It was early May 2023, I was attending GSMCON in Reno, NV, and taking it all in. I love attending conferences and getting the chance to reflect on my work through new points of view.

During a special general session on accessibility, I experienced the biggest mindset shift of the entire conference.

This general session panel discussion with Alexa Heinrich and Emily Lucht was eye-opening. I never left more energized, and more determined to make a difference with my organization’s content and communications for those I serve.

Fast forward to today and I still find myself turning to my notes from that session and applying the principles shared during that session to my work.

I have sat down multiple times and tried to write a blog post communicating the importance of accessibility in government social media and communications, but never got very far. I always felt like I wasn’t qualified to publish such a blog post.

After floundering for far too long, I took a chance and reached out to Alexa to see if she would be willing to share her expertise here in a blog post.

To my surprise, she said yes! I was blown away!

This was the person that I had been following ever since first hearing her speak on the topic. The person who has quite literally written the book on creating accessible social content.

So, without further ado, I turn the time over to Alexa for her contributed Q&A style blog post.

Question: What are the legal requirements and guidelines that govern accessibility in digital government communications? Are any of them specific to social media?

Digital accessibility in the United States can be kind of tricky because most people want to reference the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it comes to compliance and legal requirements. It’s one of the most prominent pieces of legislation pertaining to disability rights in the U.S. However, the ADA was passed in 1990, making it older than most modern websites and digital platforms. Despite its age, the ADA is still lacking in the areas of digital communications and online content, and it’s definitely due for an update that makes regulations for digital spaces much clearer.

While it hasn’t been passed yet, the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility 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.” The bill was introduced by Senator Tammy Duckworth in September 2022, and it would hopefully fill a lot of the ADA’s digital gap if passed.

A hot topic for a lot of government communication professionals right now is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. 794d), which is the legislation that government communicators should be the most concerned with. The 1998 amended version of Section 508 requires all federal agencies and their vendors “to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities.” 

The White House actually released a memorandum about Section 5080 this past December titled M-24-08 Strengthening Digital Accessibility and the Management of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Not only does it stress the importance of accessible government communications and enforcing Section 508, but it also outlines very clear steps agencies need to take to meet the requirements of Section 508 and timelines for implementing them. Social media is even mentioned in M-24-08, making it pretty undeniable that the U.S. government views social media as a legitimate form of communication.

Question: How should digital content be structured to ensure accessibility?

Headings are by far one of the most vital aspects when it comes to structuring content on things like webpages, blog posts, and even emails. If you’re not ordering your headings correctly (H1, H2, H3, et cetera), your content could become confusing for someone using assistive technology like a screen reader. 

How you hyperlink text can also impact how someone navigates through your content. Your hypertext should be descriptive enough that a screen reader user gets an accurate idea about the destination or purpose of the link they’re clicking. Don’t use the outdated “click here” tactic or similarly vague phrases. Instead, choose purposeful groupings of words to hyperlink. An example would be to say, “Visit the Accessible Social website to learn more about descriptive linking and why it’s important,” and have the first portion of the sentence hyperlinked.

Question: How can we make visual content like images and videos accessible on social media?

There are a few ways to make images and videos accessible. 

When it comes to image files, you need to add descriptive alt text to your visual. Alt text is textual information that provides a descriptive summary of an image’s key visual details and can also convey informative context. Alt text on social media images may include details such as the colors, shapes, sizes, textures, and other elements in an image, as well as its context and meaning.

Be wary of any platforms that claim to auto-generate alt text for the images you upload. You should never rely on auto-generated image descriptions that have been written by an artificial intelligence (AI) program.

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Threads will often tout their AI-generated image descriptions as a reliable substitute for not writing custom image descriptions or making an alt text field available. However, AI-generated image descriptions aren’t normally very descriptive or accurate enough to be considered accessible and will lack important context. You should always write custom alt text for your images.

For videos, you should always caption your media. In addition to Deaf and hard-of-hearing users, captions can provide a better experience for a viewer with a learning disability, an attention deficit, or a cognitive disability, or if someone is autistic. They’re also great if you’re in a noisy environment, a video has poor audio or is in a different language, a speaker is talking too fast or has accent, or even if you’re just trying not to disturb the people around you.

I highly recommend watching an action movie with the captions. It’s very interesting to see what dialogue and sound effects actually get captioned and what doesn’t make the cut.

When possible, you should also provide a description of your video’s key visual elements, which makes them accessible for blind and low vision consumers. A video description is not that different from alt text, except the visual is a video instead of an image. 

On social media, video descriptions are normally written in the body of a post or caption after the primary content, but they can also come in an audio format. An audio description is a form of narration. It adds an additional audio track to a video that can be toggled on and off by supported platforms. Audio descriptions are an accessible option on popular streaming services when a production team has opted to add them to media. When available, they are typically housed under the same menu as captions and subtitles.

Question: What are the best practices for using hashtags and emojis in an accessible manner?

Hashtags are actually super easy to make accessible. All you need to do is write them in Pascal Case or Camel Case. 

A hashtag in Camel Case #looksLikeThis, with the first word in all lowercase and then the first letter of each subsequent word capitalized. A hashtag in Pascal Case or Title Case #LooksLikeThis, with the first letter in each word of the hashtag capitalized.

Either formatting will make a hashtag accessible. Lowercase and uppercase letters help assistive devices identify separate words, allowing them to pronounce the hashtag correctly. Properly formatted hashtags are easier for everyone to read, no matter the status of their vision.

As for emoji, you should try to use them in moderation, put them after written content, and avoid using them in the middle of sentences or as bullet points. 

Every emoji is coded with its own unique description, and many of those descriptions vary depending on the platform, browser, or device that an emoji is being viewed on. Even emoji with variable skin tones get additional information added to their base description to keep them unique.

When someone uses an assistive device or program to read content and they come across an emoji, the icon’s assigned description will be what their device reads aloud.

Question: Are there any limitations or challenges specific to each platform that need to be addressed to ensure accessibility?

Stories on every platform are still a huge pain point for social media professionals and content creators because you can’t write alt text for them, so there’s no way to make them fully accessible for folks using screen readers.

I’ve also heard that TikTok is very frustrating to navigate with a screen reader because you can never seem to select or click the right thing. 

And of course, I really wish that Meta platforms would stop relying on auto-generated alt text for images. It’s not good and definitely not accessible!

Question: How do different social media platforms support, or not support, accessibility?

Thankfully, most social media platforms now have alt text fields. Even newer platforms like Threads and BlueSky do, so that’s a step in the right direction. A majority of them also offer ways to caption your videos directly on the platform or allow users to upload SRT caption files with their videos.

However, every single social media platform could do a much better job of spreading awareness about accessibility, educating their users on its importance, and actually create accessible content themselves. So many social media users don’t know how to use the accessibility settings built into the platforms or understand why they should be posting accessible and inclusive content. 

How can we expect content creators to prioritize accessible content when the platforms themselves don’t? Social media sites need to lead by example.

Question: How can I advocate for awareness and the importance of accessibility within my organization?

If you’re trying to educate your coworkers or leadership about the importance of digital accessibility, there are a number of reasons you can share.

The most important reason for implementing accessible best practices when you create digital content is that you simply care about your clients, customers, and connections 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 digital content.

Disability also impacts all of us. 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 DEI work, and disability is something that affects every demographic and every area of DEI.

In the past 20 years, social media specifically has become 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.

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.

And as we already discussed, creating accessible digital content can keep you out of legal trouble too, especially if you’re a government agency. You should be doing everything possible to follow current best practices and guidelines for digital accessibility. It’s always better to be proactive about accessibility rather than reactive if a lawsuit pops up for your organization.

Question: If someone wants to connect with you and continue to learn more from you, what is the best way to do that?

I can be found shouting about accessibility on LinkedIn and Threads, and my personal website is I’m always more than happy to chat about accessibility and how it impacts social media!

Headshot photo of Alexa Heinrich.

Alexa Heinrich is an award-winning social media strategist and the creator of the popular websites Accessible Social and Social Media Tea. She is a passionate advocate for creating accessible and inclusive content for social media and has given presentations on the subject to digital professionals at numerous brands, organizations, and events around the world including Harvard University, the National ADA Symposium, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Congressional Progressive Caucus.


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