Accessibility of YouTube Fitness Videos for Individuals Who Are Disabled Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 27, 2022

Yetsa Tuakli-Wosornu, MD, MPH, of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation – along with researchers from California Institute of Technology and Yale School of Public Health – published an article titled, "The Accessibility of YouTube Fitness Videos for Individuals Who Are Disabled Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Preliminary Application of a Text Analytics Approach" in early 2022.

People with disabilities face barriers to in-person physical activity (PA), including a lack of adaptive equipment and knowledgeable instructors. Given this and the increased need for digital resources due to widespread COVID-19 lockdowns, it is necessary to assess the accessibility of digital fitness resources for people with disabilities. This study aims to ascertain if disability-friendly physical activity (PA) videos on YouTube are accessible through searching general fitness terms and whether a change in the availability of accessible fitness resources for people with disabilities occurred on YouTube between, before, and during the COVID-19 pandemic on "Hospital/Medical Institutions," "Individual(s)," and "Other(s)" channels. Secondary aims are to investigate if different categories of YouTube channels produce more accessible fitness content and highlight any disparities in disability-friendly PA content on YouTube.

The research team conducted a cross-sectional text analysis of exercise-related YouTube videos. They used Python (version 3.0) to access the YouTube database via its data application programming interface. Terms pertaining to PA that were searched on YouTube were at-home exercise, exercise at home, exercise no equipment, home exercise, home-based exercise, no equipment workout, and workout no equipment. Various elements (eg, view count and content generation) of the videos published between January 1 and June 30, 2019 (n=700), were compared to the elements of videos published between January 1 and June 30, 2020 (n=700).

To capture a broad idea of disability-friendly videos on YouTube, videos were labeled "accessible" if they were found in the first 100 video results and if their title, description, or tags contained the following terms: para, paralympic, adaptive, adapted, disabled, disability, differently abled, disability-friendly, wheelchair accessible, and inclusive. Each video and channel was categorized as "Hospitals/Medical Institutions," "Individuals," or "Other(s)."

The team’s analysis revealed a statistically significant increase in viewership of fitness content on YouTube (P=.001) and in fitness content generated by Hospitals/Medical Institutions (P=.004).

Accessible terms applicable to people with disabilities had minimal appearances in 2019 (21 videos) and 2020 (19 videos). None of the top viewed fitness videos that populated on YouTube from 2019 or 2020 were accessible.

Research shows that the proportion of accessible disability-friendly videos remains diminutive relative to the prevalence of disability in the general population, revealing that disability-friendly videos are seldom findable on YouTube. Thus, the need for disability-friendly fitness content to be easily searched for and found remains urgent if access to digital fitness resources is to improve.

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