Are social networking services such as Facebook accessible to people with disabilities? As suggested by the title the ZDNet article on Social networking: Not as inclusive as you might think would indicate that they’re not.

The article initially suggests that “social networks have created a level playing field for internet users — regardless of their physical disabilities” with a description of a user, Simon Stevens, with cerebral palsy who ” is a highly successful entrepreneur and consultant, and finds time to run a successful nightclub”. The article goes on to say:

Stevens is highly active in Second Life, and also uses Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn. Social networks are a vital business and social tool, he says. “Sometimes, it’s difficult for people with impairments to physically meet or get to places, and the internet makes that much easier,” he says. Added to which, social networks present entrepreneurs with a golden business opportunity. “There are 10 million users on Second Life and Facebook — that’s a big potential market and it’s ideally suited to campaigning,” he says.

Good news for users with disabilities, it would seem. But the article then goes on to suggest that social networks have barriers to users with disabilities: “Most mainstream social networks don’t offer a simplified audio or “text only” version of their pages” and “… the biggest challenge for users is something that might at first seem very small: Captcha. … many disabled users have to rely on friends and family to complete Captcha forms on their behalf, and those without anyone to help them are often locked out of the networks altogether“.

The article goes on to suggest that “A lack of accessibility is driving many disabled web users to create their own, alternative social-networking platforms” and argues that “Sites need to tighten up the privacy and control settings and make them easier for people to understand“.

So social networking services fail to be accessible, then? And we should therefore stop using them, it might appear? I would disagree. The comment that “Most mainstream social networks don’t offer a simplified audio or “text only” version of their pages” clearly fails to appreciate that o comply with the WCAG accessibility guidelines you shouldn’t be providing text only version of pages!

And when the article suggests that “A lack of accessibility is driving many disabled web users to create their own, alternative social-networking platforms” is this really the case – or are disability organisations simply following the crowds in setting up social networking services just like so many other organisations? And Disaboom, which provides “disabled people with a secure, accessible online community” ironically fails to comply with WCAG 1.0 guidelines!

What evidence is there that disabled users are failing to use the mainstream social networks? Facebook has a number of groups for users with disabilities including “Blind Students on Facebook” and “Deaf all around the world” and a blog post on “The Gift Shop is Now Open .. for Everybody” by a Facebook developer states that:

Most Facebook pages adhere to the guidelines generic topamax buy which make the site accessible to the blind community. Recently, however, we received reports from a few devoted users that not all of our features were up to snuff. So, this week we launched a screen-reader accessible version of the Gift Shop . It’s currently linked off the help page, though later this week we’ll be incorporating it more tightly with the original Gift Shop.

Well they would say that, you might suggest. But a blog post entitled Myspace and facebook, Comparative published in August 2007 the author concluded that “I have found myspace to be completely inapproachable and seemingly uncaring of their visually impaired users. Facebook were prompt and their content is completely accessible“. OK, the methodology may be flawed and this is only one report – but at least it is based on user testing rather than compliance with guidelines.

The one area I haven’t covered is the barriers impose by CAPTCHA when registering to signup with social networks. The RNIB has reported on the accessibility issues associated with CAPCHA and concluded:

It really seems to me that there is no catch all accessible alternative to CAPTCHA that can be secured from spammers. As we’ve seen some sites make efforts to incorporate an audio CAPTCHA but this isn’t sufficient, even if a logic question were thrown into the mix, (putting aside the fact that this places a lot of development work on the website owner to provide all three options).

The article goes on to say that “it certainly seems that website owners are choosing security over accessibility“. Possibly true, but lets not forget that the ZDNet article argued that “Sites need to tighten up the privacy and control settings“. And if automated bots succeed in signing up to social networking services due to the lack of CAPTCHA barriers, users with disabilities will be particularly inconvenienced by the spam which is bound to follow.

A post entitled “Thanks, Facebook!” on the American Foundation for the Blind’s blog indicated that Facebook does seem to be addressing the CAPTCH problem and concluded:

For now, we want to thank Jeff and Facebook for making accessibility a priority. As Michelle said after the meeting, “I really liked what he said about Facebook really being accessible for everyone who wants to use it, because, of course he’s right, but I don’t think other people are always as considerate.” 

Clearly much more research on the accessibility of social networking services is needed – but let’s remember that disabled students are students too, and will be likely to want to make use the same social networking services as their friends. Let’s not assume that new services are bound to be inaccessible! And let’s apply the same level of criticisms to the other services we make use of too – it would be ironic if systems procured or developed for use within institutions were even more inaccessible than social networking services. And sadly I have heard stories of enterprise systems within universities which only worked with Internet Explorer 🙁