The issues faced by disabled content creators, whether it be the removal of the community captions feature on YouTube, TikTok shadow banning members and blaming it on their attractiveness to viewers, or the distinct lack of consistent alt text and image descriptions on platforms like Instagram and Twitter, are well documented.
Twitch, the world’s largest gaming streaming platform, is coming under some of the same scrutiny for its accessibility to disabled streamers and viewers, especially where it comes to discoverability and captioning.
While no wide-ranging data listing how many streamers on Twitch identify with disability could be found, recent research from the University of Sydney’s Mark Johnson identified a number of underlying issues that are present. While streamers he spoke to felt that the good outweighed the bad when it came to working on the platform, he also noted that “Twitch is structured by many of the same inequalities as non-streaming activities: individuals with chronic conditions must work harder to attain equivalent status or success, and activities that are seemingly trivial become complex and challenging webs of social and technical elements.” With approximately fifteen percent of the world’s population estimated to have a disability, it’s no surprise that Twitch has a significant contingent of disabled streamers and viewers.
“Activities that are seemingly trivial become complex and challenging webs of social and technical elements.”
Rikki Poynter is a Deaf streamer and YouTuber who also has chronic pain and fatigue. For her, one of the main issues when it comes to Twitch’s accessibility is the inaccuracy of the captions provided by third-party tools.
“Everything is very jumbled up and lots of words are incorrect. With a high-quality mic and clear voice, there are some streamers that have clear captions as far as words go, but the lack of grammar and accessible structure makes it stressful to look at. I couldn't use the extension after using it for a few days because it couldn't understand my deaf accent well and wrote bad words I never said.”
Colloquially called “craptions,” these auto-generated and inaccurate captions present a major access barrier for those who need them. Netflix was recently called out for censoring speech during many of its shows, blocking out or changing curse. This issue is common as part of YouTube’s auto-captioning feature — and Facebook’s system can be difficult to navigate as well. Tools like Otter.ai and Google’s own tool for its Google Meet platform are two examples where captioning has come to the forefront, but accessibility is a widespread issue in the tech space.
When asked for comment about Twitch’s accessibility practices Tricia Choi, the company’s senior director of design systems and central design, stated that the firm maintains a commitment to accessibility.
“Twitch is a place for everyone, no matter their interests, background, or ability, and we are deeply committed to accessibility and inclusive design. We work hard to deliver an accessible experience for our community through thoughtful product innovation, and through programs that celebrate our creators and employees of all abilities. We introduced our company-wide Accessibility Statement in March 2020, and we will continue to learn, improve, and invest in accessibility in all of our work.”
Much of Twitch’s efforts have been focused on the platform’s physical accessibility — including discussions at a recent Twitch town hall, a million-dollar donation to Able Gamers on stream, and the inclusion of automatic color matching for those with visual disabilities. But all this leaves out one major point of contention for disabled streamers: how difficult it is to get discovered without a dedicated disability tag. Whereas creators from other marginalized groups, like the LGBTQIA+ community, have tags that can be applied to their streams (and, controversially to some, their allies). The same is not true for disabled streamers. Twitch’s list of official tags does list an option for captioning, but this is only applied automatically.
Creators from other marginalized groups ... have tags that can be applied to their streams. The same is not true for disabled streamers.
Dominick Evans is a disabled streamer and media critic who says that the lack of a disability tag really hampers the efforts of those in his community.
“Twitch, you know, seems to think of the disabled community as a monolith. But especially for multiply-marginalized disabled people, it's a real struggle. They won't even let us have a disability tag. And, you know, we've been begging them for one for years because it's hard for disabled people to find representations of ourselves, it can be lonely when you don't see yourself represented, that includes in streaming.”
Evans also takes issue with the small group of disabled streamers that Twitch has publicly acknowledged it engages with on a regular basis.
“Twitch is very good about saying they want to do things, but they're not listening to actual input from a wealth of disabled individuals, they have a couple people that they talk to and that's the only people that really seem to get the attention.”
Twitch shared with me improvements to the behaviors of its in-chat fonts, and reaffirmed via email that it is working to make accessibility part of every stage of its design process, but what the community is looking for is tangible change, particularly when it comes to discoverability. On that point, both Poynter and Evans pointed to the perception that the tag has not yet been created because of perceived bullying issues, something that Poynter soundly rejects.
“I would love to be able to more easily find other disabled creators. I know they're trying to ‘keep us from being bullied’ but we're going to and have been bullied anyway, we can deal with that on our own, and infantilizing us and sort of ‘shoving us off to the side’ doesn't make Twitch much better.”
“Infantilizing us and sort of ‘shoving us off to the side’ doesn't make Twitch much better.”
While increases in accessibility are certainly incremental by nature, disabled gamers have been vocal about the opportunities available on Twitch for at least six years and the BBC recently featured the topic, it is clear that the platform still has a significant way to go before it has addressed the wants of the disabled people who use the site. Sources I spoke to for this piece voiced a similar solution: additional discoverability — via a disability tag — an increase in the reliability and usability of captions (which are currently delivered via third-party tools) — and a broader scope of who the company engages with when it comes to accessibility policy and implementation.
As is so often the case with disability accessibility in the tech space, it's come a long way and yet still has a long way to go. What’s certain is that gamers, the primary driver of growth for Twitch, have to be leading the charge for any meaningful change to happen.