Under pressure, Facebook recently said it will improve its efforts to weed out hate speech on the social network. Disability advocates say the move is long overdue.

Late last month Facebook acknowledged that it needs to do more to monitor and remove postings and pages featuring hate speech. The announcement came after a coalition of women’s rights groups successfully urged major companies to pull their advertisements from Facebook accusing the social network of including content promoting violence against women.

Many in the disability community have long complained about Facebook pages featuring questionable content and misappropriated photos of those with disabilities.

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Hannah Jacobs, a New York City mother of a teen with intellectual disability, who has spent years actively working to report offensive Facebook pages said she continues to find content on the social network each day that she considers to be problematic. She’s flagged pages with names like “I Am Retarded,” “I Hate Fat People in Wheelchairs” and one called “Retards in Cages” which remained on Facebook as of Monday with a tag indicating that it’s “controversial humor.”

“It’s a little like playing Whac-A-Mole. One group down, two more pop up,” said Jacobs who runs Family Member, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting fair representations of people with disabilities in the media.

Jacobs’ efforts have won her meetings with Facebook officials in recent years. When she first spoke with the company, Jacobs said that disability wasn’t even an option on the drop-down menu to report problematic content. Today, users can tag content as hate speech “targeting people with a disability or disease” when reporting questionable material, but Jacobs says that the system is flawed — with many reports yielding no action — and progress with the social network has been “very slow.”

“I’m hoping that this time — now that it’s hit their bottom line — maybe it will make a difference,” she said.

In the company’s recent announcement, Facebook indicated that their definition of hate speech includes “direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people” including those based on disability. The company said it will update guidelines and training for team members who monitor reporting and will insist that individuals who post “cruel or insensitive” content that doesn’t qualify as hate speech do so under their real names.

“It has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want. In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria,” wrote Marne Levine, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, in a posting on the company’s website. “We need to do better — and we will.”

National disability advocacy groups say they regularly hear from constituents regarding questionable content on Facebook. In addition to pages and comments critical of people with special needs, complaints about misused photos — particularly of people with Down syndrome — are common, they say.

“We hope the focus on gender-based hate speech will lead to more scrutiny on hate speech toward those with disabilities,” said Jon Colman, president of the National Down Syndrome Society. “Our hope is Facebook will become a safer environment for people with Down syndrome who want to enjoy sharing their lives and photos, but there is a long way to go from where we are now.”

Meanwhile, Kerry Magro at Autism Speaks said his group has seen pages pop up on Facebook making fun of people with autism and indicated that the advocacy organization must be vigilant in monitoring its own Facebook page to remove comments critical of those with the developmental disorder. Magro said he is optimistic, however, that the social network’s recent move will be a step in the right direction.

“Hate speech along with cyberbullying have become huge issues on Facebook and we are hoping that this will lead to less hurtful words being shared,” said Magro, the social marketing coordinator at Autism Speaks.

Facebook officials did not respond to questions from Disability Scoop about how their efforts to address hate speech would apply specifically to content related to disability.

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