Simon Stevens has moderate to severe cerebral palsy, which restricts functions such as balance, dexterity and speech. He uses a wheelchair, and wears a helmet to protect his head in case of falls. He sometimes struggles to make himself understood on the telephone.
Yet Stevens is also a highly successful entrepreneur and consultant, and finds time to run a successful nightclub.
In fact, Wheelies is perhaps the world's first online nightclub for people with disabilities — and it exists in the virtual world Second Life. The club is a social destination but also a disability forum, where people can share information and discuss issues.
Stevens is highly active in Second Life, and also uses Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn. Social networks are a vital business and social tool, he says. "Sometimes, it's difficult for people with impairments to physically meet or get to places, and the internet makes that much easier," he says. Added to which, social networks present entrepreneurs with a golden business opportunity. "There are 10 million users on Second Life and Facebook — that's a big potential market and it's ideally suited to campaigning," he says.
In some respects, social networks have created a level playing field for internet users — regardless of their physical disabilities. "In many ways, social-networking sites can be a boon for disabled people, because they remove some of the barriers faced by disabled people who want to socialise and network," says Paul Carter, a reporter on the not-for-profit magazine Disability Now. "That can be enormously important for those with speech impairments, or for people with learning difficulties who may have difficulty with face-to-face communication."
Disability campaigners have set up virtual clubs, groups and even islands on Second Life, while there is a thriving deaf community on Bebo, because the site makes it relatively easy for users to post BSL (British Sign Language) content on video clips.
However, Stevens and other campaigners on disability issues are still pushing for greater recognition and accessibility from social computing applications. To start with, Stevens would like greater awareness of the high numbers of disabled people using services such as Second Life, Facebook and YouTube. "There still isn't enough cultural relevance for disabled users because the people running the services don't understand how many people with disabilities use the site," he says. "And the law on accessibility is just being ignored in many cases."
The result is that many disabled people who would like to use social-networking services are simply unable to do so, says Kath Moonan, senior usability and accessibility consultant with Abilitynet. The charity, which campaigns for better access to technology for disabled people, is currently conducting a survey into the accessibility of social networks. "We have found that people really want to use the social-networking sites, for socialising and meeting people generally," says Moonan. "But I would argue that relatively low numbers of disabled people are active on social networks, because they are so difficult to use."
The fundamental problem with all the popular networking sites is that they rely heavily on user-generated content, and are vastly more complex than so-called Web 1.0 sites, she says. "These polls and widgets are being designed by people without even a basic knowledge of accessibility," says Moonan. "So you have images without any alt text, or images that are links, and colour schemes that are impossible for people with visual impairment to make sense of — all kinds of problems."
Another major issue is simply that social-networking sites are feature-rich: there are many more things on a page than you might find on a traditional web page. So the design and layout is inevitably more complex, adds Stevens. "Designers don't tend to think about how much mouse movement is required to access common functions, for example," he says. "That's a big issue for people who have problems with dexterity."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for users is something that might at first seem very small: Captcha. The little boxes with letters that are meant to distinguish whether a web user is human or machine work marvellously — unless you happen to have a cognitive impairment or a visual impairment that means you rely...