4 mins

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How does Twitter ensure it puts accessibility at the forefront? 

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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In the Examining Underrepresentation series, we've been exploring ways that underrepresented folks exist within organizations. But we also need to consider the folks who use our products. As software leaders, we build products that people use on a daily basis, and it's important that we make them usable for everyone.

Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. That’s the one takeaway I hope you gain from this article. Universal design – the principle that design should make any product usable to the full range of human abilities – is at the core of this lesson. 

I first became aware of accessibility standards from my previous experience in the financial services sector. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires digital services from state and local governments aimed at public-serving businesses and non-profit organizations to be accessible. Building an accessible product is fundamental to making an experience that works for anyone, no matter their ability, and it should be taught as part of every computer science curriculum. 

My team at Twitter understands that accessibility is a requirement, and that it shouldn’t be motivated by legal compliance; it should be done because it’s the right thing to do. 

The curb-cut effect is a universal design example of an accessible experience. Curb cuts (the indentations in a sidewalk at a crosswalk) were originally designed to make public streets accessible to wheelchair users, but also unquestionably benefit people on skateboards, parents pushing strollers, and travelers with rolling suitcases. A single modification serves multiple needs and abilities, and often ends up benefiting all of society.

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Rally the changemakers

When I came to Twitter, accessibility was not a standard practice in our product development life cycle. However, there were a few individuals in design, product, and engineering who were passionate and dedicated to ensuring we were building accessible features. And more importantly, evangelizing this with our fellow Tweeps.  

In September 2017, my design colleague Dave Beddingfield, then-intern Jessica Cavazos (now a full-time Tweep), and I introduced the significance of accessible design to our peers at Twitter, using an approach already familiar to tech: a hack week project. We displayed multiple laptops showing people with disabilities describing their challenges with Twitter’s app design. Our colleagues and leadership team were so moved by the stories, they committed to do more to make Twitter an accessible product. 

Our approach used two familiar tactics. First, people had to pause and listen. Design, product, and engineering Tweeps had to listen to users with disabilities. Second, we had to “meet people where they are”: finding a way to introduce our colleagues and leadership team to a topic they knew little about. It took that kind of shared experience with the users to build an empathetic response. 

We continued to rally changemakers. In 2018, we started Accessibility Shepherds with Andreas Savvides, Jade Loyzaga, Kelly King, Ethan Cohen, Amro Mousa, Michael Sepcot, and Andrew Hayward – a volunteer group with a mission to:

  • Coach teams across Twitter to consider accessibility from the beginning, and not as an afterthought;
  • Share best practices and process for building accessible features;
  • Provide insight and guidance into tools and technologies that help build and test with accessibility in mind; 
  • Review the accessibility portion of technical design docs.

Accessibility Shepherds has led the charge on many process changes to further incorporate accessibility into projects. We always stress, ‘It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a requirement’, to help set expectations from the start. Project requirements and technical design documents were updated to ensure that accessibility is considered in each step of a project.

Never underestimate the power of persistence

In September 2019, we created a new business resource group, Twitter Able. Our goal: make Twitter a more inclusive workplace by improving cultural accessibility and assisting with product accessibility efforts. This was the result of more than a year of advocacy by me, with support from Mario Sukkar, Bradford Gibbons, Andrew Hayward, and Ethan Cohen. 

Today, Twitter Able co-chairs Andrew and Ethan, along with the Twitter Able leads, are focused on accessibility for Tweeps and people who use our service. In early 2020, we kicked off efforts to audit our workplaces for high accessibility standards (which was paused due to COVID-19), and continue to push for accessibility awareness through partnerships with Be My Eyes & The Arc.

Of course, Twitter still has a long way to go. In June, we launched Audio Tweets as an experiment, without building in accessibility from the start. We took to heart an assessment from one of Twitter’s accessibility consultants, and our own product designer who led the voice effort tweeted an apology in both voice and text annotation (content warning: language). 

But this incident was the catalyst for change that we’d been advocating for. We needed to establish a dedicated team, and an inclusive process, for building accessible products and an accessible culture at Twitter. 

Our mission is to make Twitter work for anyone, anywhere, on any device, and with any assistive technology. We are working to remove the barriers that currently inhibit people around the globe from using Twitter. Public conversation is important because it helps people learn, solve problems, and realize we’re all in this together. And like the Internet, public conversation is better when it is diverse and inclusive of more people. 

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