How accessible is social media if you have a visual impairment?
Social media is important for all facets of life, work and play, but how does it work if you have little or no vision?
The growth of social media over the past decade has been beyond all our expectations and become essential for many people for staying in touch with friends and family as well as running businesses, for education and for entertainment. The benefits it brings to all these facets of life are massive. Those benefits are potentially even greater for someone with sight loss because of the opportunity to participate online when there would have been barriers to participation in person, such as travel, confidence, or prejudice.
So, with the benefits indisputable for someone who is visually impaired, how accessible are the most popular channels and how are blind people using them?
Facebook considers itself very committed to supporting its blind community to use the site as effectively as possible. The site has shortcuts (access keys) for people who only use their keyboards to navigate and is compatible with all the major screen readers, JAWS, Window-Eyes and VoiceOver. Users can move through the same functions as someone using their sight and like, comment and share in the same way.
You can adjust text size and contrast and use the same tools within Facebook Messenger. All of this may take a bit of getting used to if you’re new to accessible IT but they have a detailed Help Centre.
Providing an accessible platform to read text on is one thing but facebook is a very visual medium – on average 350 million photos are uploaded and shared every day. This is why last year Facebook introduced automatic alternative text. Automatic alternative text, or automatic alt text, generates a description of a photo using advancements in object recognition technology. People using screen readers on iOS devices will hear a list of items a photo may contain as they swipe past photos on Facebook, for example, someone might hear, “Image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors.” It also reads aloud data like date, time, caption text, reactions, and comments. The result is a much richer, more inclusive experience for visually impaired users.
Facebook also have a facebook page you can follow, where you can learn about the built-in features and technologies that help people with disabilities get the most out of the platform. They’re also on twitter, follow @acessibility.
Like Facebook, Twitter is accessible for all the main stream screen readers and both the iOS and Android Twitter apps are accessible using VoiceOver or TalkBack respectively. For Windows PC users there are extra features provided by the third-parties, Chicken Nugget or EasyChirp, which interfaces directly with the Twitter feed. Night Owl is a popular third-party option for Mac VoiceOver users.
Last year Twitter announced users would now be able to add descriptions (i.e. old-fashioned non-automated “alt-text”) to any photo posted to the service. If you enable this setting, every time you add an image to a tweet, you’ll have the option to add a description with up to 420 characters. This is a great step forward for visually impaired tweeters but unlike the Facebook version it is not automated and therefore relies on the person posting the image to use the service and write the description. In addition users have to go in to their accessibility settings and turn the feature on, which inevitably many people won’t take the time to do. Twitter have provided instructions in their help centre.
On paper this is a great development for Twitter but in reality we’re not convinced that enough people are actually using it due to the fact it’s set up is not automated. Hopefully that will come in future updates of the app and mobile site.
Do blind people really use social media?
Yes! Of course they do but this is a question we hear a lot. We asked two of our service users how, and why they use it…
Alice has been completely blind since she was eight weeks old, due to a skin condition, which caused blisters on her eye lenses and caused retinal detachment. She has a very small amount of light perception but can’t see anything else.
“I am a massive social media user; I especially love Facebook and Twitter. I use Facebook to find out what my family and friends are up to and I love being able to message people in large group chats, such as the group chat that was set up for all my course mates at uni. With Twitter, I love keeping up with the latest current affairs and celebrity gossip. Twitter has also allowed me to connect with people who share my interests and through Twitter, I also discovered a fellow visually impaired student who goes to the same university as me so I could ask her for advice before I started uni”.
Kim has both hearing and sight impairments as a result of being born prematurely, and currently has about 10% of vision in one eye. She is studying Illustration at the Leeds College of Art and and was the RNIB’s Young Illustrator for 2014.
“I love social media. I love having the ability to connect with friends and family but also to have the platform to reach out to a new audience that wouldn’t otherwise be available to me… I prefer streamlined, mobile versions of social media sites and specific apps built for profiles that are more text-based. Navigating images can be difficult when you’re visually impaired if they don’t have an alt tag or a description attached in Twitter – it can be hard to understand what people post when I only have limited light and colour available in my small field of vision. Despite this, I love being able to connect, communicate and share with so many people!”
Social media has the power to connect in a way that is crucially important for disabled people, who have a much greater potential to feel isolated and alone. More and more businesses, of all types, also now rely on it for marketing and customer service, so access to social media is really important for employability.
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