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Accessibility of Social Media for Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision

Editor's Note: The Adaptech Research Network is a research team based at Dawson College in Montreal that conducts research involving college and university students with disabilities in Canada. For more information, please visit: http://www.adaptech.org

To understand how students with disabilities are accessing and using social media, the Adaptech Research Network, in collaboration with the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), conducted an online study in the fall of 2009. The goal was to identify accessible and inaccessible social media, pinpoint the benefits, accessibility problems, and the solutions to social media challenges, and examine the reasons why students with disabilities choose to use--or not use--social media.

The term “social media” broadly encompasses a wide variety of technological products and services that are, at their core, designed to allow people to digitally interact with one another. Included are web services such as Facebook and Twitter, instant messaging services like MSN Messenger and Skype, and web communities such as FourSquare and Second Life.

723 students and recent graduates with disabilities responded to an online survey. 95 of them (67 females and 28 males) indicated they were blind or had low vision. 23% of these respondents indicated that they were totally blind, while 77% had low vision. 98% of respondents were actively pursuing a college diploma or an undergraduate, master's, doctoral or professional degree. Participants were asked about the assistive technologies they used and about their level of expertise using them. For many of the questions posed, respondents were asked whether they (1) strongly disagreed, (2) somewhat disagreed, (3) slightly disagreed, (4) slightly agreed, (5) somewhat agreed, or (6) strongly agreed with a series of statements. In this article, responses to these questions are presented as average scores on this 6-point scale (e.g. a score of 4.5 means that, overall, people slightly to somewhat agreed with the statement).

It is important to note that students did not feel that they had mastered their assistive technologies, although virtually all of them felt quite comfortable using the internet. The most commonly used social media platforms were those considered to be relatively accessible, and this was an important consideration in whether participants used those services. Moreover, though employers are increasingly using social media platforms, students who are blind or have low vision are, interestingly, not convinced that social media will assist with their job search.

The most common assistive technologies used by students who are blind or have low vision include screen readers (58%), screen magnification programs (51%), scanning and optical character recognition programs (46%), software that improves writing quality (41%), and refreshable braille (15%). Respondents felt that their level of expertise using needed adaptive technologies was not very good (score: 3.02), although they felt quite strongly that their expertise using the internet itself was very good (score: 5.17).

61% of respondents indicated that, at least some of the time, they used a cell phone or smartphone to access the internet. Nearly a fifth (19%) access the internet through gaming consoles (e.g. Xbox, Wii), and 9% access the internet through handheld/PDA (personal digital assistant) devices (such as PalmPilot, iPod Touch, etc.). Thus, accessibility of social media using mobile devices should be accounted for in future research where the accessibility of the platform is evaluated.

The most commonly used social media were YouTube (90%), Facebook (83%), MSN/Windows Live Messenger (75%), Skype (53%), and LiveJournal (24%). On a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being very inaccessible and 6 being very accessible, these social media were rated as 4.78, 4.48, 5.03, 4.84 and 5.17 respectively. The least commonly used social media were Disaboom (1%), Digg (3%), Classmates.com (6%), SecondLife (6%) and Flikr (8%), with accessibility ratings of 1.00, 4.00, 3.33, 2.00 and 3.63 respectively.

Respondents viewed accessibility to be an important consideration in whether they would use a specific type of social medium (score: 4.83). Nevertheless, few believed that social media developers consider accessibility needs (score: 2.43), or that the Canadian government is actively working to make sure that the internet meets the needs of Canadians with disabilities (score: 2.32).

It came to our attention after this research was completed that some students who are blind or have low vision opt to access social media using "mobile" interfaces designed for smartphones, even when they are not using a smartphone or other portable device. These interfaces are typically more accessible to assistive technology, but provide a more limited feature set to users. Thus, how users are accessing social media should be taken into account in future research where platform accessibility is evaluated.

Students somewhat agreed that social media helps them feel less isolated (score: 4.20), that their friends conceive of their use of social media as being important (score: 4.41), and that it is used by companies, schools and organizations to reach out to people (score: 4.67). They were less convinced, however, that using social media will help them find a job (score: 3.48). 90% of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that their use of social media is to help maintain contact with people they already know, while only 40% agreed to any extent that they use social media to meet new people. Most agreed that they are very careful about how they portray themselves online (score: 5.30), and that when they do interact with people they do not know on the internet, they typically do not disclose that they have a disability (score: 5.12).

Respondents' aversion to revealing their disability and concern with their online portrayal may limit the usefulness of social media tools for career development. The potential employment benefits of social networking tools to build and develop extensive personal networks may not be fully realized as long as students view these tools as avenues of maintaining existing social relationships rather than as facilitators of the development of new connections. Lack of information about disabilities may also give developers the impression that there are few individuals with disabilities using their sites and, therefore, they may fail to adequately implement accessibility features.

Social media platforms are constantly changing to meet users' needs. Regrettably, this can pose barriers to students who are blind or have low vision, as they must constantly re-learn how to navigate these systems. Many new college and university graduates will be expected to use these platforms either as part of their work or to maintain important social ties in the workforce. Increasing the availability of assistive technology training programs that introduce persons who are blind or have low vision to major social media tools may be one strategy to facilitate their long-term inclusion.

Note: Article authors Natalie Martiniello, Anthony Tibbs and Catherine Fichten are members of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC). Follow AEBC on Twitter: http://twitter.com/blindcanadians

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