TikTok for #AssistiveTech Outreach?

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Assistive technology deserves to go viral on an accessible platform and TechOWL PA is working to make it happen.

Video screen shot with young adult man and the caption, Hey! Welcome to TechOWL's TikTok.

TechOWL PA, the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology (AT) Program, is taking an interesting approach this pandemic to AT awareness and outreach. Since the end of December, @TechOWLPA has posted over 40 videos to its new TikTok social media account.

Some say, don’t use TikTok; the social media platform is notoriously and egregiously inaccessible. (Besides, isn’t TikTok what your niece is obsessed with? Cute musical micro-videos for self expression and aren’t you generally not interested in the media your niece is obsessed with?)

It’s true that not everyone wants to embrace high-energy, short-attention-span media environments. And TikTok’s accessibility is terrible. Its captioning tools are cumbersome and there are no auto-captioning or closed caption options. Its web pages chug out errors on accessibility validators. The company also has a reputation for saying it will improve accessibility and then doing not much about it. So what would a State AT Program have to gain by posting to TikTok?

In TechOWL’s case: 3,000 followers in 7 weeks, two videos gone viral, and a day that generated 60 requests for 3D-printed AT from Pennsylvanians alone.

Can we say with a straight face that TikTok closes more doors than it opens? But before we delve deeper into accessibility…

Here’s how TechOWL PA got started with TikTok

“It began because I have these young excited team members who are like, Hey! Let’s try this!” says TechOWL PA Director Kim Singleton. Kim was all for encouraging her staff to get creative and run with their outreach ideas although she knew little about TikTok. “And I guess I thought it was for people who are not like me,” she admits.

TechOWL Outreach Coordinator Tom DiAgostino readily acknowledges, “TikTok has flaws, but the algorithm is amazing. It shows you content relevant to your interests and there is a whole world of disabled TikTokkers talking about the disability experience, ableism, etc.”

How big is this world?

On TikTok, #disability has 1.9 Billion views.

Alanna Raffel, AT Specialist with TechOWL PA, first came up with the TikTok outreach concept. She approached Kim with the idea to use the platform to get the word out about AT and disability issues and to engage more people with disabilities to create content, too. (Below is the video, “Welcome to TechOWL’s TikTok,” embedded to this page.)

“We want to show all kinds of identities, not just the two of us,” emphasize Tom and Alanna, who point out they are both white, cisgender, and not visibly disabled. In honor of Black History Month, the program has posted videos by black AT users: Thomas Reid, who discusses the technologies he uses everyday and for producing his podcast on blindness and vision loss, and Maleek Washington, who is Deaf and signs about the transformative experience of obtaining his first smart phone. Everyone who creates videos for TechOWL is compensated for their time and contributions, Tom and Alanna explain.

The impact has been impressive. Early in their posting, they demonstrated gadgets TechOWL routinely 3D prints for daily living: a key holder, a plug-pull, and a large zipper ring. That video now has over 76K views and 14K likes.

TechOWL PA prints and mails these to anyone who makes a request, a remarkable and generous service for a State AT Program to take on. (TechOWL is partnering with the engineering department of Temple University as well as the Franklin Institute for overflow gadget demand.) The popularity of the devices and interest in 3D-printed-AT has driven TechOWL PA to refer out-of-state TikTokkers to other state AT programs as well as the Canadian-based Makers Making Change.

(Below is the video, “3D Printed Assistive Tech,” embedded to this page.)

The videos are reaching people all over the world, but their favorite comments come from Pennsylvanians, especially those that make clear @TechOWLPA is furthering knowledge of and access to assistive technology. For example:

“This is amazing! Homecare PT in Philly with tons of patients who could benefit. How can I have patients or therapists reach out??”

And

“All of these activities cause me pain. Not all the time, but often enough. I never thought to get an assistive tool at all.”

Or

“These are awesome! My sister is in PA! Her boyfriend has MS and has days where grabbing things are hard! I’ll have to show her!”

What is TechOWL PA’s accessibility strategy?

Alanna says they are committed to making all of the content as accessible as possible and cross-posting the videos to the more accessible platforms of Facebook and Instagram. “We have colleagues and followers who experience the full spectrum of disability and we want everyone to be able to engage with our work.” She says, too, that they make sure every video has captions and basic verbal description (though the micro-video nature of TikTok limits capacity).

In addition, @TechOwlPA participated in the recent #CaptionsForTikTok campaign that took place February 6th among the disabled TikTok community and its allies. The hashtag has over 2M views.

“Captioning benefits so many people,” Alanna emphasizes, “especially closed captioning which can be turned on and off by the user, rather than open captioning which is always visible. The goal is to put the onus of captioning onto the billion dollar company, rather than the individual creators themselves in order to lead to more systemic change.”

Despite TikTok’s accessibility obstacles, its disability community is welcoming, enthusiastic, and generous. Early in this new undertaking, Alanna creatively leaned into it, posting a video asking for assistance. Given TikTok’s lack of auto captions, which approach to manually adding captions is preferable? Her video incorporates three different captioning methods and asks for feedback, thereby educating viewers and also garnering needed advice.

So what advice does TechOWL PA have for other State and Territory AT Programs wanting to create a TikTok account?

“Be patient. Learning how to use the app takes some time as does captioning,” advises Tom. “And not every video is going to get a lot of attention and engagement. It is hit or miss–but worth it when you do get to engage with your followers. TikTok can be a light-hearted platform so have fun with it. And let us know if you need any help!”

Learn more about TikTok and accessibility from 3Play Media
Check out TechOWL PA’s TikTok-captioning activism