A few years ago, we asked a question about making social media more accessible during our Government Social Media Twitter chat. The quiet response from participating social media professionals was characterized by the GIF someone tweeted in response; you may have seen it — the one where Homer Simpson silently backs up into a hedge of bushes until he disappears completely.     

Accessibility has long been a requirement and a standard in the world of government websites. I remember discussing accessible website rules in my first year of writing under the “GovGirl” name back in 2011. For social media, however, where even early adopter agencies have only been working for 10 years, thinking accessibility-first is slow going.

Why accessibility matters

Removing barriers for people with disabilities to access all the information government shares publicly is not only the right thing to do, but also it ensures the broadest reach for your messages and is especially important for emergency communications. It is likely even required by law if your agency receives federal funding.

Here are three relatively simple fixes for common accessibility issues on government social media:

1 / Use inclusive language. One recommendation I learned from a session at the 2019 Social for Safety Conference from Emily Allen Lucht of the Maryland Center for School Safety and Cecilia M. Warren with the Maryland Department of Disabilities is a fix that doesn’t even involve technology. Just like on websites, you can use inclusive, people-first language on social media. That means people with disabilities like my brother, Bill, aren’t “the handicapped,” but, in his case, a person with cerebral palsy. And my father-in-law isn’t “wheelchair-bound”; he uses a wheelchair. People-first means emphasizing the person before the disability. 

2 / Use alternative text in posts. One of the simplest ways to get started with accessible social media is to use alternative text wherever possible. This is where you describe pictures with text so the description of the image can be read by a screen reader, an assistive technology that helps people who are blind or who have a visual impairment. Twitter and Instagram allow alt text. Alt text on Facebook is autogenerated for images and can be overridden with an edit. If alt text is unavailable, it’s recommended to format your post with a caption indicating in words “Image: [description],” such as: “Image: [Several police officers are pictured at an unidentified intersection directing traffic.]”

3 / Limit emojis. While an emoji here and there may show relatability with your audience, there’s an important reason why you don’t want to share a social media message with a long string of them. Think about how assistive technologies will read the emojis out loud: “A yellow face with a big grin and uplifted eyebrows” describes just one common emoji — imagine trying to decipher a tweet with five of them!

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working professionally with a few amazing people from whom I’ve learned a lot. Two are blind and one is deaf, and each has helped make today’s accessibility challenges with social media clearer to me. My company has captioned our first videos, and has enlisted CART services for real-time captioning and sign language interpreters for our in-person events. We’ve got a long way to go, and I look forward to doing better. 

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