Friday, March 19, 2010

Social Networking: Not an Open Platform for All

In recent years, social networking sites have revolutionized communication over the internet by creating new and exciting opportunities for both leisure as well as business. Sadly however, these opportunities have come with a price especially for individuals who are disabled.

In a study conducted by Stanford University, it was found that of the five more popular social networking sites, in contrast to their apparent universal appeal, they were locking out disabled users. A majority of disabled individuals can't even register, let alone participate in the online communities which they wish to join and be a part of. I feel this is unethical to these individuals and goes against the Disability Discrimination Act.

According to the Stanford study, "with a diversity of disabling conditions including vision or hearing impairment, motor, literacy and cognitive difficulties, they access their computers using a wide variety of adaptive hardware and software. These range from 'tweaking' the browser (making changes such as enlarging text or altering color schemes), to using screen reading or voice recognition technology."

For many social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, or YouTube a CAPTCHA (a visual verification code that the user must input to verify that they are human) image is used in order to login to the site, but sadly the code cannot be deciphered by software. This as a result affects individuals who have some type of visual impairment, dyslexia or learning difficulties as they would be unable to interpret the image and would be blocked from proceeding any further in the site.

Although some sites offer an alternative for disabled users, in practice, these alternatives are quite unusable. However, under the Disability Discrimination Act (1999) website providers must made reasonable adjustments for individuals with special needs.

According to Kath Moonan, a Senior Accessibility and Usability Consultant, "many of the barriers to accessibility could be easily remedied and it [is] shocking how little response we [receive] when we approach the sites for advice on these issues. We would like to ask the operators of these sites to look at some of the key factors governing disabled access, namely: the reduction of the amount of CAPTCHA and the provision of an intelligible audio alternative; user-friendly support for those experiencing access problems and lastly, adherence to what is, after all, the law."

If you would like more information, check out the Stanford study at:

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