Accessibility and social media

By Anja

Traffic lights beep faster before the light goes green. Wheelchair ramps sit next to entrance steps. Braille is stamped into tv remotes. In the real world, accessibility tools for people with disabilities are (relatively) prevalent. And while public accessibility is still lacking, we have to ask ourselves why committing to a cross-over in social media doesn’t seem to be a mainstream priority just yet.

What does access look like?

My favourite example of accessibility is the Pidgin English BBC News website (a quick glance will lift your spirits, it’s a refreshing way to digest serious current events). In this example, access isn’t only for people with disabilities, it’s for the thousands of people who wouldn’t be able to read or understand the news if it was only in English. In creating websites like this, the BBC is able to realise their mission of reaching more people: “We’re reaching new audiences in a language that is popular,” says Bilkisu Labaran, who leads the BBC’s African News & Current Affairs department. What we do, in the world of social media campaigns, is similar, although nowhere near as ambitious.

For a global media company, setting up websites in 44 different languages makes sense. For us, it’s about the basics of producing content with all individuals in mind (and, for our web developers, it’s about that little red and white figure in the top right corner of your screen). When chatting about accessibility with Nicole, our Head of Social Media, she raised a really important question, and probably one that influences most decisions for content creators, social media managers, advertisers and the like: “How would implementing accessibility practices affect the reach of a campaign?”

And here’s the good news: Accessibility increases reach.

Reaching everyone

Think about it like this. If you and five of your friends are wandering along a road, with many doors to choose from and explore, but only one of those doors lets every one of you in, this is the gate that has more people walking through it.

It’s the same with social media. Campaigns that incorporate accessibility, even in the simplest of ways, mean that more people can walk through your “door” and consume the content of your campaign. Access doesn’t mean you are closing off your campaign to any other segments of your audience, it simply means you’re broadening the audience that you were already targeting.

How to do it

Here’s a checklist of questions to think through when planning and publishing your content:

1. If your campaign is focused on video (in the form of YouTube videos, Reels or Tik Toks) will people who cannot hear be able to understand what is happening?

Solution: Add captions to your videos. This is already a feature on most platforms, so make sure you’ve selected the option to show captions. This will automatically generate text in accordance with what is said in the video.

2. If your campaign is driven by a specific hashtag, is it easy for screen readers to detect the words clearly?

Solution: Capitalise the first letter of each word in your hashtags. This means that screen readers used by people with visual impairments can pick up different words, and won’t read separate words as one long jumble.

3. If your campaign is image-first, do people have a way of understanding it without seeing a picture or graphic?

Solution: Add ALT text to your images. ALT text provides a description of your image, so that it is understood by people who aren’t able to see it. This is also important for people who don’t have access to strong internet connections and can’t load images.

On Meta platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, you’ll have an option to add your own ALT text to an image just before clicking “Share”. But, both platforms also do this automatically. Using image detection, Instagram and Facebook will create ALT text for your images, which is not visible on the post, but is detected by screen readers when an image is displayed. This is a huge win, not only because it means that accessibility is now integrated into these platforms, but also because it’s incredibly easy to do (although it would be best to edit these auto-generated captions, because they start with the words “Image may contain” if you haven’t written the text yourself).

ALT text Instagram how-to-min

On Twitter, however, ALT text is optional.

ALT text on Twitter

We believe that accessibility is a form of best practice in 2022, so our goal is to get people to understand the importance – and the benefits – of clicking “Sure”, and not “No, thanks”. Essentially, that polite dismissal keeps your campaign door locked. Not to everyone, but to people with disabilities, who haven’t been taken into consideration in mainstream tech.

Be the change you want to see in the (online) world.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power we have to create change – especially when platform functionality is so strongly guided by users’ wants and needs. Think of how something like “Instagram Stories” was so popular, that identical functions are now on Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook.

If a company like Meta has already implemented automatic accessibility features, it’s because the social media giant knows that the demand for access is an important one. If we want our online spaces to be welcoming and sincere, it starts with these changes – ones that are simple and definitely worthwhile.

Image: Tim Mossholder