What impact will Facebook's new accessibility team have?

  • Author: Sarah Pulis
  • Date: 26 Sep 2012

It's hard not to want to cheer out aloud at the introduction of the new accessibility team at Facebook while muttering "finally" under your breath.

With more than 500 million monthly users [Business Insider], you have to wonder why it has taken so long for Facebook to make a real investment in accessibility.

The new accessibility team consists of four members:

  • Jeff Wieland, project manager
  • Stefan Parker, web engineering
  • Clint Hall, mobile engineer
  • Ramya Sethuraman, assistive technology specialist

A Facebook note entitled Designing for Accessibility: Q&A with Jeff Wieland was published on the Facebook Design page yesterday. In the note, Wieland introduces the newly-formed accessibility team and discusses some of the recent improvements they have made.

While this is obviously not a comprehensive report, it gives us an idea of what the accessibility team are trying to achieve and how they are trying to achieve it.

However, some of the information outlined in the note rings quiet alarm bells in my mind.

Wieland states that Ramya Sethuraman, assistive technology specialist will be responsible for reviewing Facebook using assistive technologies and will "uncover any challenges".

There is a vast difference between the user experience and challenges faced by a native screen reader user compared with someone who doesn't use a screen reader day-to-day and also has familiarity with the interface.

Having someone test with different assistive technologies is a really great way to identify problems but there is no replacement for usability testing performed with real assistive technology users.

What I'd love to see is a commitment not only to fixing accessibility issues and listening to ad-hoc feedback from users, but to also look at the user experience of the Facebook interface itself for people with a disability. I know, baby steps, but it is good to dream large sometimes.

In March 2012, Media Access Australia released Sociability: social media for people with a disability which reviewed the accessibility of social media websites include Facebook, and provided tips and tricks on how to overcome the inaccessible features of each social network.

According to the report, the accessibility issues most likely to affect people with a disability include:

  • CAPTCHAs during the sign-up process
  • missing text alternatives
  • lack of support for closed captions on video uploaded to Facebook

CAPTCHAs, which often provides a poor user experience for everyone, have been removed from the sign-up process which is definitely a step in the right direction.

The lack of text alternatives however, still appears to be an issue.

Although a user's avatar within the news feed has empty alt text, testing with the latest versions of NVDA and JAWS 12 both result in the URL for the image being read out by the screen reader. Clearly something isn't working as it should because screen readers should ignore images without text in the alt attribute.

I also have to wonder about the rationale behind using image captions as alt text. In the note, Wieland explains that if a Facebook photo has a caption, the caption will be used as alt text for the screen reader to read aloud. In my view, all that this will result in, is the screen reader user hearing the caption twice — first when the alt text is read out and again when the caption is read out. Not an ideal user experience.

We often get caught up focusing on the issues for people with vision impairment and forget about the needs of the Deaf and hearing impaired. Currently, you cannot provide closed captions for videos uploaded to Facebook. This current lack of support for closed captions on Facebook means that people who are Deaf and hearing impaired are being excluded from watching any online videos using Facebook. Support for closed captions on social media platforms like Facebook is becoming increasingly important as web series produced exclusively for online media become more prevalent among big entertainment companies.

Although a dedicated accessibility team at Facebook has been a long time coming, it is definitely something to be welcomed. Raising awareness of accessibility within Facebook, providing support to the Facebook development team and ultimately improving the accessibility of Facebook are all positive steps. Yet from what we can gleam from the Q&A with Jeff Wieland, the process for accessibility improvements seems ad-hoc and possibly doesn't put the users needs front and centre.

Time will tell.