, sweet message, it will more likely be a message that makes sense to someone using a screen reader. And it matters. In many jurisdictions, social media sites have become online town hall meetings. Ignoring those with disabilities shuts the door on many people who want to participate.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |