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4 Web Accessibility Lessons from Reddit’s API Controversy

Jul 11, 2023

Reddit, a social media platform that bills itself as the “front page of the internet,” is making headlines for another reason: Upcoming changes may make the site less accessible for users with disabilities.

If you’re not keeping up with the story, here’s a quick overview. In June, Reddit announced new pricing for its Application Programming Interface (API), which enables third-party apps and websites to exchange data with Reddit servers. 

The new pricing has been criticized by third-party developers as unreasonably expensive, and several of those developers have decided to shut down their apps before the changes take effect. In response, more than 7,000 Reddit subreddits have stopped producing new content

The controversy has also brought attention to Reddit’s accessibility issues. 

Many people with disabilities use screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT), and Reddit’s website and mobile app don’t work well with certain AT. 

Third-party apps help many Deaf and low-vision users access Reddit. If those apps shut down, those users may be forced to stop using the platform altogether. Reddit has promised to work with “non-commercial" accessibility-focused apps, but for many users, that’s not good enough.

In this article, we’re not weighing in on whether the API pricing is fair. That’s not our department.

But the back-and-forth between Reddit administrators, moderators, and users has presented some interesting ideas — and misconceptions — about web accessibility. Here’s what we can learn.

1. When discussing accessibility, don’t ask for a “checklist"

In early June, Reddit’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steve Huffman held a conference call with developers from the site’s moderation community.

According to notes from the meeting published by user BuckRowdy, Huffman expressed the need for an “accessibility checklist" while acknowledging that the company should treat accessibility “like any other part of our [user interface].”

Once again, these are notes from a meeting, not an official statement — Huffman may not have said the words “accessibility checklist.” 

But organizations often make the mistake of thinking of accessibility as a set of steps that can be completed as part of the development process. An accessible mindset is essential when addressing the barriers that affect real-life users.

And while there’s no such thing as a perfect accessibility checklist, there’s something close: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is widely considered to be the international standard for digital accessibility.

By following WCAG, creators can test content for common barriers. More importantly, they can develop a better understanding of how their decisions affect actual users.

Related: Developing the Accessibility Mindset [eBook]

2. Don’t rely on third-party apps to make your website accessible

Reddit has promised to maintain free API access for certain “accessibility-focused apps" such as RedReader and Dystopia. Those apps have crucial features for users with low vision — but they’re not a perfect solution. 

As we’ve discussed on this blog, accessibility isn’t just for users who are blind. The full scope of disabilities is broad: Websites must be accessible for users with disabilities that affect their motor control, cognition, mobility, and sensory perception. 

Most current “accessibility-focused apps" are focused on a specific type of disability, which may leave some users without options.

The solution is to build digital products that are natively accessible. When businesses rely on third-party apps, they leave some users out of the conversation — and if the third-party solutions don’t work perfectly, users will blame the original product.

Related: How Accessibility Helps Social Media Engagement

3. Build with accessibility in mind

Reddit has acknowledged that its website and official mobile apps have significant accessibility issues. 

“For our own apps, there is no excuse,” Huffman said in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) in response to a question about accessibility. “We will do better.”

“Do better before locking out accessibility options for everyone,” one user responded.

Reddit has only a few weeks to improve its products before the API changes go into effect. That’s certainly not ideal, and it may not be a practical goal, given the extent of the site’s accessibility issues.

Crucially, the official Reddit app is not fully operable with a keyboard alone (without a mouse), which may make it unusable for people who use screen readers and other AT. Keyboard accessibility is crucial for accessibility.

Building in that functionality — and addressing the other WCAG failures that impact Reddit users — won’t be easy. However, it would have a much easier process if Reddit had considered accessibility from day one. 

Related: Fixing Accessibility Is Important, But Planning for Accessibility Is Better

4. When websites aren’t accessible, real users are affected

Decisionmakers sometimes think of accessibility as a burden, or as an unnecessary set of steps that slows down product development. 

That’s certainly not the case: About 1 in 4 U.S. adults lives with some form of disability. Every website has users with different abilities, and every website has a legal and ethical responsibility to accommodate real users.

Reddit, in particular, is home to thriving communities of people with disabilities. One subreddit, /r/blind, has more than 20,000 readers, many of whom are blind or visually impaired.

Members of that subreddit were quick to point out a silver lining in the drama: People were actually talking about accessibility.

“It’s weird actually feeling seen amidst this Reddit blackout,” Reddit user LeftAI wrote. “Pun intended.” 

“Even though this ‘death of Reddit apps’ debacle is so frustrating for us, I’ve never seen so many people actually say they care about accessibility for blind and low vision folk. Even if it’s just an argument people are using to help the cause, it’s still nice.”

LeftAI concludes their post with a wry plea to developers:

“Anyway, sighted people — add alt text to your images.” 

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