Welcome to the Aidis Trust blog. Here you’ll find our posts on assistive technology that are meant to inform and encourage discussion. Feel free to join in!

Facebook: Is it getting easier to use?

facebook accessibility

So I blogged last week about technology and how it changes people’s lives. I’ve now read an article on Wired.com which talks about the team of people that makes Facebook accessible to disabled people. I decided to write a blog about how I – and other disabled people – use Facebook, what I still struggle with, and whether I think the accessibility is getting any better.

Facebook – The Good Stuff! 

Facebook is a great way to catch up and connect with the people we care about and want to socialise with. With a disability, this can be made a little tricker. But Facebook now has a specialist Accessibility Team that beaver behind the scenes to make sure that everyone can use Facebook. I use the social network via my Mac, with VoiceOver and Zoom to help me. I use Zoom a lot because I like to make use of the little sight I have, but VoiceOver is great backup if I can’t see something even when enlarged. I’ve also found that people can get to know me before they know the disability, and then sometimes find it easier to interact with me when they meet me in person. 

Jessie Lorenz who is interviewed in the article, and has been blind since birth, agrees. She accesses Facebook through her iPhone with VoiceOver and says that: ‘“A lot of people are afraid of the blind…When you meet them in person, there are barriers… Facebook lets me control the narrative and break down some of the stigma and show people who I am.” I completely agree with this, as sometimes it’s easier for people to communicate with me face-to-face without worrying, after they’ve spoken to me on Facebook. 

What Could Be Better? 

Facebook can help break down a lot of barriers between the world of disability and the world of able-bodied people and the majority of the accessibility features are compatible with those on the iPhone and the Mac, allowing people with disabiltiies to use the same social networks as everyone else.

However, there are a lot of features on Facebook that could be improved, one of the main things being descriptions of photos. At the moment, the only feedback that I and other sight impaired users get from VoiceOver is the word ‘photo’ spoken when there is one posted. This means that I have sometimes had to comment on photos to ask friends what they are of, and had to explain the content of my own photos to some of my friends as well. Sometimes this can be a little bit annoying when all I want to do is access Facebook in the same way as everyone else! 

If the audio description of VoiceOver was changed to describe photos, this would also help people with learning disabilities too, further enhancing their use of the social network. 

Is It Improving? 

The Facebook Accessibility Team are taking notice of this. For example, they have recently been trying to find a way for VoiceOver to describe photos to blind users of the site. The most interesting thing is that they’re trying to use image recognition technology to help them. That would really help me if voiceover was able to describe the contents of a photo to me.

However, on the Accessibility Team’s own timeline is a photo from December and the only caption was: ‘engineers fixing bugs at Facebook HQ’, which is not particularly descriptive and the site’s users commented on this but no additional detail has yet been added. It’s really encouraging that these possibilities are being looked into, but it would be good if there were more informative descriptions of the photos on the official Facebook pages to start off with. 

facebook team

Wieland also recently created something called the Facebook Empathy Lab, which is a row of laptops and mobile devices giving employees at Facebook an idea of what it is like to use the site with VoiceOver or slow keys or closed captioning, or any other accessibility options. I think that this is a very smart move and hopefully will give their employees more of an understanding of what disabled users have difficulty doing and experiencing this will help them to make the appropriate changes.

Also, according to Facebook’s Accessibility Team Twitter page, there are new updates being made all the time. For example, the News Feed sorting menu in the iOS App on the iPad now works with VoiceOver, due to public demand. The Team has also recently launched new access keys on their mobile site – I may well check this out as at the moment I don’t use the mobile site as I find it more difficult to navigate. 

So What’s The Verdict? 

Whilst the Facebook Accessibility Team (I think there may actually only be two employees on this team!) are undoubtedly taking steps forward, there is still a long way to go. Even with its huge pool of financial resources, Facebook is struggling to adapt its website to its disabled users’ needs. They only created the accessibility team in 2011 – not because of constant demand from users, but because one man at Facebook realised disabled people struggled to answer questions in their focus groups. This I found quite surprising.

I’m hoping that the steps already taken will encourage other less accessible websites to follow suit. For example, I have occasionally found YouTube quite hard to use because of the sheer volume of information I get fed through VoiceOcer. Also it would be good if the content of music videos could be described by VoiceOver – at the moment I make use of the little vision I have and friends and family describe what is going on in music videos and television clips that I like to watch. Youtube is launching a safe, children-friendly version of their site so it’s possible they could make it more accessible.

The Facebook Accessibility Team have been working hard to ensure that Facebook is accessible to everyone and whilst there are still improvements to be made, I’m looking forward to seeing how the journey to a more accessible Internet progresses. 

Link: http://www.wired.com/2015/02/meet-team-makes-possible-blind-use-facebook/ 

https://twitter.com/fbaccess 

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