Shortly after launch, Meta Threads became the most downloaded app in the history of mobile computing, with 30 million downloads in just 16 hours. The microblogging platform became available July 6, 2023. Five days later, it had wracked up 104 million users.
A quarter of U.S. adults — more than 60 million people — have one or more disabilities. That suggests many early adopters are exploring Threads with assistive technology or built-in accessibility features. As users flocked to the Twitter alternative, however, many noticed a surprising lack of accessible design.
Meta introduced Threads with a press release, which devotes a single sentence to accessibility. “The core accessibility features available on Instagram today, such as screen reader support and AI-generated image descriptions, are also enabled on Threads,” the company, which also operates Facebook and Instagram, announced.
While these two features are welcome for many users, they fall short of conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the leading global standard on accessible digital design.
That could change in future updates. As we publish, Threads is still in early release. As the app evolves, however, Meta should prioritize fixes for three accessibility issues in particular:
- Threads is mobile-only, with no official desktop app.
As of the first week after Threads’ launch, the app remains available only on iOS or Android devices. There’s no desktop version. That’s a barrier for people who use desktop-only assistive technology, such as some screen readers, refreshable Braille displays, or alternative input devices.
It’s also a problem for people who simply prefer to use social media on desktop computers. According to the principles of universal design — a framework that dovetails with accessible design in many ways — apps should accommodate a wide range of user preferences and abilities. By limiting Threads to mobile devices, the app fails to meet this benchmark.
- Users can’t write their own alt text (for images) or captions (for video).
Threads does support the addition of alt text and captions, which nominally conforms with WCAG Success Criteria (SC) that require text alternatives for non-text content. The trouble is, the app doesn’t support user-generated text alternatives. You have to use AI-generated alt text and captions.
If Meta’s AI comes up with a confusing or inaccurate description of an image, the poster can’t make corrections. That can make a post’s content inaccessible for people who use screen readers, which rely on text alternatives to share visual information.
With video content, auto-generated captions can create a similar barrier for users with hearing loss or deafness. Inaccurate captions limit full engagement for people who read rather than listen, which is a clear accessibility flaw.
- Threads doesn’t allow users to change fonts, adjust text size, or improve color contrast.
Users with vision impairments may need to enlarge text, choose a more readable font, or adjust color contrast to access written content. The same is true for users with learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders. Many people — with and without disabilities — simply have strong preferences for font styles, sizes, and colors.
In short, the best way to make written content accessible for everyone is to let each individual personalize the experience. As we publish, Threads doesn’t give users the option to adjust the appearance of text or background fields.
That fails to conform with at least two WCAG criteria, including:
- WCAG 2.1 - SC 1.4.1 “Resize text” - Users must be able to increase text size up to 200 percent without resorting to assistive technology.
- WCAG 2.1 - SC 1.4.3 “Contrast (Minimum)” - Text color must contrast with the background at a rate of 4.5:1 or greater.
Moreover, lack of personalization fails to account for the wide variety of individual needs and preferences. This isn’t just an accessibility issue; it often leads to a poor user experience.
Meta chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on record saying “the goal [with Threads] is to keep it friendly as it expands.” Fixing these three accessibility issues would go a long way toward achieving this friendliness for everyone.