Future Tense

Twitter Just Rolled Out a Feature That’s Inaccessible to Disabled Users

The company’s blunder is symptomatic of broader issues that pervade social media design and computer science education.

A screenshot of Twitter says "See what's happening in the world right now. Join Twitter today."
A photo illustration in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2019. ALASTAIR PIKE/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Twitter announced that it added a new feature that will enable iOS users to create tweets using their voice. “Hear us out: we’re testing a new way to start a conversation,” it tweeted, sharing a flashing black-and-white image of its logo against a black background and an audio clip in which one can hear a voice saying, “One, two. One, two, mic check. (Taps mic.) Is this thing on? Tweet with your voice.”

But its tweets immediately drew backlash from several members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, who pointed out the feature’s inaccessibility. Jaipreet Virdi, a deaf historian of medicine, technology, and disability at the University of Delaware, tweeted in response, “There’s already too many videos on Twitter that aren’t captioned and hence, inaccessible. @Twitter this was your chance to design with accessibility from the start, not as an afterthought. I’m tired of companies telling me to hear them out when they give no way to do so.” Emily Ladau, who edits Disability Rights Washington’s Rooted in Rights blog, is hard of hearing, and uses a wheelchair, tweeted, “Hey @TwitterSupport, this tweet might as well say ‘Hear us out: we’re testing a new way to make tweets inaccessible.’ At the very least, this shouldn’t have been rolled out without including a way to caption it.”

The audio tweets are also inaccessible to other users with disabilities. They show a flashing image of the user’s profile photo, even though flashing content is discouraged by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines—which is often referred to as the gold standard for digital accessibility—because it can cause seizures in people who have photosensitive epilepsy. Audio tweets also present issues for blind and low-vision users who use screen readers and braille technology that can’t identify an audio tweet.

In replies to Ladau and other Twitter users with similar complaints on Wednesday, Twitter said, “This is an early version of this feature. Making these types of Tweets accessible to everyone is important and we’re exploring ways to make that happen.”

But experts say that accessibility cannot be an afterthought in product design, because ignoring the needs of disabled people invariably leads to the creation of bad products that don’t serve all users. “No modern business, especially in the high tech industry, would launch a new product with privacy violations or security issues or a new website with broken links or missing content,” said Heath Thompson, who uses a wheelchair and is the chief executive officer at AudioEye, a web accessibility company, in an email interview. “Why is accessibility being treated differently in this regard? When you don’t make digital accessibility a core part of the offering, you are shipping a half-baked product that leaves out a quarter of your addressable audience—people with disabilities.”

More than one in four American adults is disabled, and some argue that the Americans With Disabilities Act, which lawmakers passed 30 years ago to address inaccessibility in the physical world, applies to the internet, too. Former Rep. Tony Coelho, who has epilepsy and was a primary sponsor of the ADA, certainly thinks it does. “This digital connectivity is absolutely critical in our world today,” he said in an email. “Twitter is also now a way that emergencies, natural disasters, and local events are being communicated quickly. Not having access to this critical information can be life threatening.” Many courts seem to share Coelho’s perspective; in a landmark decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Domino’s Pizza violated the ADA because its website didn’t work with a blind man’s screen reader software. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear Dominos’ petition to review the case, leaving the ruling in place. Most web accessibility cases are also settled quickly—according to a 2019 report by 3Play Media, a company that provides captioning, transcription, and audio description services, 55 percent of cases filed in 2019 were settled within 60 days.

After more than a day of sustained criticism from digital accessibility experts, disabled people, and disability rights organizations, Twitter finally issued an apology late Thursday. “We’re sorry about testing voice Tweets without support for people who are visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing,” its tweet reads. “It was a miss to introduce this experiment without this support. Accessibility should not be an afterthought.” In two additional tweets in the thread, Twitter added that it “fixed several issues related to vision accessibility, including making voice Tweets identifiable on the timeline and making accessibility improvements to the voice Tweet experience” and that the updates will be available later. “We’re already exploring ideas for how we could support manual and auto transcriptions. We’re also looking at how we can build a dedicated group to focus on accessibility, tooling, and advocacy across all products, in partnership with the @TwitterA11y and @TwitterAble teams,” the final tweet reads.

However, Twitter hasn’t removed the feature, continuing to draw condemnation from the disability community. Some celebrities are vowing not to use it until Twitter has made it accessible. Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to a complaint from a fan who couldn’t hear him singing and encouraged him not to use the feature until it is made accessible, “I hear you and I can roll w that. No more until accessibility issues resolved. Deleting my last one, keeping this one so your response has context.”

But this isn’t the first time Twitter has dropped the ball on digital accessibility. Elizabeth Ellcessor, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who studies the accessibility of technology, tweeted that “this text-based platform managed to be inaccessible to screen reader users for nearly a decade.” Twitter was created in 2006, but Twitter didn’t make it possible for users to add image descriptions to images they post to the website until 2016. Image descriptions, also known as “alt-text,” enable blind and low-vision users to “read” images like any other text post.

But “Even that feature still requires users to opt-in, meaning that casual Twitter users never see or are prompted to think about access,” Ellcessor said in an email interview. Twitter also hasn’t remediated other accessibility issues, such as its lack of automatic captions on videos—a feature that has been available for several years on Facebook and YouTube.

Instagram has also faced criticism from disabled people for inaccessibility. Shaylee Mansfield is a deaf 11-year-old actress who stars in the film Feel the Beat, released Friday on Netflix, and who communicates using American Sign Language. In April, she posted a captioned video to Instagram urging Adam Mosseri, the chief executive officer of Instagram, to add auto-captioning to its platform. “I don’t understand my favorite people on Instagram,” she said, referring to hearing content creators. “Why? No captioning!” Her mother, Sheena McFeely, who is also deaf, said in an email interview, “We’d love to hear from IG directly and work together,” but has yet to receive a response despite multiple attempts to make contact with Instagram representatives.

Highly trafficked social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter should be further along when it comes to accessibility—their billions in annual advertising revenue give them the resources to employ digital accessibility experts and consult the disability community before releasing new features.

The inaccessibility of social media platforms may partially stem from the lack of web accessibility training in computer science education. According to a global 2018 survey conducted by WebAIM, a nonprofit that provides web accessibility solutions, 92.8 percent of web accessibility practitioners said they didn’t learn anything “substantive” about accessibility during their studies. Rather, they were self-taught or learned on the job.

But Ellcessor points to ableism—the belief that people with disabilities are less valuable or worthy of consideration than nondisabled people—as the reason why social media companies like Twitter aren’t proactively designing their services with disabled people in mind. “These companies are … looking to build cultural and financial value and turn that into an advantage in the marketplace,” she said. “Disabled users are not perceived as offering that value, likely because cultural narratives of disability continue to emphasize deficit and stigma.”

Social media companies must undergo a sea change to effectively design services for disabled users, Ellcessor said. “The biggest change would be for these companies to treat accessibility as a foundational part of their work; this promotes accessible development, and often leads to more robust interfaces and features for all users. This change, in turn, requires that all employees have some training in how and why to create accessible systems, and that accessibility expertise be sought out and recognized in leadership structures.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.