As a blind/visually impaired person, I’ve always been quite reliant on technology in order to make things more accessible to me. But, I’ve recently been thinking about how accessible the online world actually is, particularly social media. What needs to change in order to better the accessibility and user experience for those of us who are visually impaired?
I’ve wanted to jot my thoughts down in a blog post for a while and with RNIB’s #BlindPeopleUsePhones campaign still being a hot topic online, I thought now was as good a time as any for me to talk about the fact that blind and vision-impaired people do use the internet and social media but there’s some things that need to be improved in order to make it a better experience for us.
A lot can be done in order to better the accessibility and make the experience of using online tools even better for those of us who use assistive technology and hopefully this post can help to highlight some ways that can be done.
How accessible is the online world?
I’ve been using technology for as long as I can remember and although it can be amazing in terms of helping me to navigate the world around me, the online world can sometimes be a different story and it’s impossible to access information, websites and resources at times due to the lack of accessibility.
If a website isn’t accessible, I’ll always click off.
Saying that, there have been some vast improvements in the accessibility of the online world and social media in the last few years and it can only get better, right?
Websites and apps
Some websites aren’t accessible with screen readers, they might be too cluttered for those with some useful vision to navigate, labels might not be labelled making it impossible for us to know what buttons we’re clicking and so much more.
Built-in accessibility features on things such as Apple and Android devices has changed the game for many of us living with sight loss and it means that it’s so much easier to navigate websites, apps and social media because of these advancements but they’re not accessible with everything.
For example, I can’t order pizza online independently because the website isn’t accessible with a screen reader.
I know #FirstWorldProblems.
But, it’s little things like this that might seem so simple to fully sighted people that are sometimes harder or impossible for blind/VI people to do because of the inaccessibility of a website or app.
Social media allows me to connect to an audience that I never would have come across otherwise and whilst that’s amazing, there are still some barriers in terms of accessibility for blind/VI people.
Visual content is so popular these days but it can sometimes be difficult to access if descriptions aren’t provided meaning that blind/VI people can’t interact with content in the same way fully sighted people can.
Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have come on leaps and bounds when accessibility is concerned, they now offer photo descriptions which gives vision impaired people more of an inkling as to what content people are posting but there’s always room for improvement.
I have to admit that when I first started blogging, I didn’t know what needed to be done in order to better the accessibility of my blog. even though I’m vision impaired myself, I just wasn’t familiar enough with all the features.
It’s not something that’s always at the forefront of someone’s mind when creating or running a blog and I think that’s completely understandable if you’re not familiar with people’s needs and what can be changed.
But as the number of blind/VI bloggers rise, more people are learning about how sight loss can affect our lives and as we talk more about what improvements can be made for us in terms of accessibility, more people are making a conscious effort to make those changes.
I think that the main things that make a blog inaccessible are unlabelled buttons, lack of photo descriptions and unclear writing and fonts (more on all of these to come) but it’s all about educating people and helping each other in terms of making the user experience better for everyone.
Although things are improving, there are some steps that still need to be carried out in order to make the online world and social media more accessible.
So, what needs to change?
- Enabling alt text/ image descriptions automatically: Social media platforms have improved with their image description features but on Twitter for example, the option to add an image description isn’t enabled automatically which means that many people don’t know it exists.
Enabling this feature automatically and making it clear that it’s an option that people can use would mean that images would be more accessible.
- Adding image descriptions: Following on from that, many people aren’t aware that it’s possible to add image descriptions to things such as blog post photos and images on social media.
If you’re a blogger, simply add a photo description to the ALT Text box, describing the image in as much detail as you can in order for a blind/VI person to appreciate your visual content just like your writing.
If you’re not 100% sure about how to add ALT text, simply add a description under the image.
On Twitter the option to add a photo description needs to be enabled in your settings, you can find out more about how to enable it here.
If a screen reader detects an image description, it will read it out to the blind/VI user meaning that we can have an idea of what photos people are tweeting.
Facebook uses artificial intelligence (AI) to give a brief overview of what a photo shows, it might say something along the lines of ‘two people smiling’ but if you want to give a better description, simply add it to your caption.
After writing what you’ve got to say, simply pop ‘This photo shows’ or ‘photo description’ at the end of your caption and describe the images in more detail.
Instagram has recently implemented photo description features which is a great step forward in terms of making the platform more accessible and inclusive. Like Facebook, the app now uses artificial intelligence to give a brief description of what the photo shows but you can also create your own description.
Simply click on the ‘advanced settings’ option when you’re creating your post, there will be an option to add alt text and you can add your own description which gives blind/VI people a better idea of what your image shows.
- Better descriptions: This covers a wide range of things. Memes, photos, clothes in online shops etc.
As an avid online shopper, a good and detailed description of the item I’m viewing can really benefit me. I’ve had a few mishaps when shopping online, imagining an item to look one way only for it to turn up on my doorstep as something completely different to what I had in mind.
Better descriptions on items like this mean that blind/VI people can do things such as shopping online more independently and that we aren’t left questioning what we’ve bought.
The same goes for things like GIFs which are highly visual with no description, something so popular often can’t be accessed or appreciated by a blind/VI person because there are no descriptions for them.
Less use of emojis: Emojis are great and all but sometimes they need to be used sparingly.
Some people like to include an emoji or two in their Twitter names but as a screen reader user, this isn’t always the most practical. A screen reader reads someone’s Twitter name and handle before reaching the tweet itself so imagine hearing someone’s name followed by ‘face with heart shaped eyes’, ‘sparkles’, ‘clinking champagne glasses’, not those emojis in particular but I’m sure you get the jist. Using one or two is fine but when there’s more than that, it can get a little frustrating.
Clear contrast and text: A light pink text on a white background isn’t going to be very accessible for those with low vision, it might look pretty to you but when there isn’t a clear contrast between the text and the background, it’s not going to be the easiest to read.
Likewise with the font you choose to use, it’s better to use a classic clear font rather than a fancy one just to provide that ease of access to those who might not be able to make it out.
Having clear contrasting fonts and backgrounds make the readability of a blog or website so much better for everyone.
Captcha audio alternatives: You’re so close to completing that form, creating that account, signing up for a newsletter or submitting a comment only for the ‘I’m not a robot’ captcha to make an appearance at the last minute.
Even when I did have more useful vision, it would be impossible for me to spot the road signs in the photo and unfortunately, screen readers don’t describe the photos to us.
Someone I spoke to on Twitter was unable to change her password for something because there wasn’t an audio option for the captcha and this meant that she’d have to enlist the help of a sighted person – something that’s not always possible and something that a lot of us who are blind/VI don’t want to do because we want to be independent.
So, if you have a captcha on something, whether it be a comment form on your blog, your e-commerce shop or anything else, please consider adding an audio captcha alternative so those of us who are vision impaired can prove that we’re not a robot without having to ask for help or click off the site.
Capitalising letters in hashtags: More than one word hashtags can often sound like jiberish for screen reader users and they can often be hard to make out for those with low vision. Capitalising the first letter of each word ensures that hashtags are easier to read and the screen reader will also read it out clearly. Small changes can make a big difference.
Audio description on videos/ Instagram stories: Instagram stories and Snapchat are definitely two of the hardest things to access as a blind/VI person.
There isn’t any ALT Text on them to describe images and the text isn’t read out which means that they’re a no-go for blind/VI people.
Having audio description of what’s happening in the story or in a video would be so beneficial for those of us who have little or no vision and it would mean that we wouldn’t miss out on the content that some get a lot of their info from these days.
But of course, nothing can be done about this until the platforms themselves implement this feature or something that would make them more accessible, something for you to work on Insta and Snapchat?
What fellow blind and visually impaired users have to say
I took to Twitter a few days ago to ask fellow blind/VI people how accessible is the online world from their perspective and quite a few people got in touch with their thoughts, thank you so much if you were one of them!
I reckon that the way forward in terms of making a change is by coming together to share our voices and opinions. If enough of us speak out about the changes that need to be made in terms of accessibility, hopefully others will listen and the online world can become a more accessible place for all of us.
Here’s what people had to say:
“I think accessibility of websites and social media is a lot better than it used to be, there has been significant improvements over the last few years, I think it’s great that we can access this sort of content just like sighted people. However, browsing the internet and using social media does come with many challenges such as:
Unlabelled buttons and links: When buttons and links aren’t labelled, it makes it very difficult to access using a screen-reader, you have no idea what you’re clicking on which can be very frustrating and very time consuming.
Popups: When websites have popups, it can make it very difficult to navigate using a screen-reader, they can also be rather annoying.
Lack of descriptions when online shopping: When items such as clothes for example don’t have descriptions we often have to resort to other methods such as asking sighted people to describe them to us which takes away the freedom of shopping online independently.
When posts don’t have image descriptions: This is one of the biggest frustrations for me as a blind person. If posts/tweets don’t have image descriptions then I don’t have a clue what the image shows and can’t interact with it in the same way as sighted people…it’s pretty much guess work.
Not being able to use or interact with memes or GIFs: Memes and GIFs seem to be the latest things to use but these aren’t accessible to screen-reader users if they don’t have descriptions.
Websites can be inaccessible for a range of reasons and it can be very off-putting and frustrating. All companies should make their websites accessible and inclusive for everyone.” – Holly
“I definitely think that platforms like YouTube and other video sharing platforms need to feature an option for audio description which you can switch on or off like closed captions.” – Emily
“Larger font options! Social media that actually recognises the dynamic text settings. Or better pinch zoom? I hate that you can’t pinch zoom on insta. I can bring up the magnifier but it’s such a faff, I don’t use insta that much.” – Amy
“I would say that all buttons should be labeled. Also the translation option doesn’t work for voiceover on twitter. I also feel like the ability to add descriptions to images should be automatic.” – Zenaib
Clearly, there is still a lot that needs to change, image descriptions and how the option to add them needs to be automatic being one of blind/VI online users’ main concern.
Hopefully, by raising awareness of these issues and the barriers we come across when trying to navigate the online world as blind/VI people, more people will take note.
Despite the improvements that have been made and the steps some bloggers, social media companies and users, website owners etc are taking to make their platforms more accessible and inclusive, we can still do more and work together in order to make the online world a more accessible place.
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