Liam O'Dell

The Rise and Untimely Demise of Accessibility on Twitter

“Dedicated to making Twitter accessible for everyone,” reads the bio of @TwitterA11y, the social media platform’s dedicated account for access news and features on the website. The ‘a11y’ in its handle relates to a tech numeronym, denoting the first and last letters of ‘accessibility’ and the 11 letters in between. Earlier this week, the very ethos of this team – and Twitter as a whole – died when Tesla founder and billionaire Elon Musk, having now taken ownership of the company, oversaw a mass exodus of employees from the firm.

“It brings me no great pleasure to say that for all intents and purposes, @TwitterA11y is defunct,” wrote Andrew Hayward, engineer and disability advocate at Twitter, on Friday. Salute emojis flooded the app that day when staff were waiting to find out if they were to receive an email about their job from their work email, or their personal account. Individuals were removed from Slack channels and logged off laptops remotely. The process was brutal – undeniably so.

People were already trying to swallow the unfathomable pill that was a new $8 a month charge to gain verification or a ‘blue tick’ (which is actually white) through the platform’s paid subscription offer, Twitter Blue. It was meant to prevent impersonation, providing authenticity to the public figures, brands and journalists prone to having fake accounts set up in their name, but reports suggest no identification (ID) or authentication is required for anyone paying for the privilege of being verified. If paywalling a thread ‘reader’ feature behind Twitter Blue or Twitter’s previous verification policy denying valued disabled activists the blue badge weren’t bad enough, a price was being placed on legitimacy – one many disabled people are unlikely to be able to afford, or justify.

Internally, disabled Twitter employees – or ‘Tweeps’ – apparently no longer have an established community of colleagues to unite around. It’s understood the company’s Business Resource Groups (BRGs, also referred to as ERGs online) have been scrapped as well. Disabled Tweeps huddled together under ‘Twitter Able’ (which Hayward co-founded), Black Tweeps had Blackbirds, and LGBTQIA+ Tweeps had Twitter Open. Twitter’s Careers website lists 11 of them within the company. If the reports are to be believed, every single one of them is gone.

The message this sends – that is, that the accessibility of Twitter is no longer of importance for the future of Twitter and upcoming features – is sickening. Twitter, and a few other platforms, have brought about friendships, solidarity and a sense of community to disabled individuals unable to experience anything like it offline – whether that be for geographical reasons, or simply that the nature of their condition(s) and a deadly pandemic means they are limited in their activities. Disabled Twitter, as it has become known, has secured change as a collective. The #BoycottSpectrum10K hashtag heaped pressure onto a controversial autism study in the UK to the extent that it is currently paused pending a consultation it should have done at the very start of the process. When YouTube decided it was going to scrap its community captions feature, Twitter helped the issue become much bigger in its scale and impact.

Yet there was one Twitter campaign which stands out to me, which marked a significant gear change for accessibility at the ‘bird app’.

It was June 2020, and the platform was making its first significant step into the world of so-called ‘social audio’ with Voice Tweets. Users could hit record and speak up to 140 seconds – a nod to Twitter’s original 140-character text limit, no doubt – and tweet an uncaptioned video with their audio out to their followers. Short clips with pulsating avatars flooded my timeline, not one accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing tweeters such as myself.

Twitter had f****d up. Maya Patterson, who led the design of Twitter’s audio tweets, said as such not long after the accessibility issues came to light. “We launched a test and we should have included accessibility features in that test,” she conceded.

Twitter Support concurred it was a “miss” to experiment with the feature without support for visually impaired, deaf and hard of hearing users and that accessibility “should not be an afterthought”, while then-chief design officer Dantley Davis welcomed the feedback.

“I will advocate for a11y to be part of our design from the beginning for all projects,” he promised.

In amongst it all, Hayward had revealed there was “no formal team” overseeing accessibility at Twitter, rather employees volunteering in this area in addition to their regular roles, and that had compounded Twitter’s commitment to do right by disabled users in the future. Just a few months later, the company announced two new teams dedicated specifically to accessibility internally and in its external products.

The Accessibility Center for Excellence, a blog post explained, would “partner with groups across our core business functions” to improve Twitter as a workplace, “from accessibility in our office spaces to […] legal and policy standards, and more”.

The Experience Accessibility Team, meanwhile, would look at new and current features to make these more accessible. The same article also pledged automatic captions on audio and video “by early 2021”, and while it actually came along at the end of last year, it was clear that a substantial gear change was happening behind the scenes at one of the world’s biggest social media platforms.

I saw that for myself just one month later, when I was invited to try out the site’s next foray into social audio, Twitter Spaces. This time it was different. Automatic captions came with the feature from the outset, and they were asking a Deaf person for feedback from the very beginning. It looked positive, and it seemed as though Twitter had truly understood the combined impact that comes with designing a product out in the open, in collaboration with disabled users, and working to make it accessible as they went along. They were no longer tacking access on at the end, or waiting for what I called ‘access on-demand’ – that is, releasing an inaccessible product and waiting for accessibility to be demanded, rather than understanding it is an expectation.

They were understanding the importance of communication. As this year progressed, the Twitter A11y account would tweet monthly updates on what was in development, what was on the horizon, and what was being actively explored by the team. It had realised that accessibility worked best as a conversation, rather than being a matter of dictation.

Under Musk, it seems we are set to go back to that model, launching features at full throttle with little consideration for the technicalities or the processes to ensure the product remains accessible to everyone. If – or rather, when – that happens, I hope there are disabled users willing to join myself and others in calling it out, but the social media shaming which worked with Voice Tweets and other tools doesn’t appear to deter a Musk nonplussed by advertiser boycotts, beyond appearing relatively disgruntled by it all.

The platform will continue to bend beyond recognition, and it will no doubt be harder to make our voices heard – not least because paid-for verified users will seemingly have their content pushed harder by the algorithm, and I suspect many disabled people are reluctant to hand over money to Musk’s machine.

I don’t exactly know how to round off this article. I had pitched it to several outlets as either a feature or opinion piece, depending on whether they wanted to learn about how Twitter finally understood access right when Musk came on board and decimated it, or read about why the toxic bird app still means so much to the disabled community. No one would bite, and that’s fine.

I just wanted somewhere to put this on record, to acknowledge the work Hayward and other members of Twitter’s accessibility teams did right until the very end, to capture the learnings in the hope that others take it forward wherever that may be, and to at least remember how Twitter was for us disabled folk before it changes beyond recognition, and we are left behind.

Think Outside the Box...

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