Understanding Disability

An estimated 1 in 6 people has some sort of disability, or about 16 percent of the global population. These disabilities could be physical, cognitive, learning, spinal, psychological, or sensory. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are about 2.2 billion people around the world who have some form of vision impairment ranging from mild to severe, and roughly 5 percent of the population has disabling hearing loss.

That’s a huge portion of the world population that may need assistive technology or accommodations to navigate the online world and access digital content like social media. These numbers could also be much larger because not everyone is comfortable disclosing they have a disability or considers themself disabled.

Someone doesn’t need to have a visible or permanent disability to be impacted by accessibility practices either. Disability is diverse and it comes in different forms. It’s also the only diverse community that is possible to join and leave. Some individuals are born with their disability, others become disabled later in life. It’s a full spectrum of possibilities and scenarios. 

  • Temporary disabilities can result from an injury like a bruised eye or illness such as experiencing hearing loss due to a serious ear or sinus infection.
  • Situational disabilities are affected by a person’s environment or circumstances like having trouble seeing a screen in different levels of lighting or difficulty hearing audio in loud, crowded spaces.
  • Episodic disabilities are disabilities that have no discernible pattern. They can affect a person at any given time and change how they interact with the world. Examples would be migraines, vertigo, chronic pain, asthma, and some forms of mental illness like PTSD and bipolar disorder.
  • Dynamic disabilities are similar to episodic disabilities in that they usually have no discernible pattern. They swing in severity, where all or one of the symptoms of a chronic illness are more active or worsen for a period of time. Disabilities associated with chronic pain can often be dynamic with the severity of pain fluctuating over time.
  • Invisible/hidden disabilities are not immediately apparent upon looking at someone. These could be anything from hearing loss or chronic pain to neurological disorders or mental illness.

The diversity of the disabled community is important to keep in mind when developing a social media strategy. Content that isn't inclusive could be acting as a barrier and preventing people from accessing valuable information. 

This should be a major concern in general for marketers and digital professionals, but especially when it comes to crisis communications, time-sensitive information, and any kind of messaging concerning the health and well-being of others.

Models of Disability

Different perspectives affect how people understand or think about disability and these are a few of the most common models of disability. There are a number of them and they can vary in definition, so this is a very high-level overview. For a more in-depth look at models of disability and how they impact disabled people, read the book Demystifying Disability by author and disability rights activist, Emily Ladau.

  • Charity Model: depicts disabled people as tragic stories or victims of circumstance who are deserving of pity. This is very common in modern media where a disabled person is seen as a source of inspiration for "overcoming" their disability.
  • Cultural Model: this model centers the experience of people with disabilities and the history and culture of the disabled community.
  • Economic Model: defines disability by a person's inability to participate in work and assesses the degree to which a disability affects an individual's productivity and the economic consequences for the individual, employer, and the economy as a whole.
  • Human Rights Model: through this model, disability is seen as a human rights issue and seeks to address the issues of social justice and discrimination that disabled people face through inclusive legislature.
  • Medical Model: disability is perceived as an impairment in a body system or function that is inherently pathological. With this model, the goal is to return the system or function to as close to “normal” as possible.
  • Moral Model: disability is seen as the results of one's character, deeds, thoughts, and karma and carries a negative stigma as if disability is a curse or a punishment. Alternatively, disability can also be seen as a sign of honor, faith, or strength through this model.
  • Social Model: disability is seen as one aspect of a person’s identity, much like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. From this perspective, disability is believed to result from a mismatch between the disabled person and the environment. Therefore, it is this environment or society that creates the inaccessibility, not the disability.

The Impact of Accessibility

When it comes to accessibility, many marketers and communications professionals want to know what makes it important for social media and what it means to be inclusive online. There are several distinct reasons why creating accessible social media content is important.

Compassion for Others

The most important reason for implementing accessible best practices when you create social media content is that you simply care about your clients, customers, and connections—established and potential—and how they engage with you and your brand online. You should care if your content is clear and understandable.

You should care if any part of your audience is experiencing obstacles online. You should care if people are not having an equitable experience due to inaccessible social media content. 

Accessibility on social media is a small but important part of a larger objective: making the online world and digital communications truly inclusive for everyone.

Disability Affects Us All

Everyone at some point or another will be disabled, either through age, illness, or injury. Many brands and organizations are trying to focus more on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work, and disability is something that affects every demographic and every area of DEI.  

Accessibility is also beneficial for everyone. To illustrate this point, author and disability rights activist Ladau explains the "curb-cut effect" in Demystifying Disability.

"While curb cuts were initially designed for wheelchair users, anyone can use them—and many people find them helpful. Think about it: baby strollers, shopping carts, wheeled suitcases, roller skates. Curb cuts really come through in a lot of situations."

Health and Safety

Social media is often considered frivolous in comparison to its more traditional marketing counterparts like websites and email. However, it should not be overlooked that social media is a major communication tool used by governments, political leaders, intergovernmental organizations, and emergency services around the world. For many people, social media is a trusted source of information that they turn to first during natural disasters, medical emergencies, and other life-threatening or dangerous events.

If emergency content isn't accessible, the health and safety of countless lives could be put at risk.

Marketing and Engagement

From a marketing standpoint, implementing accessibility best practices just makes good business sense. When promoting a product, service, cause, or initiative, it’s logical to want your message to reach and be engaged by as many people as possible in the hopes of converting them into a contact, customer, or follower.

By making your content more accessible, you can avoid excluding a sizable portion of your audience and missing out on important conversions, conversations, and connections.

Legality and Compliance

Like with a physical location or your website, you should also make sure your social media and digital communications are meeting current accessibility guidelines. Most digital accessibility lawsuits focus on the websites of brands and companies, but it’s not unrealistic to think that social media platforms and apps will soon face similar legal scrutiny.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is often referenced in regard to the legal requirements surrounding accessibility. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability. It also requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and necessitates accessibility requirements on public accommodations. For example, the ADA ensures that a place of business can easily be accessed by someone using a wheelchair or that a parking lot has the required number of accessible spots based on its size.

Because the ADA was passed in 1990—well before most modern digital platforms existed—it’s usually felt to be more applicable to physical facilities than online spaces. However, a 2019 decision by the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA can, in certain instances, also apply to the websites and apps of businesses and sided with a blind customer who was pursuing legal action against Domino’s for not having an accessible website.

The court wrote that the "alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises­—which are places of public accommodation." This was just one of 2,890 digital ADA lawsuits filed in 2019. In 2021 alone there were more than 4,000 ADA-based cases filed, a 15 percent increase from 2020.

In addition to the ADA, Federal agencies within the United States and their vendors are also beholden to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires them "to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities."

A new bill titled the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act was introduced by U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth in September 2022. If passed, the act would require "employers, public entities, and public accommodations that provide goods or services through a website or online application to make those websites and applications accessible to individuals with disabilities."

Outside of the United States, several other countries have governmental policies related to web accessibility including Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and New Zealand.

Even if your country does not have clear legislature or guidelines specifically for digital accessibility on social media, it’s probably only a matter of time before actual regulations are outlined and consistently enforced. It’s better to be proactive about making your social media content accessible rather than reactive if a lawsuit pops up for your brand or organization.

Digital professionals should reference the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to make sure they’re meeting updated standards for web accessibility. While not exhaustive, the WCAG is the most universal set of guidelines currently available for digital accessibility around the globe.

Additional Resources and Reading

Want to learn a little more about disability and digital accessibility? Check out the links below!