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Twitter apologizes for lack of accessibility in voice notes

The criticism has ignited a larger debate about how it approaches accessibility.
Karissa Bell, @karissabe
June 19, 2020
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POLAND - 2020/03/23: In this photo illustration a Twitter logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SOPA Images via Getty Images

Twitter has promised it will do more to make its feature accessible after widespread criticism of its new voice note feature. The experimental feature, which Twitter said was meant to “add a more human touch” to the service, allows users to tweet voice recordings. But it was quickly panned by civil rights advocates and people with disabilities for not including any accessibility features, such as closed captions.

“At least the option of providing closed captions would make this more accessible,” wrote lawyer Matthew Cortland, who was one of the first to highlight the issue.  As The Verge points out, captioning technology is ubiquitous on other social apps, and Twitter does have captioning available for video.

“This is an early version of this feature and we’re exploring ways to make these types of Tweets accessible to everyone,” Twitter responded from its official support account. 

But if Twitter’s initial statement was meant to to smooth things over, it had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead, the response came off as tone deaf, with critics saying it made it seem as though accessibility is an afterthought for Twitter.

“The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law 30 years ago,” Cortland wrote. “Federal law requires accessibility from the start. You don't, as a matter of civil rights law, get to roll out an inaccessible feature and then, only later, make it accessible.”

Criticism intensified when a Twitter engineer noted that the company doesn’t have a formal team dedicated to accessibility work. Instead, he and other engineers “volunteer” to work on accessibility projects in addition to their regular duties. 

“The volunteers behind accessibility at Twitter (there is no formal team) strive to do their best to ensure products are shipped appropriately,” wrote Andrew Hayward. “Unfortunately though, we aren't aware of every product decision, and the wider #a11y conversation is ongoing.”

Multiple Twitter employees later apologized for the missteps. The product designer behind voice notes posted a lengthy apology — in the form of a voice note with an accompanying transcript — saying Twitter is “absolutely working to fix this as soon as possible.” Twitter’s Head of Design and Research, Dantley Davis, also promised accessibility would play a larger role in future projects.

In a statement, Twitter said it’s “looking at how we can build out a more dedicated group to focus on accessibility tooling and advocacy.” 

Right now, there are groups and individuals across the company that support our accessibility work like @TwitterA11y and @TwitterAble. But, we're looking at how we can build out a more dedicated group to focus on accessibility tooling and advocacy across all products. We missed around voice Tweets, and we are committed to doing better – making this feature more accessible and also all features in the future. We're constantly reviewing both the functionality of our products and the internal processes that inform them.

The company also said it is “exploring ideas for how we could support manual and auto transcriptions,” and has updates planned that will make voice tweets more accessible for people with vision impairments. 

The real test for Twitter, though, will be not whether or not it addresses voice notes, but how it approaches accessibility in the future. Other companies have dedicated teams, not just employee volunteers, to ensure products are accessible to people with a range of abilities and backgrounds. Twitter might want to follow their example if it wants to prove it takes these issues seriously.

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