#PSFBuzz: Accessibility vs Social Media

Wednesday, July 8, 2009 8:30 | Filed in Accessibility, Public Sector, Social Media, Standards, Technology, twitter

I wasn’t first up at the PSFBuzz event, but since there were some ahem minor technical hitches with my presentation (somewhat owing to the fact that the internet connection didn’t actually connect to the internet, which is a bit of a drawback as far as internet connections go), I wanted to get a blog version of what my presentation was intended to be like up as soon as possible.

Secondly of course was the fact that my presentation was a series of slides with for the most part me talking off the top of my head about them (apart from a few quotes I had written down), and unlike every other session I wasn’t able to take copious notes during the speaker’s talk, as working out what I was going to say, trying not to go too fast, too slow, and not getting into a complete panic about the fact the internet thingy wasn’t working was taking up too much of my processing power to add writing it all down at the same time as well.

So, where did we begin?

Well, naturally we started with who I am, and then I moved into an introduction to Newcastle, since I was the first ‘local’ to speak. Although I say introduction, I just wanted to get all of the football jokes out of the way early on, so I got in my own mentions about Newcastle’s revolting away strip, Newcastle’s relegation, and welcomed everyone to St James’ Park, which is where the event was originally due to be held, although I’d have to recommend the Centre for Life as a conference venue.


Next up was a brief introduction to the reasons for accessibility: there’s a legal aspect to it, which is reinforced by the DDA (see 1995 and 2005 acts) which require that you must be prepared to make reasonable adjustments not to discriminate against someone with a disability.

There’s also a moral imperative — it’s the right thing to do, particularly for a council which has a responsibility to its own residents, and there’s a financial imperative — the “disabled dollar” is worth a bob or two (in excess of £80 billion).

There are also specific public sector requirements for accessibility — there’s the Disability Equality Duty for a start, then there’s what has been recommended by the EU…

…in a Resolution dated 13th June 2002, MEPs made reference to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the W3C and called for “all public websites of the EU institutions and the Member States to be fully accessible to disabled persons by 2003″.

With reference to the three levels of accessibility recognised by the WAI, the 2002 Resolution added: “for websites to be accessible, it is essential that they are double-A compliant, that priority 2 of the WAI guidelines must be fully implemented”.

Out-Law.com: Public sector websites to be accessible by 2010

And of course I’m sure that all public sector websites were fully accessible by 2003. Weren’t they? Well, weren’t they? It’s perhaps fortunate that they changed their message slightly in 2006, as the Riga declaration of 2006 requires the “accessibility of all public web sites by 2010, through compliance with the relevant W3C common web accessibility standards and guidelines.”

It’s interesting to note the use of the phrase relevant, rather than linking to a specific set of guidelines such as WCAG 1.0. This would mean that for now, we could assume WCAG 2.0 would be the relevant guidelines… until of course we see WCAG 3.0 become developed and reach formal recommendation status…

And then there are central government requirements for gov.uk domains — such as the Delivering Inclusive Websites document of 2007, which states:

  1. The minimum standard of accessibility for all public sector websites is Level Double-A of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. All new websites must conform to these guidelines from the point of publication.
  2. Websites owned by central government departments must be Double-A conformant by December 2009. [...]
  3. Websites owned by central government executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies must conform by March 2011
  4. [...]Websites which fail to meet the .gov.uk accessibility requirements may be at risk of having their domain name withdrawn.

Delivering Inclusive Websites

In other words, there are a number of very good reasons why you need to ensure that what you are doing is accessible.

The Social Media ‘Push’

There is an increasing push towards digital engagement; people expect to be able to interact with their council in an increasing number of ways online. One of the key things to remember here is that there is no guarantee that they will come to you. If you have forum spaces, blog spaces, discussion spaces or whatever on your site, there’s no guarantee that they will be particularly well used: partly because anything owned by you will be treated with a certain amount of distrust precisely because you control it, and partly because if people are already discussing this stuff on Twitter or Facebook anyway, why should they sign up to one of your services that they might only ever want to use once? No: they’ll just keep whinging away on Facebook or wherever, so you need to meet them there.

If you don’t do this, people will still be talking about you online, and you’re simply — if metaphorically — clapping your hands over your ears and saying “na na na na na, I can’t hear you”, which isn’t a particularly grown up or sensible approach.

Like it or not, social media is happening, and you must engage with it.

But Is It Accessible?

No. Well, not really. Well, it is a bit. It’s better than it was, anyway.

So what are the problems as regarding social media and accessibility? I highlighted three of them — the CAPTCHA, AJAX and UGC.

Initially, the common CAPTCHA was a distorted word shown on an image which you had to somehow recognise and type in. This obviously caused problems for users with visual impairments, as if they couldn’t see the image, they were treated as an spambot and not allowed to register for whatever it was.

The use of CAPTCHA in this way is not actually that effective, as spammers can use things like optical character recognition or cheap manual work to get round a lot of them, and then you have other things like the Penis flood. Yes, the Penis flood.

Basically, Time magazine had an online poll which used reCAPTCHA — where you are provided with two words, one known to the algorithm, one not, with the unknown word being picked from old books to help transcribe old texts online — to prevent cheating and ballot box stuffing by automated bots. Only this caused its own problems…

What one group realised was that if they always labelled the unknown word with the same word, and they did this often enough, a significant amount of the unknown words would be labelled with their chosen word. And then, because these words would be identified with your chosen word, you could start using automated bots, submitting your chosen word. And of course they used the word ‘penis’ with the side effect that penises would be sprinkled liberally through digital texts.

Now technically, this didn’t actually work — and rather crucially I don’t think this was what I said — as although the people behind the scheme ended up still gaming the poll successfully, they in the end had to rely upon a brute force manual scheme. But despite that the ‘Penis flood’ story is too good not to include. You might also want to note that other people tell it better than me.

But the point still stands: if someone has enough desire to get round a CAPTCHA, they can.

With AJAX you have a rather simple problem: if your browser doesn’t support javascript (or only supports some), it may not work. If some javascript is blocked by a firewall for reasons of security, it may not work. If you rely on AJAX, you cannot rely that your application will work.

And with user generated content, it’s the user that is the problem. Just because it is possible for the user to provide an alt text for their image (I did so much want to say an alt tag to annoy any standardistas but I managed to resist) doesn’t mean that they will. So unless you are closely monitoring and updating any user generated content where appropriate, you may have problems.

And accessibility is improving: Facebook is working with the American Foundation for the Blind to make things more accessible:

Facebook is working with the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) to make its social-networking service more accessible to users who are blind or visually impaired [...] Facebook is also working with AFB on design changes. Still, Augusto [head of the AFB] admits the ultimate goal — full accessibility for vision impaired users — is “far from being attained”508 portal: Facebook to make site more accessible to blind

And in addition — and with some images of the same — I showed that the signups for Twitter, for Facebook and for YouTube don’t rely on a visual CAPTCHA alone — in each case you can now choose an audio CAPTCHA as an alternative.

I then highlighted one of the problems with social media sites: keyboard accessibility. If you are forced to navigate through a site such as Facebook or Twitter through means of the keyboard alone, you will find it very difficult to tell whereabouts on the page you are — you might be able to guess if the URL is shown in the status bar, but that’s far from being an ideal solution. They need to implement some solution which will use :active and :focus css highlighting, otherwise this is going to be a major problem.

What Can You Do?

What can you do to make these sites more accessible? Well, in some cases, not a lot. You can’t control the way Facebook presents information. But what you can do is make sure that whatever you put on your Facebook pages are also available elsewhere.

One the things Simon Wakeman had mentioned to attract people to sign up to their Facebook pages and groups was to offer special promotions not normally available — such as queuejumper tickets or behind the scenes access at events. From an accessibility point of view, I have to disagree with this idea: if you are offering prizes or promotions that you can only get at through an inaccessible site, I’d argue someone who can’t use that site could reasonably make the argument that you are discriminating against them.

So that’s not to say don’t use Facebook: it’s to say don’t have any offers or features that are only available on Facebook.

You can also help people make the best of their experience. You can give them advice and help in using these social media sites, but remember that in general if someone can’t use that site in the first place, they won’t be going to that site to try and find you.

But Facebook have provided some accessibility help — they have a specific page dealing with accessibility issues and advising how to contact them if you have problems using assistive hardware or software on their site. During the event, I listed some of these but I’m not going to do that here; I expect you all to understand how hyperlinks work by now…

Accessible Twitter

And then there’s Twitter. You don’t have to use the Twitter site to use Twitter. There are various applications which can do this sort of thing — dabr, TwitterFox, Tweetdeck, and, more relevant for this particular discussion, Accessible Twitter.

Accessible Twitter (@accessibletwitr) is a web-based interface for twitter, which is designed to be, well, more accessible. It’s put together by Dennis Lembree (@dennisl) who produces the WebAxe podcast and blog (@webaxe).

It is basically a much more accessible version of the twitter website — a list of the accessibility features can be found on the site’s about page.

You Tube

And then there’s You Tube. Try finding some sort of normal video piece on You Tube and watch it with the sound off. That is precisely the sort of value that people with hearing impairments will get out of many YouTube videos: buggerall.

And that’s simply because people don’t consider it. I intended to show a video here called Bob’s House, but owing to the internet failure, I was instead compelled to try and wing it, to describe how the video allows you to suddenly see something from a different point of view, and have a laugh at the same time. If you like, it was an attempt at audio description of a video I didn’t even have in front of me.

Of course, here I can simply provide it:

I’d be interested to know whether those attending at the event felt I’d managed to at least get the gist of this across.

But this also suggests another issue: if a video doesn’t have sound, stick at least one caption on it, to explain that it doesn’t come with sound. I’ve noticed recently that BBC News are pretty good at doing this. In addition, try and provide transcripts or descriptions of the information.

But there isn’t really any excuse, if you’re using You Tube videos, for not having them captioned. Because it’s easy. When you upload a video to You Tube, you also have the option to upload a closed caption file for that video. And there is an Easy You Tube Caption Creator tool and also a five minute video showing you precisely how easy it is to do…

For obvious, internet non-connection sorts of reasons, I wasn’t able to show this video, but that was perfectly okay because the video is just over five minutes long, and Dave Briggs (@davebriggs), chairing the event, had just given me a five minute warning to start wrapping up…

In Summary, Then…

The fault with accessibility and social media is the default. It can be made accessible — or rather it can at least be made more accessible. Accessibility is not an excuse not to use social media; it is instead a reason to understand and use social media properly and provide support to your users.

You should test your sites; test your usage of social media — and you should be testing and discussing requirements with disabled users anyway as part of your Disability Equality Duty.

You will fail. You will make mistakes. But it’s a bigger mistake to ignore the whole thing and pretend it will go away. Experiment, monitor, and set policy. Also, bear in mind you won’t reach everyone — for some people other channels (face to face / telephone) will always be their preferred option — but you might well reach more people than you think — for example at the Where Do You Think You’re Going? Digital Transport conference I was at the other week, someone from Nexus (who ‘sort out’ public transport in Tyne & Wear) informed us that over 1000 elderly people had renewed their metro concessionary passes online — maybe not a massive figure, but more than they had expected.

But you need to do it.

I then listed a few resources — WebAIM, Accessify, AccessifyForum, the WAI and WebCredible — whilst being aware I was missing out many others. And indeed am doing so again.

And then, finally, and for those who got the reference on my last slide

…I walked on down the hall…

…which was a slight misquotation of a lyric from The Doors ‘The End’ as I’d needed to work out some way to finish the bloody presentation.

And that was more or less it, although there was one question via twitter:

@davebriggs Can you ask him how evil <iframes> are?@lesteph

…unfortunately, I didn’t have the information to hand — the best I could manage was “well, there was a discussion about this on AccessifyForum recently where I am one of the moderators…” (never pass up a chance to pimp your services, and big up your knowledge!) “…and I think the consensus was that they weren’t actually too evil, but I’ll try and dig out the link and get back to you.”

So here’s the relevant forum thread, which does more or less say that they are pretty well supported now. You really ought to visit. AccessifyForum is a really cool forum, where all the hoopy froods hang out, and you might want to consider signing up. And don’t forget to look up @accessifyforum on Twitter while you’re on.

And that was it. Or at least, that’s it for now; I’m planning on blogging many of the other sessions later…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

34 Comments to #PSFBuzz: Accessibility vs Social Media

  1. barryearnshaw (barryearnshaw) says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 8:53 am

    RT: @ThePickards: New post: #PSFBuzz Accessibility vs Social Media http://tinyurl.com/l4pfww What I think I said! // exellent post

  2. sarahlay (sarahlay) says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 9:40 am

    RT: @ThePickards: New post: #PSFBuzz Accessibility vs Social Media http://tinyurl.com/l4pfww What I think I said! // great pres & post :)

  3. Sarah Lay says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Really enjoyed your session yesterday – and I got the gist of the video you described!
    There were some really interesting bits of info and definitely some food for thought. I made notes on my blog at the time and will add some ‘make sense’ and reflection asap and link through to this post.
    Cheers for a good session, well done on winging it when internet gremlins attacked and see you soon!

  4. alexanderhorre (alexander horré) says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 10:01 am

    RT @barryearnshaw: RT: @ThePickards: New post: #PSFBuzz Accessibility vs Social Media http://tinyurl.com/l4pfww

  5. James Coltham says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Some good points Jack and an important subject. Engagement with these platforms is fast becoming de rigueur for many organisations (it’s a case of when, rather than if, we use them), but we must keep these issues in mind.

  6. stcaccess (STC AccessAbilitySIG) says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Fine time must have been had by all when @ThePickards presented “#PSFBuzz Accessibility vs Social Media” http://tinyurl.com/l4pfww Like!

  7. Peter Holt @peterholt99 says:

    July 8th, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Jack – wasn’t there yesterday, so thanks for the write up. All useful stuff for us, so will see what progress we can make on accessibility issues.

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