Elon Musk has made headlines for introducing extensive changes to social media platform Twitter — but some of those changes have powerful implications for users with disabilities.
Shortly after acquiring the company, Musk announced extensive layoffs, which eliminated Twitter’s accessibility and human rights teams. Disability advocates quickly criticized the decision.
“This platform has virtually leveled the playing field for all of us but, particularly, for people like myself; this space has evolved into a barrier-free game changer,” Deaf actress Marlee Matlin wrote in an open Tweet to Elon Musk.
“Yet, with news of the dismantling of Twitter's Accessibility Team, I'd like to ask @elonmusk, (as someone who has self-identified as having autism spectrum disorder), why would you do this? Is it time to take a stand on principle and pause our accounts until this is rectified?”
Established in 2020, Twitter’s accessibility team quickly introduced improvements
The Twitter Accessibility Experience Team began after a costly gaffe: In June 2020, the company introduced voice-activated tweets with a tech demo that featured uncaptioned audio clips and flashing images. Those issues — both of which violate the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — quickly drew criticism.
"We’re sorry about testing voice Tweets without support for people who are visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing," Twitter wrote. "It was a miss to introduce this experiment without this support. Accessibility should not be an afterthought."
But after establishing a dedicated accessibility team, the social platform quickly improved its approach. Twitter introduced support for alternative text for images, automatic captions for videos, screen reader and refreshable braille display support, keyboard shortcuts, and dozens of quality-of-life improvements.
And given Twitter’s wide popularity, many disability advocates saw the service as a way to build networks, hold productive discussions, and highlight important issues.
Twitter users with disabilities have few alternatives
Twitter may have lost more than a million users since Musk’s takeover, and Twitter alternatives are gaining popularity. However, many have serious accessibility concerns — and no plans to implement improvements.
In one of the most egregious examples, Post News founder Noam Bardin wrote that his site isn’t focused on accessibility, and they don’t intend to change their approach until the platform hits 300,000 users.
“We want to do it all,” Bardin explained, “but first, let's get everyone in.”
Obviously, that’s the wrong approach. Inclusivity needs to be a core principle, and building in accessibility improvements after-the-fact creates unnecessary challenges (and in most cases, unnecessary expenses).
Other Twitter alternatives, while imperfect, may provide a more inclusive space for the 1 billion people worldwide who live with disabilities. Mastodon, a decentralized social platform, supports image descriptions (also called alt text) and other accessibility essentials.
Even so, some basic features — such as underlined hyperlinks, which improve experiences for many people with vision disabilities — require a dedicated Mastodon client.
And while Twitter alternatives may offer the same basic functionality, they don’t currently offer the same platform for building awareness of disability rights issues. Mastodon reached 1 million active users in November 2022, while Twitter has an estimated 450 million monthly active users.
Digital accessibility is an essential priority for social media
While laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to social media, every social media platform has accessibility barriers.
Some of those barriers can be addressed by following WCAG, but even with dedicated user experience teams, platforms like Facebook and Instagram rely on users to provide accessible content. If a user doesn’t write alternative text for an image or supply captions for a video, there’s not much that the platform can do to fix the problem.
But when social media companies make the decision to de-prioritize accessibility, their users may not have the necessary tools to create accessible posts. Users who have disabilities may not be able to engage with content, and as a result, they’re left out of important conversations.
For disability rights advocates, Twitter’s layoffs are a symptom of a larger problem: Many companies treat accessibility as a burden (or, as Twitter wrote in 2020, an afterthought). That can profoundly affect the experiences of real users.