A screen reader is used to navigate Instagram by some people with low vision. It can be a confusing mess of sounds. It can be not very clear, especially if it’s not something you are used to doing. “John and I are standing at the water’s edge, listening to the audio stimulation.” John is making an anxious face while menacingly holding out a dead lobster and laughing.
Screen readers can only display image descriptions. Users must add them, just like other accessibility features on social media. In those instances, the voice can sometimes recite alt text that Instagram or the user’s phone generates automatically. Danielle McCann, the National Federation of the Blind’s Social Media Coordinator, told me that the results could be hilarious. The descriptions that have evolved from years of machine learning still often misidentify what’s happening in photos.
One day, while scrolling through Instagram, her screen read said that there was a photo showing “two brown cats lying on top of a textured floor.” Her husband then explained that the advertisement was for a Bridal Shop and featured a bride wearing a wedding dress. “Thank God I wasn’t [commenting] as if those cats were cute, you know?”
These sorts of algorithmic misinterpretations happen all the time. Here are some descriptions I heard while browsing Instagram with VoiceOver.
As smartphones have become more accessible, including high contrast and magnification, social media has become more accessible for blind and low-vision users. Many apps and websites respond to the user’s device settings. They also offer options to toggle light/dark modes and allow users to write image descriptions. However, just because these features exist doesn’t mean people with disabilities won’t use them online. Social media accessibility takes a team effort. They must all be aware of the features, understand them, and remember how to use them. Although a platform might offer many accessibility options, they are still excluded if users don’t buy-in.
Alt-text is often not used in a way that makes sense to people who can’t see photos. Some people use simplistic descriptions of images, like “red flowers” or “blonde girls looking at the skies,” but they don’t describe what it is that makes them worthwhile sharing. On the other hand, it can be difficult for screen readers to read multiple paragraphs of text about one image. McCann encourages friends to consider alt text as an exercise in writing: “How do I convey as much information as possible within as few words as I can?”
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, “The general rule for communication is to be informative and not poetic.” On social media, however, it’s okay to show your personality. If your dog has a humorous quizzical expression, and not because they are a pitbull/black-and-white mix, then you can share that photo.
While it is possible for automated image descriptions to be more accurate than the mistaking of a woman wearing wedding dresses for some cats, they don’t replace human interaction. Facebook had an image outage in 2019 that showed all of its users the photo tags that are usually hidden, displaying machine-assigned descriptors like “Image may contain: people standing.” Are the people contained in that image embracing and making goofy faces? Do they have stunning views in front? Social media can feel less social if it is based on the computer’s conservative interpretations.
Advocates stress that accessibility should be considered right from the beginning. “Not as an add on to an already-existing site long after the fact,” AFB states. Many popular platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter didn’t choose this path initially. Instead, they continue to play catch-up to improve their accessibility. These improvements are not always guaranteed to be used by everyone.
“JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE VISUAL DOESN’T MEAN THEY’RE NOT IMMEDIATELY ATTRACTIVE to PEOPLE WHO HAVE LOW VISION BLINDLY OR BLINDLY”
One of the biggest hurdles is the assumption that blind people will not be interested in visual media. McCann states, “Just because they can see doesn’t mean they won’t be attractive to people who have low vision or are blind.” McCann believes that there is one major misconception about the visual impaired: “Oh, well, they don’t care if pictures aren’t important to them.” Social networks can make it difficult for people with low vision or blindness to see what others are talking about.
Christy Smith Berman, a low-vision editor at Can I Play That, responded to a TT Games Tweet that announced the delay Star Wars Lego. When she replied with a request for alt text, Smith Berman was met with responses from people expressing disbelief that blind people would even be on Twitter, to begin with, let alone care about video games.
These false assumptions often lead to people being left out of cultural moments on social networks. Memes consist of rapidly evolving iterations containing undescribed images and tiny words in bizarre fonts. Viral videos can be shared and reposted with no audio or text description of what’s on-screen. McCann says, “Oh, that must be someone dancing,” after seeing a TikTok with no audio except music. “It’s not; it is somebody making a cheesesteak. “But I didn’t realize that because there was no audio indication.”
Steven Aquino (a legally blind journalist) says that many memes that people share don’t include alt text. Aquino uses magnification instead of a screen-reader, but sometimes it’s hard to understand what’s happening in memes. “It’s tough because it’s not so easy to see, and I feel like, ‘Okay, it’s supposed to be funny. But I can’t tell.”
Communicating visual humour through the text is difficult. This is beyond an inability to use accessibility features. The best images have a sense of humour based on careful visual composition, knowledge about a particular meme or familiarity with multiple cultural references. The process of writing a description for an esoteric image can be like explaining internet culture and memes to your grandparents. Platforms don’t have to be blamed for meme literacy’s complicated nature. However, it is something most people aren’t used to.
However, other factors can also impact online experiences for those with low vision and blindness. Aquino mentions that Twitter users will use unique Unicode characters in their Twitter usernames that are difficult to read. They won’t be interpreted as letters by screenreading software. While a screen reader may read a character “mathematical bold capitalize”, technically, most sighted people will just read it as a standard letter with different formatting.
You 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬 it's 𝒸𝓊𝓉ℯ to 𝘄𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗲 your tweets and usernames 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖜𝖆𝖞. But have you 𝙡𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙙 to what it 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 with assistive technologies like 𝓥𝓸𝓲𝓬𝓮𝓞𝓿𝓮𝓻? pic.twitter.com/CywCf1b3Lm
— Kent C. Dodds (@kentcdodds) January 9, 2019
Aquino said that the screen reader software is not innovative enough for people who use it. “So if you’ve got a clever name, your voiceover or whatever it is that you use going to fail.” Tweets that include rows of emojis or many memorable characters to create an image or convey cursive script can be hellish to listen to when a screen reader reads them. While it’s possible to upload a screenshot with alt text to a tweet, most people don’t know-how.
McCann is pleased that so many websites have made accessibility easier over the years. But she also wonders why these features aren’t being more widely promoted. TikTok’s text to speech warns people that flashing effects may cause seizures.
She said, “The disability community must educate.” “Why doesn’t the mainstream industry offer more education?”
McCann wishes it was easier to get involved in the TikTok video virality. “Unless I have someone to sit with me and explain what’s going down, I don’t feel like I’m able to have a conversation about this with someone,” McCann said. “It is exclusionary, but it is not impossible. I love telling jokes. I like pasta recipes. I want to be able to make those recipes. I’m still a part of the social fabric.”