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Accessibility and Web 2.0


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Accessibility and Web 2.0



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Language English


Ellen Perlman
is a Governing staff writer and
technology columnist. E-mail her at
Accessibility and Web 2.0
Governments with a presence on social networks still need to ensure that citizens with
disabilities can access their pages.
Ellen Perlman
| September 22, 2009
You'd think Gretchen Maune would be the perfect audience for state and local
officials who have started posting their doings on Facebook and YouTube.
The 26-
year-old is interested in government and making her views known. She was an early
Facebook adopter, getting hooked at college several years before the site was open to
everyone. And she's an active Web user who likes to check in routinely with state and
local government Web sites originating in Missouri, where she's a student.
But Maune is blind. She lost her sight in 2006 due to a genetic condition called Leber's
Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. She relearned how to get on the computer using a screen
reader. But since then Facebook has done nothing but frustrate her. Facebook defeats her
to the point where she avoids it. "Half the time I hear gibberish," she says. "Programmers
haven't labeled the links."
And it's not the only aggravating social media Web site. But at least people have created
interfaces for sites such as Twitter, and since Twitter is mostly text, it's easier for
programmers to come up with these apps.
work with screen readers, so Maune can
keep up with government tweets for the most part. Maune has explored many of the social media networks looking for
"friendly" ones that she can use. Some are easier than others. But what surprises her most is that so many governments
ignore accessibility laws in using these social media sites.
Some governments don't think they're ignoring the visually or hearing impaired because they say the same information they
post on those is available through other channels, whether it's by press release, town hall meeting or mailing. But that
dismisses the fact that these social media Web sites encourage conversation. Governments contribute content that then is
embellished through user comments.
Difficulties with social media access may prevent people with disabilities from joining the conversation. Many governments
have laws that align with
Section 508
of the federal Rehabilitation Act but don't feel the need to apply them to networking
sites. "It's a shame," says Paul Spicer, spokesman with TecAccess, an accessibility consultancy specializing in information
and communication technologies. "A lot of agencies take painstaking steps to make their [government-created] Web sites
accessible but then they're throwing these social media sites up all over the place." And, indeed, dozens of governments
and officials have taken to Facebook, Twitter, blogging sites and others.
The hurdles to using some of these sites are high. Think about the squiggly or slanted letters and numbers that sites often
ask you to type in after you make a comment on a blog, to make sure you're a human being. It's called a CAPTCHA feature,
or "completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart." These are meant to defeat machines.
Well, a screen reader for the blind or visually impaired is a machine. Technology to produce an audio CAPTCHA is available
but not always employed. Sometimes you need to install a plug-in that isn't readily available in order to play the audio. And
some people complain the audio quality is poor.
If governments are going to use these sites, the least they can do is help make them more accessible, says Kate Walser, a
consultant and accessibility specialist with CX Insights. Social media tools aren't necessarily inaccessible, she points out.
Governments can remove barriers when posting their content. For instance, jurisdictions using YouTube for outreach can
provide closed captioning.
Facebook recommends
that any photos shared on the site have captions, so that those who
access images with a screen reader have a text description in its place.
And those who Twitter can write better tweets. When abbreviations are used in tweets, sighted people usually can fill in the
missing letters and understand the words. It's more difficult when someone is listening to those shortcuts. For example, "RT"
means "retweet" in Twitter lingo and it's a widely used shortcut. But if someone writes it in lowercase letters, a screen reader
might say "rut" or "rit" instead of saying the letters, "RT."
Government agencies could put together a list of acronyms or synonyms to help government tweeters keep messages
under the limit of 140 characters, but also make sense to someone using a screen reader. An accessibility strategy in this
case is content-based and simple to do, Walser points out. And it matters. Social media sites are the online town hall
meetings for many jurisdictions. "It's not that hard to address these things," Walser says. "So why wouldn't you?"
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