Building Blind-Friendly Websites: Facebook and Twitter Finally Introduce Alt Text

By 2020, there are expected to be over 30 million blind people in India. With the numbers of partially sighted people increasing globally, Facebook and Twitter recently announced huge changes to improve the accessibility of their websites. This includes incorporating the latest artificial intelligence (AI), to describe images to blind users. While there has been an advancement in offline assistive technologies, internet services have struggled to make their websites accessible to the visually-impaired. Here is how some of the latest alt text software is revolutionizing the online world.

Alternative Text for Twitter Apps

With over 2 billion images being uploaded to social media each day, it has become a normal part of everyday life. We spend hours of each day looking through viral photos, memes, infographics and holiday snaps of our friends. For younger users especially, the sharing and viewing of photos is an important part of feeling included in society.

However, ensuring online accessibility for everyone has only recently become a priority for the most popular social networks. It was only in March 2016 that Twitter announced the use of alternative text in its iOS and Android apps. By enabling the accessibility feature, users can add a description of the image as they upload it. This will then be described to visually-impaired users.

Being able to interact with online images is now an important part of belonging to a community and a social circle. More than ever, people are communicating through memes and emojis. However, Twitter images will only include descriptions if the uploader has provided one themselves.

Facebook’s AI Automatic Alternative Text

To become more inclusive, Facebook has gone a step further and developed new software that can automatically decode what is shown in an image and describe it out loud. Previously, a screen reader would only reveal the name of the person sharing an image, followed by the word “photo”.

This is clearly not satisfactory for the visually-impaired. They want to know what the picture shows, whether it is a wedding photo or a new puppy, it is important that people who are blind are able to experience the life events of their friends and family.

Rather than users themselves having to manually input descriptions, Facebook’s AI will scan the image to determine what is included. This means that as a visually-impaired or blind user scrolls through their newsfeed, they will automatically be told what is shown in the image.

Facebook has taken a bigger step to helping the visually-impaired than Twitter, but both are moving the right direction. It is hoped now that other services such as SnapChat, WhatsApp and Instagram will do the same.

The move towards a blind-friendly online environment has been slow, with many social media outlets focusing on the visual aesthetics of their platforms. In a bid to increase accessibility, the recent announcements of both Facebook and Twitter are hugely welcomed. However, these are not the only photo-heavy sites used by the visually impaired and other websites should do more to incorporate alt text into their websites.

This article was written by Jackie Edwards as a guest. Thank you for this wonderful writeup

About Jackie Edwards

I’m Jackie and I’m now an editor, researcher, and writer. I formerly worked in IT, specialising in software engineering and later, web design.

One of my special interests in my previous career was making sure websites were designed with accessibility in mind, whether the user had a cognitive, hearing, mobility or sight impairment, which made web access difficult. This was important to me as I am on the Autism Spectrum. Recently, I’ve helped to research and edit a piece on how to make websites accessible for all and I’d like to share it with you: How to Ensure Accessibility for Every Online Audience

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