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Structural ableism in tech

June 2020 · ~6 minutes

Here we are again. Twitter recently released an “audio tweet” feature. The logic behind it was to empower activists, journalists, and storytellers.

As implemented, Twitter’s audio tweets are totally inaccessible for deaf and hard of hearing people like me, as well as those with auditory processing disorders or difficulty hearing or understanding audio. This isn’t empowering. Deaf and disabled people are activists, journalists, and storytellers, too, and also benefit from access to their work.

When confronted with this oversight, the head of Design and Research at Twitter wrote a now-deleted tweet, “We formed a design systems team recently that is responsible for accessibility across Twitter. This is a test. Hypothetically a test can go away in a few weeks after we launch. The work you’re describing is important. However that would have meant shipping in 2021/22.”

Now, you shouldn’t blame one person for what is an organizational failure. And Twitter apologized for it. However, this is a problem at more than just Twitter. These rebuttals are tired and familiar, so I think it’s important to address them in turn.

“We formed a design systems team recently that is responsible for accessibility across Twitter.”

A design system cannot be solely responsible for accessibility across a company. A design system is a box of lego bricks for teams to build products with. Those lego bricks ideally have accessibility baked in, yes. But the final product you build with those lego bricks may be inaccessible regardless. Put a bunch of good intentions together and you could still have a bad outcome.

Sometimes a team rejects a particular lego brick in favor of their own. Often, their own thing is a one-off built according to product needs. But those one-offs need to be accessible, too. Accessibility doesn’t spread organically. In our ableist world, accessibility must be a conscious, intentional choice.

Furthermore, accessibility cannot be the responsibility of a team with limited scope. Accessibility must pervade all corners of a company, across design and engineering and content strategy. Above all, accessibility compliance cannot be the volunteer work of a group of employees who are paid to prioritize other projects. Accessibility cannot be a volunteer responsibility.

“This is a test. Hypothetically a test can go away in a few weeks after we launch.”

A test is typically an experiment wherein a team releases a product to a number of users to see how users interact with it over a set amount of time. While not everyone could make audio tweets, Twitter made it so all users could interact with audio tweets.

If a product has a showstopper bug that renders a significant percentage of its users unable to interact with it, and there’s no easy way to fix the bug, generally the experiment is pulled. Once the bug is fixed, then the experiment restarts. That didn’t happen here.

Twitter could have papered over this by posting guidance on how to make accessible audio tweets. This could have been as simple as a suggestion to write a tweet thread with the transcript or link to a transcript. These are band-aid solutions to systemic problems. But they work. People volun-tweet out transcripts to work around other people’s uncaptioned videos all the time.

Because Twitter did not provide any accessibility guidance when they rolled out this test, early users did not think to transcribe their audio tweets. When accessibility is an afterthought, users develop inaccessible patterns which never get re-examined, which then cause systemic harm.

“The work you’re describing is important. However that would have meant shipping in 2021/22.”

There are several things wrong with this statement. It turns out the work they were thinking of was automatic captioning (“autocaptioning”) of audio tweets. While occasionally useful, autocaptioning is inaccurate, incomplete, and biased.

  1. It is inaccurate because an AI, rather than the original source, translates the audio. Even human translators, who perform better than AIs, are inaccurate by virtue of not being the original source.
  2. Autocaptioning is incomplete because it doesn’t codify non-textual information like tone and voice.
  3. Autocaptioning bias is well-documented; AIs struggle with Black voices and accented speech. A Black Deaf employee would have caught this immediately.

The benefit of autocaptioning is that it approaches the problem of users not captioning content systematically—it’s better than nothing. But for the purposes of a test, letting the original source manually caption their content is much easier to implement. There are standard captioning codecs like SRT and VTT with plenty of software to help write them.

Or, as outlined in the previous section, encourage users to write a transcript in the tweets. Plenty of solutions exist that don’t require shipping 1-2 years later. Nudge your users toward accessible solutions and reward them for doing it.

Lastly, the Twitter community is full of talent. Autocaptioning was implemented by a Twitter bot developed by Headliner. Twitter has more than enough resources to make something of their own or otherwise pay for. Yet Twitter’s culture of inaccessibility led to the release of a product where accessibility was an afterthought.

Accessibility determines design, user interaction, user experience, and copy decisions, and so must be considered from the start of the product process. Accessibility is critical to a minimally viable product, just like security and data compliance. Accessibility is a civil right.

Twitter is where a lot of Disabled people can engage with communities and movements. The more inaccessible Twitter gets, the less access we have to those communities and movements.

Fixing the culture of inaccessibility

Accessibility is fundamental to the work we do. It is part of each ticket we create, part of the technical specs we write, part of the designs we draw. But too often companies (full of overrepresented non-disabled employees) ignore it. Accessibility cannot be a post-release feature. We must make progress where we can and not let perfect be the enemy of good.

But the problem runs deeper than just inaccessibility. Fixing accessibility issues is an endless game of whack-a-mole. You can’t win. The problem is ableism, and to win you need to throw out the game.

I need you to understand something. Ableism isn’t just a vile president mocking Serge Kovaleski on national television. Ableism is people making fun of that same president’s weight and gait, his ability to drink from a glass or read a teleprompter. When you make a value judgment on the president’s body and mind, you aren’t harming the president. He’ll be fine. Instead, you harm disabled people.

Culture is the behavior you reward and punish. If teams churn out products without accessibility included in the process, and leadership still rewards them for it, that is the company culture. Those are its values. If leadership isn’t actively anti-ableist, it’s ableist.

Ableism exists in the makeup of popular accessibility companies whose team pages reveal a never-ending stream of white, abled people. Ableism exists in the words of an accessibility specialist who referred to his co-worker twice as “wheelchair-bound.” Ableism exists in how user testing almost singularly excludes disabled people. Ableism exists in developers who are rewarded for their outward support of accessibility, yet stuff disabled people’s needs into a single ticket left to languish in a dusty backlog. Ableism is non-disabled people saying that what we’re talking about is important but not important enough to do anything about.

We must be actively anti-ableist. Just as we build products with design systems, we must build an anti-ableist culture brick by brick. In an ableist world, abled people make products for abled people.

To expand the audience for our products, we must actively seek out, retain, and promote disabled people, and not just disabled white cis men. BIPOC disabled people. Trans disabled people. Disabled people of any gender who are drawn to femininity. Work to dismantle white supremacy, which exists in (and is perpetuated by) the disability community as well.

Ensure your physical offices, internal tools, and meetings are accessible. User test with disabled people, not just abled people. Offer more flexible work with respect to hours and location. Open a dialogue for disabled users to submit accessibility feedback.

I am tired of accessibility only being brought up when companies do damage control. No more apologies and empty promises. Disabled people are already here, and we’ve been here a while. We don’t have time to wait for you to wake up and start feeling empathy for disabled people just so you can arrive at the same conclusions we’ve been sharing all this time.


Accessibility resources

These resources may help you begin your accessibility journey. But, most likely, your biggest challenge will be ableism.