In order to gather insight on the current knowledge and expectations of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities regarding social media, researchers from Thomas More organized several focus groups with our target group, but also with their coaches. In addition to conducting interviews, the research team also set down with the people with intellectual disabilities to explore the existing social media applications by means of a game. This way, users were able to try out Facebook, Skype, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp together with the researchers, and share with them their critical opinions.

It was clear from the focus groups that persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities are interested in social media. Although they are not always up to date on what applications exist and what they are used for, they find it important to know how to use social media and be kept up-to-date with what is new, just like everyone else. The larger their social network, and the more frequently persons with intellectual disabilities are able to participate in their communities, the more they are prone to using social media. Researchers noticed even the participants who had never worked with social media were still enthusiastic about the possibilities it could offer them, and enjoyed trying it out, regardless of their age or level of ability.

During the research process, persons with intellectual disabilities told researchers that they prefer straightforward, easy-to-use applications. Facebook, Skype, YouTube and WhatsApp were the most commonly used, while Twitter was less popular. In general, persons with intellectual disabilities appreciate the fact that these services are free. They like sharing things they are interested in or showing off their achievements, and enjoy when they receive positive feedback. In particular, they value sharing and receiving pictures.

For some persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, social media, and especially Facebook, is also a way to get to know new people, although the majority of participants told us they were very cautious when it comes to this topic. They preferred to use social media to keep in touch with people they know in real life, but maybe do not see as often as they would want to.

The respondents of the focus groups also had some issues they struggled with, such as reading and understanding written text. Letters are often too small, and the sentences are too complex. Most people with intellectual disabilities have a difficult type with spelling, or cannot type at all, which makes it hard for them to look up things, or to log on to certain websites. Yet, both users and their coaches, have been creative in finding solutions or have been using adaptive software. When e-mailing or chatting, some persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities who could not type communicated through pictographs, or sent audio-messages. For reading support, some use speech software. Some users mentioned that enlarging the screen, a larger font, or a capital font made a huge difference for them. People who could not read communicated through pictographs or pictures, sometimes combined with text, or just called or video-chatted instead of writing to each other.

All these observations will be taken into account in every stage of the development of the accessibility layer.

A sneak peek at the results of the Thomas More focus groups