Improving the Accessibility of Social Media in Government

Government agencies are increasingly using social media to engage with citizens, share information and deliver services more quickly and effectively than ever before. But as social content, data and platforms become more diverse, agencies have a responsibility to ensure these digital services are accessible to all citizens, including people with disabilities.

This Toolkit is your guide to Improving the Accessibility of Social Media in Government. Created with the input of social media leaders and users across government and the private sector, this living document contains helpful tips, real-life examples and best practices to ensure that your social media content is usable and accessible to all citizens, including those with disabilities.
To begin exploring the Toolkit, simply select from this table of contents:

Who Developed This Toolkit?

Improving the Accessibility of Social Media is brought to you by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies and the Social Media Accessibility Working Group, a committee within the Federal Social Media Community of Practice. Working together, these entities have aimed to curate and share best practices to help agencies ensure their social media content is accessible everyone, including users with disabilities. Efforts are also being made to work with social media platform and tool developers, citizens and partners to encourage greater accessibility.

The genesis of this Toolkit is a collaborative document that originated at the #SocialGov Summit on Accessibility, which is a product of eight agencies: U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, Department of Transportation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Cancer Institute, National Human Genome Research Institute and the General Services Administration. Also included is input from “Sociability: Social Media for People with a Disability,” by Dr. Scott Hollier, Western Australia Manager for Media Access Australia (MAA) and member of the Advisory Committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Why Is The Accessibility of Social Media So Important?

The Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the Federal Social Media Community of Practice are deeply invested in the issue of accessible technology. Why? Because the development and adoption of accessible, universally designed technology is critical to making sure people with disabilities succeed at work and deliver for their employers.

Think about it—could you do your job if it wasn’t possible to read your e-mail? And could you even get a job if you couldn’t fill out the online application? If you can’t access the tools and technologies you need to look for or perform a job, your employability and productivity suffer. So it’s easy to understand why inaccessible technology can be a major barrier to employment or on-the-job success.

This same logic applies to social media. More and more organizations are using social media to conduct outreach, recruit job candidates and encourage workplace productivity. But not all social media content is accessible to people with certain disabilities, which limits the reach and effectiveness of these platforms. And with 20 percent of the population estimated to have a disability, government agencies have an obligation to ensure that their messages, services and products are as inclusive as possible.

So put simply, the accessibility of social media—or any product or IT offering—is everyone’s responsibility. And it is vital that the federal government promote accessibility in all of its technology efforts. After all, an effective and responsive government depends on citizen engagement as well as a diverse, well-prepared workforce. And both of these require access to information and technology.

What You Will And Won’t Find in this Toolkit

Below are tips on how to increase the accessibility of social media. These tips are meant to help social media content managers and other communication specialists ensure that their messages are reaching the largest audience, including those with disabilities. Social media is constantly changing and every day new products and applications are introduced. Although social media content managers may not be able to control the technology behind these tools, they need to stay abreast of accessibility and usability issues and continually test their content to ensure its accessibility. As social media changes, this document will continue to evolve to provide new tips and help address some of those issues.

In addition, there are many ways users access and participate in social media. Though this toolkit is not meant to address the needs of social media users, we encourage users to be part of the conversation in order to provide guidance to those who are trying to effectively reach them.

General Social Media Accessibility Tips

Below are a set of recommended, baseline strategies to improve the accessibility of government social media.

5 Things Every Social Media Content Manager Needs to Know

  1. Make your contact information available on your social media account page. List a primary phone number and email address where a user can reach your agency with questions, or provide a link to your agency website that lists the appropriate contact information.
  2. Make your social media content available through more than one channel. Provide easy points of entry for more information. Some of the most common ways are to post threads on your website, provide options to sign up for daily email digests of social media posts or to add a social media widget to your agency website.
  3. Provide links or contact information to official social media support and accessibility teams. Often, social media tools have their own accessibility tips and support help desks. Educate yourself about them and provide links to your constituents.
  4. Keep it simple. Good design and good content more often than not leads to accessible content. When possible, write in plain language, use camel case when appropriate (i.e., capitalize the first letters of compound words as in #SocialGov), and limit your use of hashtags, abbreviations and acronyms. The use of camel case is not only a common practice, but a helpful one as it makes multi-word hashtags easier to read, including for those using a screen reader.
  5. Learn the accessibility requirements and periodically test your content for accessibility. Read the Section 508 Standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and other key resources that discuss them. Then test your social media content with a screen reader or other type of assistive technology.

Platform-Specific Social Media Accessibility Tips

Tips for Making Facebook Updates Accessible

  • The federal government is full of acronyms. Don’t assume your audience is knowledgeable about all acronyms. Take advantage of the space Facebook provides and always spell out the first instance of the acronym and add the acronym, in parentheses after (e.g., Social Media Emergency Management (SMEM)). This is especially helpful for those using screen readers, because after the name is heard and the acronym is spelled out, the user will be better able to associate the sound of the acronym with the full name.
  • Add captions to photos to ensure that individuals will understand what is going on in the picture. The captions do not need to be very long, but they should describe what the scene is, and how elements of the image appear and provide context for the image.
  • Videos posted to Facebook should be uploaded to a YouTube Channel to allow closed-captioning. Since YouTube automatic captioning can be inaccurate, prepare an accurate transcript and upload it whenever possible. The link to the YouTube video can be included as a status update, rather than uploading the video into Facebook. This will ensure that visitors will be taken to an accessible video with captioning.
  • For more information on video accessibility, read the Tips for Making YouTube Videos Accessible and Tips for Making Vine Posts Accessible below. Facebook has an Accessibility Team that is dedicated to issues specific to accessibility and assistive technology. They can be reached through Facebook and Twitter.

Tips for Making Tweets Accessible

  • If your tweet links to photo, video or audio content, make your tweet act as a descriptive caption so it provides context for the item, and then link back to a website page that hosts a tagged photo, captioned video or audio with full caption.
  • Consider proving an indication that a link in a tweet is a photo, video or audio file (e.g. [PIC], [VIDEO], [AUDIO]). This allows people using screen readers to know what to expect before opening any link. Use uppercase formats for further clarity to sighted users.
  • Ensure that you link to accessible content, i.e., a tagged photo, captioned video or audio with written transcript.
  • For more information on video accessibility, read the Tips for Making YouTube Videos Accessible and Tips for Making Vine Posts Accessible below.
  • If you are linking to content that your agency has not created and/or you do not know whether that content is accessible or not, make sure your audience is aware of these limitations. Simply provide a note briefly explaining the limitation, such as that: the photo is untagged; the video will auto start; the video does not include captioning; or the audio file is not accompanied by a written transcript. Also provide contact information should the individual require some kind of alternative method to access the content.
  • If possible, avoid using unfamiliar acronyms that would sound strange if read by a screen reader or that could be confusing to some readers. If space allows, try to spell out the acronyms instead, or use a different way to convey the information.
  • Try to use camel case for multiple words within a hashtag; that is, capitalize the first letters of compound words. It makes it easier visually and for screen readers to pronounce the individual words more clearly (e.g., use #DigitalGov not #digitalgov).
  • Consider having tweets compiled and digests sent via email. For example, Disability.gov allows users to subscribe to tweets by signing up to receive email alerts using GovDelivery services. Email can be a more accessible method for reading information for some users and also provides another opportunity for all followers to receive messages that might have been overlooked in a busy timeline.
  • Provide recaps of Twitter Chats. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor provided a detailed recap of its Twitter #VetsJobChat through a post on its (Work in Progress) blog. Storify.com is a popular Web platform that allows users to compile tweets on a particular topic or hashtag.

Did you know #a11y is short for accessibility? “a11y” is a numeronym (number-based abbreviation) for “accessibility.” The 11 is a stand-in for the 11 characters that would normally be seen between the “a” and the “y”. For those of you with computer-science/IT backgrounds, you might recognize other numeronyms such as “i18n” for “internationalization” or “l10n” for “localization.” Source: http://www.a11ylab.com/what-exactly-does-a11y-stand-for/

Remember that infographics are, by their very nature, pictures. If you decide to link to an infographic, make sure that you adequately describe all of the content with text. Just remember to use plain language and be concise in your descriptions. Also make sure that the infographic itself is easy for readers, including those with cognitive disabilities, to interpret. In other words, make sure that the infographic is not overly complicated to understand and navigate. Avoid: complex layout and flow that require the reader to follow too many lines or arrows connecting one piece of content to another; excessive images and text; and wide variation and insufficient contrast in the color scheme.

Tips for Making YouTube Videos Accessible

  • Ensure all videos have closed captions and audio description (or a link to a version that has audio descriptions). In addition, a full transcript (of captions and audio description) is useful for people who have both hearing and visual impairments including those who are deaf-blind. YouTube has a feature that will automatically caption videos less than 10 minutes in length. To increase accuracy of the YouTube machine translation, have very clear-spoken words and little background noise. However, since YouTube automatic captioning is still in Beta and can be very inaccurate, prepare your own accurate transcript and upload it whenever possible.
  • Descriptive language needs to be used in video captioning to denote audio and visual elements to users who may have visual or hearing disabilities. Make sure to use easy-to-understand language in your descriptions.
  • Be careful only to include high-quality audio. People who are hard of hearing may have difficulty with the soundtrack of videos that contain music or other effects, or which have not been produced to high audio quality.
  • To ensure accurate captioning, create a transcript of the video. To create a transcript use one of the following tools:
    • On a Mac (Mountain Lion): Preferences > Dictation & Speech > Dictation (On). Then open up any typing program (TextEdit, Word, Notes, Stickies, etc.) and:
      • Play the video, pause, speak what you hear, and repeat.
      • Or, if the speaking parts of the video are very clear, play it loud enough for the Dictation to pick up the voice.
    • Dragon Naturally Speaking (for desktop or the smartphone app).
    • Note that there are certain companies that can perform this task for a modest fee.
  • To create captions for video from scratch, or to edit your existing YouTube captions, there are a number of free tools that can help:
  • A tutorial for creating captions can be found on YouTube. Other tutorials on using Overstream and CaptionTube can be found at their respective websites. Resources for MAGpie are available at WebAIM.org.
  • Note that good captions are not just a transcript of what is said in the video. It is also important to describe sounds, particularly sounds for which there is no visual equivalent (e.g., if someone in a video is giving a talk, and the viewer can’t see that the audience is laughing, the captions should say that people are laughing). Tone of voice is also important to note, particularly if not obvious from a person’s facial expression (or if the person’s face can’t be seen). A lot of meaning and information can get lost by certain viewers with hearing or cognitive impairments if they are not made aware of sounds, tone of voice, etc.; the way the meaning of spoken content is interpreted can completely change based on this information. Knowing that the background music is cheery, for example, helps signal that the producers mean for the scene to be viewed in a light way and can help shape viewers’ expectations for the kinds of things that will follow. Someone saying “I’m doing great” in a sarcastic tone clearly means something very different from someone saying it in a casual or light tone.
  • The YouTube player on the YouTube site is not fully keyboard accessible (e.g., it can be impossible or very difficult for a user with a motor disability to turn on captions without a mouse). Therefore, if possible, it is beneficial to also embed any YouTube videos on a site that uses an accessible YouTube player wrapper and have captions enabled by default.

Tips for Making Vine Posts Accessible

  • Remember that in addition to including captioning for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, information that is conveyed visually needs to include descriptive text readable by screen readers for individuals who are blind or who have low or limited vision.
  • Upon uploading a video clip, add a transcript to cover spoken and visual action to Vine’s “description” field.
  • Alternatively, Vine videos can be embedded in a website where they can be captioned and described. Closed-caption can be embedded Vine video on your website using a tool like the JW Player.

Tips for Making Blogs Accessible

  • Set up your blog on an appropriate blogging platform. WordPress and Blogger are two of the most popular options for bloggers because they are easy to customize. WordPress offers many free plugins and allows you to host a page on your own server, giving you more freedom to customize the software for accessibility.
  • Choose a blog template that has few columns and a simple layout. The layout should be consistent across all pages of the blog so as not to confuse users. The blog’s design should have enough color contrast between the background and the font for ease of reading. Avoid using colors that clash and try to avoid using green, blue and yellow too close together. Black text on a white background is preferred.
  • If you wish to have a blog roll (list of blogs you follow), twitter feed or list of past posts, place those to the right side of the template. If you must include navigation or other links on the left side of your blog, insert a skip link so the information that is repeated on every page can be bypassed.
  • Add alternative text and captions to all images on the blog and within posts. Link to videos and audio components, and include transcripts of all video content. Ensure that sounds and video do not play upon a page loading – give users the choice to press the play button.
  • For more information on video accessibility, read the Tips for Making YouTube Videos Accessible and Tips for Making Vine Posts Accessible.
  • Text such as “click here” or “read more” can make it difficult for people with screen readers to understand where a link will take them. Instead of these short phrases, hyperlink fully descriptive text so that users will know where they are going when they follow a link. For example, the title of an article or Web page to which the link will direct readers. Additionally, allow links to be opened in the same window so users can navigate with the “back button” as needed. Make sure that links are indicated by more than just a change in color so that visitors to your blog are clear that they have encountered hyperlinked text.
  • Keep your writing simple. Use plain language and write in the active voice. Break up long paragraphs into smaller chunks of text.
  • Although Tumblr is considered a popular micro-blogging and social media tool, many users with disabilities find it difficult to navigate, but there are some ways to help make this easier. Tumblr is image-heavy, so as with all Web content, alternative text should be used. Many users suggest posting images using the text post option, rather than the image post option. In the image option, any text entered as a caption is read twice by screen readers. The use of GIFs on the site can also be difficult for individuals with sensitivities to flashes. Either limit their use or make sure than any visual element that blinks or flashes at a rate more than three flashes per second is small enough to only cover a quarter of an individual’s field of vision.

Tips for Making Other Social Media Platforms Accessible

  • Depending on your social media strategy, you may want to use other platforms such as LinkedIn, Pinterest or Instagram to connect with constituents.
  • LinkedIn focuses on professional contacts and also allows users to collaborate and share articles and ideas through its group message boards. Your LinkedIn profile should have a clear image to accompany your name so users can distinguish you from other potential contacts with a similar name or brand.
  • Pinterest is a visual discovery tool where users created online “bulletin boards” of images, ideas and videos. All Pinterest content is “pinned” to boards from outside sources. Include a description of the item you are pinning and alert users if it is a picture, video, audio file or GIF (e.g. [PIC], [VIDEO], [AUDIO], [GIF]). If you are pinning content that you did not create or is not accessible, make sure your audience is aware of these limitations by including a brief note in the description of the pin.
  • Instagram is a mobile photo- and video-sharing service where users take images or videos, apply digital filters and have the ability to share them on the application itself and on a wide variety of social networking services. Although Instagram does not allow images and videos to have alternative text, users should provide a detailed caption explaining the image. Use Camel Case for multiple words within a hashtag.
  • As with Vine videos, Instagram videos should have captions and a transcript. For more information on video accessibility, read the Tips for Making YouTube Videos Accessible and Tips for Making Vine Posts Accessible.

Additional Resources

Resources recommended by the Community of Practice:

Trainings

Digital Government University (DGU) offers a series of trainings based on these recommendations and expanded guidance. On-demand accessibility classes from DGU include:

Other Web resources

How To Provide Feedback Or Contribute Content To This Toolkit

The recommendations in this Toolkit are presented in a “living, open document” designed to progressively evolve based on continuous feedback from all areas of social enterprise, as new methods and tools become available. Agencies, organizations and citizens are encouraged to expand this content by adding recommendations and new tools and tips. They are the beginning of a shared inter-agency approach to this emerging field—one that will allow agencies to collectively advance toward better accessibility to public services through social programs for citizens.

Please provide your ideas for evolving these guidelines and continuing the dialogue so government can further improve the accessibility of social media and deliver better and more cost-efficient services.

Ways to provide feedback and engage on this topic:

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