Did Meta & Threads Get the Memo on Digital Accessibility?

Meta's latest Twitter rival, Threads, recently launched — and seemingly missed the mark on the global action call for digital accessibility.

Since Threads release, the online community has been quick to point out the app’s lack of basic accessibility tools and features as well as its noncompliance with the ADA. With all the advocacy and growing awareness for inclusion and accessibility these days, it does appear remiss of a platform that peddles online connectivity to not adequately accommodate disabled users.

Accessible web design starts with development and prioritizes the specialized needs of users with varying abilities and disabilities in an equally integrated manner. By now, tech giants know this — and yet, the focus on data-mining for profit and censorship for narrative control continues taking precedence.

Image of Threads logo.

Image Source: NY Times

Financial objectives and power motives aside, let’s survey Thread’s accessibility issues that are all abuzz in the community.

Threads Oversights

No Custom Captioning Options for Videos

In its first iteration, Threads failed to offer custom captioning for videos. Users could not even bypass the problem by uploading pre-captioned video content produced by a third-party. With the absence of accurately captioned videos, the app spectacularly left disabled audiences out of the equation.

While the app has a settings option to turn on auto-generated captions, its lack of customization capabilities means that it’s far from being fully accessible. This huge oversight isn’t just a major inconvenience for those who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing that rely on a textual representation of the spoken content so they can follow along and understand the dialogue or narrative. It also neglects those who have cognitive disabilities who may have difficulty processing auditory information — or may benefit from reading along with captions to reinforce comprehension and retention.

The accessibility lapse impacts individuals who have neurodiverse conditions such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, or sensory processing issues who benefit from options such as text color customization or adjustable caption speed to reduce cognitive load. Individuals with low vision may also need high-contrast captions or larger text sizes to improve legibility.

Caption limitations hinder multilingual users who cannot choose or activate captions in their preferred language. And for others who simply want captions in order to engage with video in noisy environments, or cannot watch a video with sound on for other reasons, the omission of quality caption options is a no bueno.

Screenshot of captions screen from Threads website that shows the option to turn the captions toggle on.

Image Source: Threads

Lack of User-Generated Alt-Text for Images

Almost immediately, Threads pointed out the app’s limitations for alt-text — a feature that helps low-vision and blind people access visual content. Alt-text, short for alternative text, serves as a way to convey the content and meaning of an image to individuals who are blind, have low vision, depend on screen readers, or have another disability that prevents them from understanding the context of an image.

With Threads enforcing a 500-character limit on text descriptions, insufficient alt-text is bound to exclude users, especially when it comes to complex imagery that requires more lengthy descriptions.

Not so long ago, Twitter faced similar criticism for overlooking opportunities to meet the needs of users with disabilities with alt-text being one of several shortcomings that prevented equal access.

A Mobile-Only App

With no desktop version available, it seems Meta forgot about our blog post on the importance of web accessibility. Without a web option, users who depend on desktop-specific accessibility features, specialized assistive technologies, plug-ins, or mobility devices, get left behind.

For disabled people who find it challenging to navigate mobile screens, larger desktop screens often provide more space to display content. Larger screens are beneficial for users who require larger text sizes or magnification tools for better visibility.

A mobile-only app also requires manual interaction, such as touch gestures. For people with mobility impairments, or who use assistive devices like trackballs or alternative keyboards, Threads is out of reach.

Screenshot of a Tweet that reads "The biggest problem with Threads right now is that there's no Web version, which is an accessibility issue for me. Same with some of these other Twitter alternatives..."

Image Source: Mashable

No Dynamic Font, Text Features, or Other Customizability

An application that does not offer dynamic font, text features, and other customizability options within the app is problematic. When it comes to text legibility, people with visual disabilities have diverse needs.

The lack of dynamic font options prevent individuals from adjusting the text size, font style, or contrast to suit their specific requirements, making it difficult to read content. For those with cognitive disabilities, customizability options allow users to modify the text appearance according to their preferences, so they can fully experience the platform. Likewise, dyslexia-friendly fonts or customized letter spacing gives others the opportunity to process and understand content more effectively.

Non-Compliance with Accessibility Standards

The missed opportunities to make the Threads app accessible also sets Meta up for a noncompliance lawsuit. By not providing a fully inclusive and accessible user experience for individuals with disabilities, Threads contributes to the digital divide by widening accessibility gaps and excluding disabled people from an experience.

Companies are required to adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and ensure that their web content and digital platforms are accessible to all users. Currently, Threads is missing the boat on this social responsibility.

Legal & Ethical Considerations

Accessibility Requirements Under the Law

Ensuring accessibility in digital platforms is not just a matter of good practice, but is also legally mandated. Various laws and regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require businesses and organizations to provide equal access to individuals with disabilities. These laws often reference or align with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which set accessibility standards for web content and applications. Developers and companies need to be aware of these legal requirements and ensure that their platforms, including apps like Threads, meet the necessary standards.

Blue image with yellow graphics of different disabilities that reads Web Accessibility Initiative. Accessibility: Essential for some, useful for all.

Image Source: Web Accessibility Initiative

Ethical Responsibility of Developers & Companies

Prioritizing accessibility and inclusivity in digital products and services is an ethical responsibility. Technology has the power to either include or exclude individuals with disabilities from fully participating in the digital realm; therefore, developers and companies must do their part to uphold the principles of fairness, equity and equal opportunity. They must recognize that accessibility is not an optional add-on, but a critical aspect of design and development that respects the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

Failure to prioritize accessibility and meet the legal requirements for accessibility can result in undesirable consequences and repercussions including legal complaints, lawsuits, fines and damage to a company's reputation.

In some cases, non-compliance with accessibility laws may result in costly legal battles and settlements. Other cases may lead to broader reputational implications, as a company's commitment to accessibility — or lack thereof — can influence public perception, customer loyalty and brand image. However, proactively addressing accessibility issues and ensuring compliance with accessibility standards can help companies avoid these negative consequences and uphold their social and ethical responsibilities.

User-Centered Design & Inclusive Development Practices

User-centered design involves engaging users with disabilities throughout the design and development process, seeking their input, feedback and expertise. Collaborating from the onset ensures that accessibility considerations are integrated from the start.

Inclusive development practices involve incorporating accessibility features as core elements rather than retrofits. By adopting inclusive design methodologies, such as the principles of universal design, developers can create products and services that are accessible to the widest possible audience.

Video Source: YouTube

Regular usability testing and feedback loops with diverse user groups, including individuals with disabilities, are also crucial in effectively identifying and addressing accessibility barriers.

By emphasizing user experience and embracing inclusivity, social media platforms can cater to the diverse needs of all users, ensuring that individuals with disabilities have equal access.

Making Things Right

Accessible platform design begins at the start of development. To be fully inclusive, digital platforms need to put accessibility at the forefront of their design considerations. Accessible websites that prioritize digital accessibility and accessibility compliance allow users of diverse abilities or disabilities to interact and access electronic and information technology with substantially equivalent ease.

To make things right, Threads must prioritize the implementation of a comprehensive set of accessibility features as soon as possible. By implementing inclusive design practices and incorporating accessibility features, Threads has the power to provide equal opportunities for participation, engagement and connection.

When accessibility and inclusion are important to companies, they consider the needs of every user to deliver a barrier-free digital experience. Accessibility advocates must continue to expose all accessibility shortcomings in the digital realm so that together we can create a positive user experience for everyone and build a more inclusive online community in a digitally accessible landscape.