The pursuit of improving accessibility on social

Thought Leadership

We all know it’s hard enough to make it big on social media; but what if social media was the one making it harder for you?

It’s estimated that almost a billion people around the world (AKA 15% of everyone everywhere) live with some form of disability – and that’s not even accounting for temporary and situational disabilities. And when a web user feels that digital content isn’t inclusive or accessible enough for them? They don’t even complain about it. 71% of them just leave

That’s it, they exit your work. They don’t care how much effort you and your team put into meeting the mandatories, refreshing the insight, re-concepting the creative and just making the deadline. If the work isn’t accessible, then thousands of your audience are simply switching off. And probably think less of your brand as a result.

Accessibility is slowly moving to the forefront of content strategy, but not with the momentum needed to meet the basics across all channels. Even platforms that are being launched in 2020 – Clubhouse, are you hearing this one? – are still designed without accessibility in mind.

And that’s because accessibility in social media content often comes as a production afterthought, instead of being baked into the creation process. There’s no law or precedent for brands setting a basic standard on how accessible we – as an industry – make our work. But maybe, there should be?

Yet, in spite of it all, creatives like Scarlet Waters (a 19-year old TikTok content creator from the US) are laying the foundations for more inclusive social platforms and, with over four millions followers, are still managing to thrive.

Scarlet, who herself is deaf in both ears, once wrote on her channel that “the most surprising aspect for [her] was how many people didn’t truly think about what it means to be deaf.” And this is true. How often do we as an industry, as creatives, genuinely think about how people like Scarlet experience our creations in the real world? The answer is probably a lot less than you’d like to admit.

But in a sea of tools – from closed captions to alt-text to hashtag structure – what do you need to know to make your social media more inclusive? And what could you do, in what you make every day, to help create a real difference?

Make your copy more accessible
Copywriting with accessibility in mind goes far beyond just alt-text, but alt-text is what set this whole blog post off (keep reading to the end to find out more). So here are a few best practices to get you started.

Alt-text is a short, written description of an image that makes sense of said image when it can’t be viewed for some reason. It is often read by screen readers, allowing your image to be accessed by people who are blind or have visual impairments. But it’s also often used by audiences with certain sensory processing and-or learning disabilities. So it’s important to put the most important information first, while avoiding words like ‘image’, ‘picture’ or ‘icon’ (it’s already assumed your alt-text refers to an image, so there’s no need to specify), and minimise your use of overly decorative language. You should stick to the informative, as overuse of adjectives is not nice to hear out loud.

It’s always hard to imagine the words we write being read out by a computer, but it happens. And getting it right is as easy as WritingYourHashtagsLikeSo. Otherwise, you end up with instances such as this:

In a perfect world, all hashtags should be written in CamelCase, thus making it vastly easier for people who use screen readers to consume your work.

Consider also the use of excessive emoji in your copy (such as using emoji for bullet points). You wouldn’t write out a descriptor such as ‘exploding head exploding head exploding head exploding head exploding head exploding head’. But when you put the same emoji one after the other with unbridled passion, it’s going to be read out that way when translated.

Ensure your video and image content speak to everyone
In 2021, no video with dialogue should be going live without captions, either burnt into the file (AKA ‘open’) or with a subtitle file able to be turned on (AKA ‘closed’). 

This doesn’t necessarily apply to people with a disability, either. Around 85% of Facebook users are watching videos in their feed without sound and the platform as indicated that audiences are 12% more likely to view your work if it has captions.

And in the case of text-centric imagery, treat your content like you would an outdoor ad. Text flattened on an image is near-impossible to be read by a screen-reader and it is poor practice, even for people not requiring greater accessibility.

Showing inclusive representation is key
Representation in disability matters. There are brilliant individuals in all the disciplines we work in – and work for – that deserve to be seen on social channels

Representation in advertising also begins with the people concepting the work. Creating a more accessible creative environment brings in talent that can help drive more representative content. It’s a long-term strategy touching upon intersectional equality in our industry, but it’s the right one to have.

We’ve all seen examples of misrepresenting the adversities overcome by individuals with disabilities, some as recently as Toyota’s Super Bowl advert which, for all its good intentions, has been decreed as ‘inspiration porn’ that unfairly puts athletes with a disability on a pedestal for a wider audience.

It’s hard to get the balance right. But an example such as the UK’s Channel 4 Paralympics ‘Meet The Superheroes’ can be an exemplar for the celebration of differences, a step beyond simply overcoming adversity.

And avoid ableist language
Ableism, for those of you not familiar with the term, is discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. While ableist language uses terms associated with disability to mock, insult, or degrade. 

Minimising your use of ableist language, even unintentionally, can help you to make a real difference. With so many invisible disabilities, language can be hurtful and harmful to individuals that may not seem apparent. Would you say you’re “crippled with debt” in the presence of a client who uses a wheelchair for mobility? But I bet you’d say it in an ad for their tax relief business?

Even recognising that location-specific call-to-actions such as ‘click here’ rely on being able to see is an important element of swapping out ableist commands. So consider changing your ‘click here’ to ‘buy now’, or ‘explore more’ and ‘follow the link’ for “learn more”. 

So the next time you put out some work into the world – whether it’s a CTA button or a 360 campaign, check to see if it’s accessible to everyone, before hitting publish. And if you’re looking for a guide on swapping out ableist language for something more inclusive, you can find two great resources here and here.

How this all came about
This blog post was inspired by a single video I got served on TikTok by someone who thought alt-text was a hack. A sort of SEO secret menu. They simply didn’t know any better. But who would? Now, you do.

This piece was written by James “Wilko” Wilkinson, Social Creative for We Are Social Sydney.