Are Social Networking Sites Accessible to People with Vision Loss?
The American Foundation for the Blind Answers
Social networking sites like MySpace have become the "soda shops" of the digital age. It's where people meet new people, update friends on life happenings, find jobs, network, discover new music, and express themselves through customized page layouts, photos, music, and videos. MySpace, the top social networking site on the web, has now reached 47.3 million members and is growing by 160,000 new users a day according to news reports. And social networking isn't just for teens. Both MySpace and Friendster draw an older crowd, while Facebook, another popular site, skews younger.
For most computer users, signing up for a social networking site is easy, and it doesn't take long to set up a profile, "pimp your page," search for friends, or add comments on people's "walls" or "pages." But how easy is it for people with vision loss to access these sites using a screen reader such as Window-Eyes or JAWS? The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) set out to answer that question by evaluating four popular social networking sites including MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and LinkedIn.
Using JAWS and Window-Eyes—popular assistive technology products that provide access to information on a computer screen—AFB evaluated these sites to see if a blind computer user, with basic screen reader skills, could independently register, create a standard profile, post photos, and interact with other group members.
What AFB Found
The most serious accessibility issue AFB found was the inability to create user accounts on MySpace, Friendster, or Facebook without sighted assistance. This is due to the use of CAPTCHAs—those abstract renderings of random characters that ask users to retype the word they see on the screen. Also known as the "vision test," CAPTCHAs are meant to keep spam programs out of the system, but unfortunately they also keep out people with vision loss because they are essentially jumbled text embedded in an unlabeled graphic. They are extremely difficult for people with low vision to decipher and screen readers cannot read them because they have no descriptive ALT text. None of the social networking sites offer an audio version—like Google's Blogger now does—or an alternate means of registering for people who are blind. LinkedIn is the only site in the evaluation that did not use a CAPTCHA as part of its registration process.
Cluttered web pages with many links can also complicate usage for a person who is blind. MySpace and Friendster sometimes have more than 100 links on each page that loads—which makes for an overwhelming experience. While sighted users might quickly scan web pages for the most important information, screen reader users generally have to listen to web pages from start to finish, top to bottom, left to right. On sites like MySpace or Friendster, this can mean going through a lot of content before finding the desired link.
Unlabeled links cause problems for people using a screen reader because although the screen reader will read the link, it sounds like gibberish. AFB evaluators found a few cases of poorly labeled or unlabeled links on the sites, but were pleased to find that most of the main features—messaging, adding friends, browsing, editing, and commenting—are accessible.
Because these sites are free, most of them contain several online ads. Ads make it more cumbersome for screen reader users because they have to scroll down the page, and go through the scattered ads, before they can find what they're looking for. This is especially difficult on Friendster because ads are scattered throughout the pages.
Forms are used for many purposes on social networking sites including registering, creating a user profile, searching for members, posting comments, and sending emails and invitations. Most forms consist of edit boxes, combo boxes, radio buttons, check boxes, and buttons to perform an action. Apart from a couple of cases, the overwhelming majority of forms on MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, and LinkedIn are labeled.
Until MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook offer an alternative to the CAPTCHA, people with vision loss will not be able to independently sign up for these services. But the good news is once someone gets through the CAPTCHA barrier, becoming a MySpace, Friendster, or Facebook user is possible, since the templates for these three sites are fairly well labeled. LinkedIn, the leading business networking site, is the most user-friendly of all the social networking sites because its pages are well labeled, and it does not include a CAPTCHA in the registration process.
There is a bigger learning curve for people using assistive technology because users must go through content line by line, and try to decipher features that are not properly labeled. Though the majority of links and forms AFB looked at are well labeled, the few that are not made navigation very difficult. When a screen reader encounters graphics without descriptive text, it is impossible for users to understand what the graphic is trying to convey. The same applies to forms, combo boxes, or radio buttons that are unlabeled.
Both MySpace and Friendster allow users to customize their profiles by adding background HTML, graphics, videos, photo loops, animation, and other "bling." When users include graphics and images without descriptive ALT text, it is extremely disorienting for blind users. Facebook and LinkedIn do not allow users to customize their profiles, which make them far easier to browse.
The good news is that making web sites accessible to computer users with vision loss is easier than most think. An overwhelming majority of accessibility problems can be fixed by providing alternatives to CAPTCHAs, properly labeling forms when building web interfaces, and providing ALT text for images, especially those used as navigation links. With a few changes in web design, it is possible to make web pages accessible to the millions of computer users with vision loss worldwide. In fact, the Web Access Initiative (WAI), part of the World Wide Web Consortium, offers extensive guidelines for making web pages accessible, along with explanations and techniques. AFB's web site also contains many tricks and tips for making web sites more screen reader-friendly. In addition, AFB CONSULTING, the consulting arm of the American Foundation for the Blind, offers services to organizations dedicated to having accessible web sites.