Facebook accessibility: a year of progress

Monday, 9 September 2013 14:42pm

It has been one year since Facebook, the most widely used social media network in the world, introduced a dedicated Accessibility Team as part of its User Interface Engineering group. During this time, a number of accessibility updates were made to its mobile website, desktop website and its apps for Apple and Android devices. These accessibility updates were designed to improve how people with disabilities, particularly screen reader users, access the social network.

While there have been many accessibility updates introduced by the Accessibility Team, there are three main areas that have been improved. These include the structure of information for photos, navigation and colour contrast.

To mark one year since the team was announced, Media Access Australia looks at how some accessibility updates have improved these areas. Screen reader testing was performed using the Facebook app for iPhone and mobile website with VoiceOver, and the standard Facebook website using NVDA.

Photos

As a photo and image heavy social media platform, Facebook has introduced a number of improvements to how photos are announced by screen readers.

By improving the structure of information for screen readers, photos on the newsfeed and timeline are announced in a more clear and logical way. For example, using the VoiceOver screen reader on an Apple iPhone 4S, a photo on the newsfeed of the Facebook mobile website (m.facebook.com) is announced as "Joe Smith's photo, link". On the timeline, a photo is announced by VoiceOver as "Joe Smith's photo of (insert name of people tagged in the photo). Link, image."

When you view a photo in an album, VoiceOver announces the names of all the people who are tagged in the photo as well as the text description under the photo. However, this information is not always available as it will depend on whether the person who uploads the photo includes a description or not.

Navigation

The Facebook Accessibility Team has also improved heading structure on the desktop and mobile versions. This allows for screen reader users to navigate Facebook using headings.

Facebook also improved keyboard-only access to popups such as notifications, messages and friend requests. Similar to photos, the information structure has also been improved so that a screen reader can announce more details. For example, VoiceOver announces "Friend requests, popup button. Double tap to activate the picker.”     

For VoiceOver users, navigation for interactive elements has also improved, such as selecting the 'like', 'comment' and 'share' links that appear within each post on the newsfeed. This has also been improved for the status update area on the newsfeed and timeline. All the content within the area is announced by a screen reader.

An added improvement for VoiceOver users is the inclusion of the double tap and double finger gestures, which now work with the Facebook iOS app and mobile website. When the double finger gesture is activated, VoiceOver announces the elements on the entire page from the top down and from the bottom up. The double tap gesture allows you to select a button or link as well as interact with elements.

Colour contrast

The desktop Facebook website has now been updated to enable high contrast mode. When high contrast is enabled on the computer (through the operating system's settings), images or their text equivalent can be seen. High contrast may be used by those who are colour blind or vision impaired.

Future improvements

Although there has been many improvements made to Facebook over the past year, it still remains a complex social media platform for screen reader users and other people with disabilities to access.

Further improvements that can be made to the platform include:

  • The ability to add and edit closed captions for videos that users upload.
  • Alternative text for images
  • Better screen reader interaction for links. Not all link elements on Facebook are currently announced by the screen reader.   
  • While there has been considerable improvements made to the reading order of elements, this could still be greatly improved so that performing basic functions such as messaging contacts is easier. For example, when composing a message using VoiceOver on the mobile website, there is no easy way to navigate between the message text field and the on screen keyboard. Adding the ability to switch focus between the text field and the on screen keyboard using gestures would greatly improve the experience for screen reader users.

Facebook's Accessibility Team regularly posts information about accessibility updates. You can read more about these improvements on the Facebook Accessibility page.

Facebook also has an Accessibility For People with Disabilities page which provide further information about how to use the website. It also allows you to provide any feedback on your experience of using the website, whether on a mobile device or desktop computer, so that improvements can be made to it in the future.

Media Access Australia also has resources for using Facebook and other social media for people with disabilities.


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