Access and Inclusion through Technology

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Happy Birthday Twitter

Mirrored from Digital Qatar

People all around the world will be celebrating the 5th birthday of Twitter this week. Here in Qatar, tweeps (term used to describe Twitter users) will be getting together at Aspire Park for the Doha Twestival. Like many others I can’t remember how exactly I worked prior to Twitter. How did I keep up to date with the latest trends in my field? How did I gather information for newsletters and podcasts? How did I find out what my favorite celebrities were thinking? Of all the social networks that I’ve joined, and there are many, Twitter remains my favorite.

But I want to congratulate Twitter for completely different reasons. My work involves me finding ways of meeting the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities. What I have been told often is that people with a disability want to be connected, to be part of a community, and I am happy to say Twitter has offered an opportunity to do so.

People with disabilities need access to technology, but they also need accessible technology. Many social networks haven’t designed their platforms with accessibility on their mind. Popular Web 2.0 sites don’t work for people who can’t use a mouse, people who can’t see a screen or for those who use one of the myriad of Assistive Technologies (AT) such as those you find at Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center). Twitter did something different. It allowed developers to create a range of different software to access the service (eg. Tweetdeck, Tweetie, Ubertwitter, etc.), much in the same way as we can use different ways to send and receive email, and that decision had a big impact on people with disabilities.

A great way for people with disabilities to access Twitter!

In 2009, Accessible Twitter was launched. Dennis Lembree the man behind Webaxe blog (Podcast and blog on practical web design accessibility tips), launched the service as an alternative to the main Twitter website. Andy Bryant, tech pundit, summed up Accessible Twitter in 2009: “You go along to the homepage, log in with your usual Twitter account details, and use it in exactly the same way as you would the regular site. All the functionality that you’d expect is there – the Tweet roll, your status, mentions & messages, plus access to search, trending topics and popular links.” But unlike the original Twitter – this one was accessible.

Accessible Twitter is great for both disabled people and those without a disability, it is fully keyboard accessible, it’s optimized for screen reader users, and its fully functional with Javascript disabled browser (popular setting for the Blind). Andy also mentioned that there are also some really nice touches that go the extra mile, such as audio cues when the character limit is almost reached (in addition to the visual counter).

It could be argued that Twitter should have been accessible from day one. In fact, it is hard to argue against that, and Accessible Twitter shows us how mainstream applications can be designed to support everyone. But perhaps it also shows us another route, based on a more free form style of development. We are all increasingly using different ways of accessing online services, through phones, computers and even digital televisions. By allowing developers to design for specific markets, Twitter spotted something else: that we will all need to have choices of tools, just like we do with our email.

So Happy Birthday Twitter, thanks for the service, thanks for letting Dennis create something so valuable and thanks for the insight that it has given me into the needs and desires of disabled people. Just to illustrate this – here are some of the most recent things I learnt from Twitter today:

“Sign Language Users See Signs and Read Words Simultaneously”

“Segways become mobility aid of choice for many disabled”

“I grew up with a legally blind Mom, and I’m grateful for it. It was part of what made me who I am today.”

Oh and by way, don’t forget to follow Mada on Twitter at @madaQATC.

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