For a large but often neglected chunk of internet users like me, a core part of the web remains totally off limits.
I’m speaking, of course, about photos – the millions of images posted each day on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that tell stories in richer detail than can be captured in bite-size posts. I miss all of them because I am blind, and the screen-reading software I use to make the web accessible can’t "read" photographs.
It’s a vast problem with no easy solution. Consider, for example, the exceedingly common news practice of posting a "screenshort" – a screengrab of a longer bit of text, perhaps an email or campaign flier, and posting that in lieu of a shorter text description, constrained by character limits.
That’s a convenient way to display more words for readers to engage with on platforms like Twitter without forcing them to click through – but they’re rendered virtually invisible to readers like me.
On Tuesday, Twitter acknowledged that an increasing amount of its content is becoming inaccessible for visually impaired users, and it offered one patchwork solution.
In a blog post announcing the change, the company said it has added a feature to photo sharing that allows users to caption their photographs. Those captions, or "alt text" as they’re known in tech parlance, are what my screen reader will read any time it encounters a captioned photograph. Here's how you can turn them on.
In doing so, Twitter follows in the footsteps of Facebook, which has taken steps to make its own site more accessible – though Facebook doesn’t specifically offer alt text captioning. (To its credit, the social media site is working on a tool that would automatically analyze an image and generate a description – which would be awesome.)
If this feature is actually going to help, everyone has to get on board
Twitter's new setting is a kind gesture, but I’m skeptical how much help it will truly prove to be.
Large news organizations, which have already shown a desire to make their websites more accessible to blind users, will hopefully adapt to the change and make image captioning a normal step in their social media efforts. (There’s a side benefit for them: Adding alt text to images makes them accessible to search engines, potentially giving them a boost in search engine rankings.)
But for me, the problem extends beyond big media organizations. I’m equally concerned with being able to enjoy the boatloads of photos my friends tweet, post, and otherwise disseminate each day – and I doubt they’ll bother to adopt image captioning as a normal habit.
Consider how roundabout the effort is just to enable the alt text feature: Users must go into Twitter’s accessibility settings on their smartphones and switch it on, meaning that people who aren’t already aware the feature exists will never encounter it at random in the app. Twitter has instructions on how to do this.
My guess is most people aren’t even aware this is a problem. Facebook’s accessibility page advises users to add good old-fashioned captions (read: not alt text) to make photos accessible, but most Facebook users are too concerned with loading their captions with snark or hashtags to use the space as a place to provide a proper image description.
Then again, it might be awkward to provide a literal account of precisely what is being depicted in a photo – which is why alt text is preferable, since it’s invisible to anyone who can see the photograph. Twitter now just needs to figure out how to persuade its users to make use of the feature.