Facebook is scrambling to fix a problem that could cut disabled users off from their news feeds

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Yesterday, Jasmin Alhashemi, a high school senior from the Netherlands, tweeted a virtual call to arms: "Hi guys, meet my friend Andrei. He's motor impaired and Facebook is about to take away his virtual social life."

Her tweet included an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that had been written by Arie Fokkink of Enschede, The Netherlands. It told the story of her son Andrei, a motor-impaired Facebook user who uses an eye-tracking app called Tobii Communicator to browse his Facebook feed.


"Dear Mr. Zuckerberg," the letter begins, "My son Andrei (17), who is severely motor impaired, uses Facebook actively to stay in touch with his friends. His physical condition is such that he is permanently unable to speak or operate a computer using his hands."


She continues:

Andrei uses eye control to access Facebook. The system is developed by the great team of Tobii Dynavox…Tobii Communicator provides an easy-to-use and specialized user interface specifically aimed at eye gaze users. Having Facebook access through Tobii Communicator has a profound impact on his quality of life.

However, we have recently received the message that Facebook from April 30th will no longer grant permission for such applications to access the Facebook data…the consequence is that Facebook excludes people with limited physical abilities from everyday Facebook use.

Alhashemi's tweet spread widely, attracting supporters to Andrei's cause, and a Facebook page, called "We want to remain in the community," sprung up to urge Facebook to change its policy and allow users like Andrei to keep using the site normally.

Here's the backstory: on April 30th, Facebook is planning to cut off developer access to version 1 of its Graph API, the interface that allows third-party apps like Spotify and Candy Crush Saga to log you in, post statuses on your behalf, and send notifications through Facebook. The vast majority of Facebook users won't notice the change; their apps have already been upgraded to a newer version of Graph API, and nothing about their Facebook experience will be different. But the Facebook interface created by Tobii wasn't able to come into compliance with Facebook's new rules for third-party apps.


The problem, in a nutshell, is this: last year, Facebook implemented a new policy that restricted the way third-party apps were allowed to collect user data. Under the old API, if a user granted certain types of Facebook access to a third-party app, that app could read that user's news feed, including posts by their friends, even if those friends didn't have the app installed themselves. But some users got concerned that their information was being shared with apps they hadn't approved. (You don't want Spotify seeing your status updates, just because your friend gave Spotify access to his news feed.) So Facebook changed its API to remove friend lists from the default permission set, and require apps that wanted to see a user's news feed to get special approval. According to Tobii, Facebook also said they did "not want to grant these permissions to 3rd party Windows applications, as they prefer users to use their web-interface or official Windows 8 app."

The issue is that, in order to let motor-impaired users see what their friends are doing on Facebook, Tobii Communicator—which runs on Windows—needs permission to view those users' news feeds. Take away that feature of the API, and you also take away Tobii's core functionality.


Facebook has an accessibility team, and they sprung into action yesterday, hoping to diffuse a potential PR headache. Simon Cross, a Facebook developer, tweeted at Alhashemi to reassure her that Andrei's access to Facebook wouldn't be cut off, and that the company cared about disabled users.


The response seems to have worked; today, employees of Tobii tweeted that they were "working with Facebook" to figure out a way to restore access in the new API. (A spokesperson for Tobii didn't immediately return a request for comment, and Facebook declined to comment beyond Cross's tweet.)


It's not clear what changes Facebook will need to make to satisfy Tobii's user requirements and keep the app operational. But the episode shows that accessibility needs often come into conflict with good security practices and product design. Earlier this year, Uber was forced to fix a bug in its software that made it hard for blind users to request a ride.


For her part, Alhashemi seems to have been pleased by Facebook's response:


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