Twitter’s Layoffs Are a Blow to Accessibility

Twitter’s Layoffs Are a Blow to Accessibility

It’s layoff season. While large numbers of people losing jobs is never pleasant, Twitter’s mass exodus has been especially chaotic and cruel. After acquiring the company and slashing his staff, Elon Musk gutted formerly high-priority projects. He wiped out an entire group of artificial intelligence researchers. Additional cuts left the site’s content moderation manned by a skeleton crew. Another casualty? A small but vital group working to make Twitter more accessible. Without this team, Twitter users who have relied on accessibility tools worry that they’re losing a valuable online home for their communities. 

Big Tech companies don’t have great track records with accessibility. But pressure from activists and disabled users has pushed Silicon Valley to prioritize building tools to make their services more inclusive. Twitter created its accessibility team in 2020 following an embarrassing mistake. The company launched Voice Tweets—the tweet equivalent of a voice note—without allowing closed captioning on the audio. This made the product useless for deaf people. After pushback, Twitter apologized. An official accessibility team debuted shortly thereafter. Initially, London-based software engineer Andrew Hayward was its sole staffer; he became the team leader as it expanded to 10 people, each with lived disability experience. 

Despite its tiny size, the team made “major strides,” Christian Vogler, a professor and the director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University, told WIRED by email. When Twitter Spaces rolled out, the live discussion feature had captions, which meant deaf and hard-of-hearing people could follow and participate in the conversations, too. “That was a big deal, because at the same time Clubhouse had totally blown off disabled users—both deaf and blind—with their entirely inaccessible offering,” Vogler says. 

Another accomplishment was the introduction of “alt-text” badges on all images. This design change made the site better for blind and visually impaired Twitter users, who use alt-text so they can hear a description of an image. By creating a high-visibility badge in the corner of images to indicate that a tweet had alt-text, the team encouraged all users to think about accessibility whenever they included images in their tweets. “It’s a pretty clever bit of advocacy as well as a beneficial feature, like LEED plaques in green buildings,” says accessibility researcher Sarah Horton.

In addition to developing tools, the accessibility team also led research projects on improving Twitter for neurodivergent users. And more broadly, it also worked to make the company the kind of place where every employee considers accessibility in a serious way. 

In addition to the product-focused team led by Hayward, the company also developed the Accessibility Center for Excellence, a separate team focused on making Twitter internally inclusive. Albert Kim, a user experience designer who focuses on inclusive design, was scheduled to speak this week at a digital workshop organized by this team, the first of three scheduled to help staffers in three different markets think about neurodiversity inclusion. (In addition to his professional expertise, Kim himself is a neurodiverse Twitter user.) “It’s canceled now,” he says. Or, rather, he assumes it was canceled. There’s been radio silence since the layoffs took place. 


via Wired

November 21, 2022 at 06:21AM

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