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Social media - barrier or tool for inclusion?

By Rachel Mulholland - posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Social media is revolutionising Internet communications and for people with disabilities this new phenomenon has the potential to remove many of the barriers faced when socialising and networking. However, there are still many access issues facing disabled users. So, is social media becoming a tool for social inclusion, or simply creating new barriers?

Social media like Twitter and Skye can be said to be the consumer phenomenon of 2009. This new form of communication has taken a foothold in every major market around the world, and Australia is no exception. The March 2009 Nielsen report Global Faces and Networked Places (PDF 2.8M) reveals more than one in every two Australians uses social networking sites.

For people with disabilities, numbering one in five Australians, access to these sites can be life-changing. Alex Varley, CEO of Media Access Australia, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to promoting access to media for people with disabilities, says, “Social media are the cornerstones of modern communication and it is essential that people with disabilities, who can become socially isolated, are able to use these tools and stay connected with the world”.


Before the arrival of social media technology Glenda Watson Hyatt, who lives with severe cerebral palsy, was unable to converse with most people unless, as she says, they could understand “Glenda-ish”. Glenda now runs an eloquent blog, allowing her voice to be heard clearly and highlighting the difference between the way people with disabilities are perceived in the real world and through social media.

On her Do It Myself Blog, Glenda writes “Social media gives voices to individuals marginalized and ignored by traditional media, enabling the world to hear these voices for the first time in history”.

Mark Scott from the ABC recently described social media as the modern-day “town square”. Glenda’s Do It Myself Blog, shows how this town square has the potential to be truly inclusive, representing able-bodied citizens as well as those with disabilities, unlike the town square of old.

However, the Social Media Accessibility Review released this week by Media Access Australia (MAA) has found many social media websites are not making the grade for accessibility. Large numbers of people with disabilities, including those with physical disability, vision loss or hearing loss, are facing exclusion from this increasingly important “town square” where we conduct business and social relationships.

According to the report, which reviewed the accessibility of popular social media websites, Twitter has great potential for people with disabilities, but currently has many accessibility pitfalls. This website has failed to list any formal accessibility policy and has never spoken about accessible developments in its official blog. The links for replying to a tweet, making a tweet a favourite, and deleting a tweet can only be activated when the user hovers the mouse over a tweet. There are no commands for deleting tweets or direct messages, excluding many people with physical disabilities.

Also, the registration for Twitter makes use of a CAPTCHA, which is a visual verification device. There is an audio option, but the link is particularly small making it difficult for users with vision impairment to access the service. Other problems occur when users attempt to resize the text because Twitter has text resizing locked, again hindering access for the vision impaired.


Martin Cahill, New Media Coordinator at Media Access Australia, who has been working on the review, says:


When I think about social media I tend to think about social spaces. Think about your local park, for example, and everyone you expect to see there. People walking their dog, mothers picnicking with their children, grandfathers feeding the ducks, and teenage romance blossoming under the apple tree. What you don't expect to see is a gate that restricts entrance to those with a vision, hearing or physical impairment. The park is open to all. Social media should be no different, and as it gradually usurps the social function played by the park, coffee house or the town square - the gate must be open to all.

A lack of accessibility features on social media is inadvertently imposing a “technological lock-out” on those people who arguably have most to gain from social networking and instead of promoting inclusion these new social spaces are creating more barriers to social inclusion. As social media sites begin to eclipse older communication methods like face-to-face meetings or using the telephone, it is vital that all people, including those with disabilities, are included and can benefit.

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About the Author

Rachel Mulholland is a fourth year media and communications student at Sydney University. She is also currently working in a permanent part-time position at Media Access Australia, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to finding technological solutions for media access issues faced by people who have vision and/or hearing impairment.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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