Academic Exchange Quarterly  Spring  2012  ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 1

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Social Media Use By Students With Disabilities


Jennison Asuncion, Adaptech Research Network, Dawson College, Canada

Jillian Budd, Adaptech Research Network, Dawson College, Canada

Catherine S. Fichten, Adaptech Research Network, Dawson College, McGill University, and Jewish                General Hospital, Canada

Mai Nguyen, Adaptech Research Network, Dawson College, Canada

Maria Barile, Adaptech Research Network, Dawson College, Canada

Rhonda Amsel, McGill University, Canada


J. Asuncion, M.A., C. Fichten, Ph.D., and M. Barile, M.S.W. are Co-Directors of  the Adaptech Research Network. J. Budd, Honours B.A. is a Research Assistant  and M. Nguyen, Honours B.Sc. is a Research Associate with the Adaptech Research Network. R. Amsel, M.Sc. is a faculty lecturer and consulting statistician in Psychology at McGill University.


The objective of this exploratory study was to investigate the use and accessibility of social media by postsecondary students with disabilities in order to raise basic awareness by the higher education community. YouTube was the most popular form of social media used by these students. MSN / Windows Live Messenger was rated the most accessible social medium, and was the least accessible. The most popular suggestion for developers and producers of social media was to have a simpler or better layout.



Among the e-learning tools available for teaching and learning, social media (e.g., Facebook, YouTube) are increasingly being used by faculty and others at postsecondary institutions (CDW-G, 2010). These tools can provide new opportunities and innovative ways to engage students, promote collaboration, and help build digital literacy (Rheingold, 2008).


Below, we share results of a recently completed exploratory study (winter 2009) involving 723 postsecondary students with different disabilities from across Canada. The study’s objective is to raise basic awareness about the use and accessibility of social media as experienced by these students.



In the last ten years, the numbers of students with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary education has been rising in both the United States and in Canada (e.g., United States Government Accountability Office, 2009). In parallel, there has been a growth in the use of e-learning in general by postsecondary educational institutions (Abrami, Bernard, Wade, Schmid, Borokhovski, Tamim, Surkes, Lowerison, Zhang, Nicolaidou, Newman, Wozney, & Peretiatkowicz, 2006). Recently, social media have joined the list of e-learning tools in academe. From recruiting students to engaging them in course-specific activities, postsecondary institutions have been experimenting with and adopting various forms of social media that are already popular in daily life (e.g., Connell, 2009).


Students with different disabilities use information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a variety of ways. For example, our research (Fichten, Asuncion, Barile, Fossey, & De Simone, 2000) shows that most students who are blind use software that reads what is on the screen (e.g., text, links) and/or hardware that produces Braille output of what is on the screen. Students with low vision use software that enlarges the size of visual elements, software that reads what is on the screen, and/or large screen monitors. Students with mobility and hand/arm impairments use a variety of ergonomic adaptations including software based keyboard adaptations, virtual keyboards, and a variety of alternative mice. Many of these students can benefit from voice dictation software, allowing them to speak content and commands. Some students also use word prediction software to speed up typing. For students with hearing impairments, a variety of electronic dictionaries as well as both general use (e.g., spell-check, grammar-check) and specialized writing aids (e.g., word prediction software) can be helpful. Computer based and mobile chat programs such as Windows Live Messenger are also useful. When accessing video and audio clips, these students often use subtitles/captions when these are available. Students with speech/communication impairments can use a netbook or tablet computer to communicate with others in face-to-face contexts. For class presentations these students can use a word processor with a multimedia projector instead of speaking. Students with learning disabilities can use equipment developed for students with the disabilities mentioned above. For example, students who have dyslexia or other reading problems can use software that reads what is on the screen as well as screen magnification and highlighting. Students who have difficulty with grammar and spelling sometimes find dictation software helpful.


While much has been written about the use of social media in a postsecondary setting, nothing has been published with an explicit focus on the experiences of students with different disabilities in the past five years. Similarly, while research has been conducted on social media use and people with disabilities, the focus on students with disabilities in higher education is sparse (cf. Jaeger, 2009).


In the spring of 2010, the United States Department of Education published a policy addendum that clarified issues related to the accessibility of ICTs in postsecondary education and reminded schools which receive public funding that emerging technology must be made accessible (Office For Civil Rights, 2011). Canada’s province of Ontario (2009), through its Ontarians with Disabilities Act, has likewise brought focus to the legislative duty to make technology used in education inclusive of all learners by removing barriers.


With the above in mind, it is reasonable for individuals who either encourage the use of social media in education and for those who are actually teaching and designing learning activities to ask fundamental questions, such as: What social media can be used by all students, including those with disabilities? What problems currently exist with specific platforms when it comes to their use by these students?


Present Investigation

The Adaptech Research Network and the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) collaborated in an exploratory study in the winter of 2009 looking at social media use and accessibility by postsecondary students with disabilities. For the purposes of this investigation, social media included, but was not limited to, social networking sites such as Facebook, video sharing sites such as YouTube, virtual worlds such as Second Life, podcasts, blogs, and instant messaging services.



In winter 2009, a convenience sample of 723 (69% females and 31% males) students and recent graduates (within the last two years) with various disabilities completed either an English or French web based questionnaire. Participants' mean age was 30 (range 16 to 65, SD = 10), and they attended or had recently graduated from a postsecondary institution in one of Canada’s ten provinces or the Yukon Territory. Varied methods were used to recruit participants. Individual e-mail invitations were sent to student members of NEADS and invitations were sent through the NEADS e-mail discussion list (NEADS-L). Campus disability service providers were also asked, using the e-mail discussion list of the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Postsecondary Education (CADSPPE), to forward the e-mail invitation to students on their campuses.


From the study’s web site, participants selected English or French to read the consent form approved by McGill University’s Research Ethics Board. This provided information about the study, including a draw to receive one of five $100 gift cards for Chapters/Indigo, a large Canadian book and music store. Participants clicked on the continue button to signal their agreement. This brought them to the online questionnaire. The final screen invited participants to provide contact information for the draw. Students were also asked if we may contact them for future projects. In total, the questionnaire took approximately fifteen minutes to complete. Four weeks later, those who provided contact information were e-mailed, asked to complete the same questionnaire again (to allow calculation of test-retest reliability), and were informed that doing so would enter them in a draw for a BlackBerry Smartphone (donated by Research in Motion).


The online questionnaire included: demographics (e.g., sex), impairment / disability information, specialized software used, ways of connecting to the internet (e.g., type of browser, device used such as a Smartphone), hours spent using social media, engagement in 22 specific social media activities (e.g., contributing to a blog), and accessibility ratings of 20 forms of social media (e.g., Facebook). Open-ended questions included asking about problems using social media and suggestions for social media developers/producers. Finally, participants indicated their levels of agreement (6-point Likert scale) about topics related to general internet and social media use. The questionnaire is available from the first author.



Because these may affect their experience using social media, respondents were asked to self-report as many disabilities/impairments as applied to them. They were presented with 14 options. This resulted in 1189 reported disabilities / impairments:


As noted earlier, students with disabilities often use specialized software when interacting with a computer. The participants, on average, used between 1 and 2 different types of specialized software. The top five reported were:


Seventy-four percent of participants described themselves as frequent users of social media. On average, participants told us they spent 12 hours per week using social media for non-school related activities, 6 hours for school-related activities.


Participants also indicated all the types of social media they use from a list in the questionnaire. Six-hundred and sixty-eight of the 723 participants indicated that they use YouTube, making it the most popular of the social media listed. This was followed by: 614 participants indicating using Facebook, 531 using MSN / Windows Live Messenger, 279 participants using Skype, and 162 using Twitter.


Participants were also asked to select specific social media-related activities that they had engaged in over the last month from a list. The top five activities were:

o   79 percent       Used an instant messaging service such as MSN / Windows Live, Messenger, Skype, Google Talk, etc.,


Participants indicated that the five most accessible forms of social media were: MSN / Windows Live Messenger, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo! Messenger, and Skype. Conversely,, Second Life, Disaboom,, and Digg were identified as the top five least accessible forms of social media.


In an open-ended question, respondents were asked to indicate up to three problems they encountered when using social media. In rank order, the top five were:


Another open-ended question asked for participants to indicate up to three suggestions for developers / producers of social media. The top five were:



The major conclusion here is that students with disabilities, not unlike their

non-disabled peers, are using social media for school and non-school related activities. The results of this study indicate accessibility issues do exist. Students told us in the study that, for example, captions/subtitles were often missing on videos. It is important to find out whether the video sharing service selected allows for captioning (while YouTube does have the facility for captioning, not all video sharing services do). CAPTCHAs, which place text into an image to forbid robots from accessing the web site, were also cited as a problem because software that reads what is on the screen cannot interpret them. Nevertheless, CAPTCHAs are often seen during the registration process for certain services. The lack of a spell-checker was also mentioned as an accessibility topic; this is an important issue for many students with learning disabilities. In such cases, students should be informed that they can compose their responses in a word processor that has a spell-checker, and then copy this into a blog or other text area.


The findings here reflect the abilities - and disabilities - of our sample, most of whom had psychological and learning disabilities. Because of the specific computer related needs of students with different impairments, future studies should examine social media use and accessibility where the views, needs and concerns of larger samples of students with specific disabilities can be examined. Moreover, an investigation focusing on how faculty uses social media in courses where they have students with disabilities would be useful to identify best practices and issues from the educators’ perspective.


The present investigation has limitations which may have influenced the results. For instance, the results cannot be generalized to the population of postsecondary students with disabilities. While all regions of Canada are represented, the sample was neither random nor fully representative of the populations studied. Given self-selection biases, and despite attempts to recruit those who did not use social media, students enthusiastic about social media and heavy users are likely over-represented. Furthermore, because of the manner in which participants were recruited, it is impossible to calculate a final return rate. That being said, the sample size is large and most available indices suggest that participants have characteristics typical of Canadian postsecondary education (e.g., the sample had more females than males, proportions of students with different disabilities reflect the realities of many colleges and universities).



What follow are resources that provide further information or support for those interested in learning more about using social media in an accessible way.



The goal of the present investigation has been to explore the use and accessibility of social media by postsecondary students with disabilities in order to raise basic awareness among the higher education community. Results of the study show that students with disabilities are using social media such as YouTube and Facebook both for personal (on average 12 hours per week) and educational (on average 6 hours per week) purposes. The lack of captions and spell checkers, and the use of CAPTCHAs were seen as accessibility-related problems by study participants.


As social media evolve, become more sophisticated, and continue to gain popularity, these are increasingly used in teaching and learning. If the goal is to provide a fully inclusive learning environment for all, then faculty and others who are involved in social media adoption and use must better understand the needs of these students and take proactive steps to assure that the tools they use enable full participation of these learners. For example, when choosing a video sharing service, identify one that supports and enables captioning content for the Deaf. Only in this way can students with disabilities benefit from the same learning experiences using social media as their non-disabled peers.




Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Wade, C.A., Schmid, R.F., Borokhovski, E., Tamim, R., Surkes, M., Lowerison, G., Zhang, D., Nicolaidou, I., Newman, S., Wozney, L., & Peretiatkowicz, A. (2006). A review of e-learning in Canada: A rough sketch of the evidence, gaps and promising directions. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. 32(3). Retrieved from


CDW-G. (2010). CDW-G 2010 21st-Century Campus Report. Retrieved from


Connell, R. S. (2009). Academic libraries, Facebook and MySpace, and student outreach: A survey of student opinion. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9(1), 25-36.


Fichten, C.S., Asuncion, J., Barile, M., Fossey, M., & De Simone, C. (2000). Access to educational and instructional computer technologies for postsecondary students with disabilities: Lessons from three empirical studies. Journal of Educational Media, 25(3), 179-201.


Jaeger, P.T. (2009). Developing online community accessibility guidelines for persons with disabilities and older adults. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 20(1), 55-63.


Office For Civil Rights. (2011). Frequently asked questions about the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education Retrieved from


Ontario. (2009). Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Retrieved from


Rheingold, H. (2008). Using participatory media and public voice to encourage civic engagement. Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth. In W. Lance Bennett (Ed.), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning, (pp. 97–118). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262524827.097


United States Government Accountability Office. (2009). Higher education and disability: Education needs a coordinated approach to improve its assistance to schools in supporting students. Washington: U.S. Government Accountability

         Office. Retrieved from