People with disabilities fear Twitter changes under Elon Musk will leave them behind

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Twitter has long been an indispensable public space for people with disabilities due to its unique format and wide reach. But now many people worry that Elon Musk’s recent cuts and changes will disproportionately harm disability communities.

Twitter staffers have tweeted that the recent layoffs include the entire accessibility engineering teamwhich has contributed to making the website usable for people with disabilities, especially people with sensory problems, mobility problems and visual or hearing impairments.

Additionally, several people said they’ve experienced more harassment because of their disabilities in recent weeks as Musk dismantled the infrastructure needed to moderate hate speech and slander. Musk sent earlier this week what has been described as a ableist tweet Comparing a former employee’s criticism to “a tragic case of Tourette’s in adulthood”.

Amanda Talty, president and chief executive officer of the Tourette Association of America, said she worries that this type of behavior by the platform’s owner could encourage others on Twitter to follow suit.

“It just perpetuates the misconception of what Tourette is, but it also minimizes this serious condition and gives the public a green light to do things like this,” Talty said.

Deaf actress Marlee Matlin tweeted Thursday on the dissolution of the accessibility team that made the site screen reader compatible and provided alt text and auto caption support for video and voice tweets.

Matlin said Twitter has “virtually leveled the playing field” for people with disabilities and has become an “accessible game changer.” She hinted that she might pause her account in protest of Musk’s decision to fire the accessibility team.

Twitter and Musk did not respond to requests for comment. Twitter laid off most of its communications team.

Twitter has long been uniquely responsive to people with disabilities that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere. Because it focuses primarily on the written word, it’s easier to use for the blind, deaf, and those struggling with speech or fine motor skills. compared to social media sites like TikTok and Instagram, which emphasize image and sound.

Twitter also has a wide reach. Platforms like Reddit and Mastodon group people into specific community areas or servers, making it harder for posts to get the attention of the general public. And many people with disabilities use Twitter to organize, fundraise and run businesses.

Now several critical teams essential to keeping the site running have been cut and there are growing concerns that the site could collapse.

“Being seen online was a lifeline for a lot of us, it was literally a lifeline,” said Imani Barbarin, a prominent disability rights advocate who suffers from cerebral palsy.

Before Twitter, Barbarin said she often feels isolated and cannot easily connect with others who have had her illness. Now she has amassed more than 173,000 followers and has often used the platform to launch awareness campaigns on issues such as Covid-19 safety precautions.

Stephanie Tait, 37, from Salem, Oregon, has been isolated during the pandemic because she is immunocompromised and has health issues related to Lyme disease. Twitter is their primary way of interacting with the world.

She said there is always some ableism and harassment on social media platforms. But since Musk took over, she’s now getting two dozen malicious messages a day. It got so bad that she made her inbox private.

“I feel like it’s all become a big joke,” Tait said. “It’s funny bashing different marginalized communities because Elon thinks it’s funny. But it makes the site unusable for many of us.”

Tait has tried opening a Mastodon account, but so far she said she finds the site confusing and potentially inaccessible to people with neurological differences like herself. A more visual social media platform like TikTok isn’t a good option either, because she doesn’t like to share pictures and videos on days when her health condition makes it difficult to get out of bed, shower or dress, she said.

David Radcliff, 40, from North Hollywood, California, a writer with cerebral palsy, said he tried to leave Twitter in 2020 but rejoined a few weeks later. He said it’s harder to connect without Twitter. Many face-to-face networking events take place in small spaces that are inaccessible to his wheelchair or require him to stand on crutches for hours.

Twitter “gives our voices a place that we can reckon with on our own terms,” ​​he said.

“There are so many places where people with disabilities are not seen,” he said. “Losing Twitter is just another blow and increases invisibility.”

Aparna Nair, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, said Twitter is a critical way for people with disabilities to share resources and research. She has epilepsy and doesn’t have the same ability as able-bodied researchers to travel and share her work at different conferences, she said.

If Twitter’s changes result in fewer users or more technical issues, it could affect some disabled business owners who use the site to market their craft, products and services.

This includes Abi Oyewole, 32, of Calgary, Canada, who has multiple disabilities. She uses Twitter, where she has more than 25,000 followers, to sell items from her shop, Bibipins, such as compression stockings or stickers featuring her designs. She’s tried marketing her business on other platforms, she said, but has had the most success on Twitter.

“A disabled person can easily get another job if their business fails, but for us that’s often the only option,” she said.

Many other disabled people rely on the platform to find ways to meet their basic needs. Victor Manuel, 24, of New York City, has used Twitter to raise funds online to pay for his housing, medication and health care. He has multiple disabilities and is immunocompromised, but temporarily lost family support when he came out as transgender.

“Twitter has completely changed my life, it’s not even comparable,” said Manuel, who asked that only his first and middle name be used to protect his privacy. “Without a platform like Twitter to share these things so easily, I think a lot of people are going to suffer in very real ways.”

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