"Connected!": Disabled and use of social media

People with disabilities want to use social media in the same way as everyone else. For many, social media are of great value, but others find it difficult to "keep up".

Story by: Morten Tollefsen - 04.01.2011

In November 2010 MediaLT  invited Disabled to share their experience of social media. The survey was carried out as part of the Web Citizens project. A paper summarizing the results of the survey is now complete, and some of these results are described below. In the paper you will find many more quotations, and detailed information:

Connected!: A paper about Disabled and the use of social media

About the survey

To get an indication of how disabled people use social media we published a questionnaire on the web. The survey was purposely very free in style, which means that it is almost purely qualitative. The study was stopped when we had received 101 responses. The survey was carried out between October 19th and November 11th 2010.

There is no reason to believe that the distribution of disabilities in the survey is representative. With the methodology used to obtain responses, we have reached just a small group of disabled people. For example people unable to use the web because of disability will not have contacted us in this study. We see that responses are primarily from people with relatively severe disabilities.

In the survey we ask specifically about the use of Facebook, Twitter, Live messenger and Skype. There was an opening to describe other services.

Motivation is the same as everyone else's

Disabled people use social media in the way the media are meant to be used. Answers concerning what is good about the various media probably compare well with responses people without reduced functional ability would have given. Some examples:

  • Blind man: Facebook is good for finding old friends and making new friends, keeping in touch with people.
  • Partially sighted boy (11): On Facebook it's easy to meet with others in my class and learn about what they are doing and what they are interested in.
  • Mobility impaired woman: Facebook is good for keeping in touch with friends and using games that are entertaining.
  • ...

Added value

  • I am a 14 year old girl and have the muscle disease Nemaline Myophathy. I'm sitting in an electric wheelchair and am a hundred percent dependent on care. I am connected to a respirator all day, have had a tracheostomy, and take food through a tube. MSN and Facebook are social, and I can feel like everyone else. People get to know me in a different way than through school. I have poor speech, but have grade 5 in English and Norwegian. So I'm not afraid to write. In addition, I play lots of games and chat with a lot with friends.

Both children and adults want to "feel like everyone else." The girl of 14 years is using social media to keep in touch with others, and since it can be difficult for some people to understand what she is saying, it is an advantage that she can write.

  • I am severely hard of hearing (hearing aid user) and visually impaired. Facebook has become an extremely important arena for me to keep updated. The social aspects of visual or hearing impairments do not matter here. I use what I have learnt on Facebook when I later meet people face to face, and this has made it much easier for me to follow and understand the context of conversations. It has also become much easier to keep in touch with people I otherwise would not have had the resources to keep in contact with. For me, Facebook provides the opportunity for a more active social life out in  “real life&rdquo

The above quote is very interesting, suggesting that social media provide a significant added value in relation to social participation in "real life".

In the survey many mention peer support groups as positive, where people with similar needs can meet online.

  • I have ME or chronic fatigue syndrome, and am for the most part housebound with a Karnofsky-score of approx. 50-60. I can take basic care of myself, but need help with most activities, cooking, transportation etc. Facebook, Twitter and other social media give me many opportunities: The ability to update on what other people I know are doing; the ability to communicate with others, even if I am not able to get out of the house, or am unable to talk on the phone; the ability to have social contact on hold, and answer when I am in good enough form; the ability to share information, events, news, etc. that I find, and discuss in relation to this.; to be introduced by friends to others who have similar interests as myself; the ability to differentiate regarding what I communicate to whom, through Friends lists, groups, locked status, etc. Blogging has also been shown - for example in the ME case - to be a good starting point for conducting micro-politics. Bloggers "organize" on the Net, and collaborate across age, background and gender to promote interests in cases involving politicians and public health, which has yielded tangible results in the ME case. Without social media and the Internet, I would not have managed to acquire knowledge about my own illness, and learned from the experiences of others so that I can manage myself, and receive advice on treatments and strategies that can make me better. The social aspect is very important for those who, like me, are housebound and sometimes bedbound and would have been at a minimum level without social media!  

User competence

  • Partially sighted person: There should be training in the use of social media. It isn’t easy to learn this all on my own.

Computer assistive devices can be knowledge-intensive. In this study, this applies particularly to screen readers and screen magnifiers. Some people (not just visually impaired users) state directly that they have a need for training.

Change does not delight

  • Mobility and hearing impaired man: I want to search for Friends, but when I had managed to teach myself this, Facebook suddenly changed everything. It’s hard to learn something new. I struggle until I have learnt something properly, and it’s like that with everything.

Changes in the user interface are highlighted as a major problem, particularly for the visually impaired:

  • Blind woman: I think it's difficult to get an overview, the structure is constantly changing. When you have learned to navigate the page, next time there is suddenly a different structure.
  • Partially sighted man: Skype has always been a bit difficult to follow; it was better before the new “fancy” Skype came.
  • ...

For the visually impaired user, changes are problematic partly because:

  • Assistive technology does not necessarily support new controls.
  • With high magnification or with a screen reader, only a few characters are shown at a time (or one word after another is read sequentially). To work efficiently, you must navigate by: jumping between headings and other elements, using lists of links, setting page marks, searching for text within a page etc. When the structure of the user interface changes, techniques that have been learnt may not work anymore, and the user must find new ways to navigate.

Overview and lack of standards

  • Blind man: I wish the various vendors would follow international standards so that all versions are accessible for the visually impaired. Visually impaired are excluded in so many contexts but, if things are programmed correctly, there will be fantastic new alternatives for the visually impaired

There are relatively good accessibility guide lines for web technology [52, 53, 54, 55]. Some sampling shows clearly that the web interfaces on Facebook, Twitter and MSN do not for example follow WCAG 2.0 guidelines [52]. Errors include: graphical links without alternative text, missing or inadequate structuring (correct use of headings, tables, lists etc.), fields without a label tag, poor contrast, not possible to change the font size ... This type of error should be reasonably easy to fix. Correcting these errors is however really no more than one important step towards universal design. The guidelines are essentially about "physical" accessibility. User testing and research is needed to ensure that the services are also easy to understand and use. For more traditional applications (e.g. MSN and Skype), standards are not so established. These will increasingly require direct use of the operating system's accessibility features, (UI Automation in Microsoft Windows, etc.).

Many people complain that it is difficult to get an overview. Naturally, blind and severely visually impaired people feel this the most, but had we received more responses from people with cognitive disabilities, it is not unlikely that they would have reported similar experiences.

Technical Difficulties

Relatively many visually impaired people write that they have technical problems with assistive devices. It is impossible to say whether this is due to trouble with the individual PC, the version of the assistive device, the service itself or other factors.


Many visually impaired people state that captcha is a major accessibility problem. Although some services (for example Facebook) offer an audio captcha, the visually impaired do not seem to be able to get this to work properly. The sound is very "scrambled" and it is difficult to understand what should be entered in the code field. Such a solution does not, of course, work for deaf-blind. Audio captcha was created in collaboration with the American Foundation for the Blind.

Chatting, apps and games

Many people state that apps, computer games and chat are difficult or impossible to use, and it is precisely the apps, games and chat that are mentioned when disabled people are asked about the functionality they would like to use but are not able to.

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