Social media is an integral part of our lives. From giggling at cat videos to connecting with one’s professional network, hundreds of millions of people are logging into social media every day—including people with developmental disabilities.
In some ways, social media can be a great equalizer. Anyone can have an account. Anyone can produce content. And people around the world can connect with each other in ways that were never possible before.
However, disabled people still face some challenges online that prevent them from being fully included, or that make it difficult to participate in the way their nondisabled peers can.
The good news? There are things YOU can do to make your own social media more accessible for people of all abilities, allowing you to create a safe and inclusive space where are all welcome to engage.
To get some tips, we talked to our friend and disability advocate, Cat, who is autistic and has ADHD.
If you’re making a post or creating video that has spoken word, make sure you provide captions, says Cat. That way, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can still engage with your content. Many social platforms offer this feature as a standard part of the app, making it easy to add captions to your content with just a click of a button.
Use camel case when hashtagging
People who are blind or have visual impairment use devices or settings that read online content out loud. These are a game-changing tool allowing them unprecedented access to the online world—especially if you produce your content with e-readers in mind, says Cat. One way to do this is by using camel case in your hashtags, or capitalizing the first letter of each word within the tag. So instead of writing a hashtag #likethis, you would write it #LikeThis—note the capital L and capital T. Doing so only takes a few seconds on your part, but allows e-readers to accurately read the content for its user.
Avoid special fonts, font colors, and other characters
It may look pretty to include cursive fonts or fun characters in your posts, but they’re a nightmare for people who use e-readers, says Cat. That’s because most of those special fonts are actually mathematical symbols that e-readers pick up as, well—mathematical symbols, and not text. Want to know what people hear when they come across these fonts using an e-reader? Give this a listen. Similarly, altering a font color in your posts can trip up e-readers, so we recommend sticking to plain black and white.
Include image descriptions
Image descriptions are just that—a brief paragraph explaining what’s in an image. This gives context to posts and helps people with e-readers understand and enjoy images even if they can’t see them. Kristin, a disability advocate and content creator, is a stellar example of how this works on her Instagram account. Here’s a description of one of her photos:
Picture description: Kristin sits in her wheelchair, resting her chin on her palm and her elbow on her knee. She’s at the end of a wooden dock with a quiet lake behind her. The sky is grey. She wears a black sweatshirt, grey jeans and burgundy boots. She looks as though she’s thinking.
Use tone indicators
“People with disabilities often feel like everyone else has been given a social conduct rule book, and we’ve been left out,” says Cat. “Autistic people often feel this way, but also people with other disabilities, conditions, and neurodiversity.” For instance, jokes, hyperbole, or sarcasm can often be interpreted literally and misunderstood—something that’s only exacerbated in online communication when there aren’t other nonverbal cues.
Again, this is pretty easy to overcome by using something called a tone indicator. Tone indicators clarify intent and meaning behind statements and look like this:
- I love when my boss assigns big projects last-minute! /sarcasm
- I have to walk 100 miles just to pick up my prescription /hyperbole
- You’re so smart, I think you should have a TV show /genuine
- I think I have to call in sick to work today /serious
Use emojis … when it makes sense
Emojis aren’t just for text-happy teenagers—they can also be effective as tone indicators. However, there are some dos and don’ts to consider with emojis, and it’s important to consider your audience when communicating.
For blind and visually impaired people, don’t overuse emojis. E-readers “read” emojis by providing a description. Some common ones are “thinking face,” “winking face with tongue stuck out,” and “nerdy face with thick horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth.” One or two in a message can be amusing, but too many emojis or back-to-back emojis can end up being a lot of information a listener has to wade through and muddle the actual message. Take for example this message:
I went to a lecture today nerdy face with thick horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth nerdy face with thick horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth nerdy face with thick horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth and found out I got the grant I applied for!
Another thing to note is emojis can have different meanings for different people—what you think is a smile might look like a grimace to me and totally change the meaning of a message.
Avoid busy imagery
Photos or graphics with bright colors, busy fonts, or text placed on top of busy backgrounds can be difficult for people with photosensitivity or sensory processing disorders, says Cat. Same goes for videos and gifs with bright, flashing colors or lots of fast movement. Sticking to clean images and videos with clear text helps reduce sensory overload and makes your message easier for all to interpret.
Our final question for Cat was—why should people care? Why is it important for disabled and nondisabled people to make sure their social media is accessible for people of all abilities?
Cat’s answer was simple: “Because people with disabilities use social media. So they should be included. Full stop.”
We couldn’t agree more, Cat.
We want to hear from you!
These are just a few ideas people can start implementing today to make their social media and online presence more inclusive. But this is only scratching the surface! What other suggestions do you have?