I have a friend who manufactures braille plates. These plates usually contain room numbers and basic information about offices and the other places in which they are located. Once, I asked my friend, “Mark, why are your plates so huge and so visible? Blind people do not need this.” He answered: “Visible plates promote inclusiveness and increase social awareness.” I wish designers of social media accessibility features—alternative text features in particular—had even a quarter of my friend’s attitude towards social awareness.
Texts alternative for images
Before I go further, let me briefly describe the problem to those readers who are not familiar with accessibility matters. When you publish an image on a webpage or on social media, you should be aware that it is not available to a blind person. My favourite examples are posts on Facebook groups related to literature. The typical post is as follows: “Fantastic novel! I couldn’t stop reading through the whole night!” followed by a photo of the book cover with no alternative text. It is terribly frustrating for a person who loves books but cannot see the book cover and therefore does not know what book is being referenced. You might of course describe the image in your post or on your webpage; (some people do this) but this solution is only a workaround – the description is seen by everyone, and it strongly influences your message. For example, a meme with a description as a visible caption may not have such a striking effect than one that doesn’t include visible descriptive text.
This problem is resolved by so called “alt text”. Images published on webpages and most social media platforms can have alternative text added. This alternative text is not visible on the page and doesn’t spoil the view of your image, but it is read by screen reading applications used by blind persons. With alt text you can add a description of your image so that the image is understandable by blind persons, but the description itself is not noticed by your sighted audience.
A bit of history
Text alternatives to images have been used for years. The problem was that they have been used mainly by accessibility professionals. “Wait, wait,” one might say, “web developers have known about them as well. It’s their job.” Sure, but knowing specifications does not necessarily mean understanding why and when something should be used. Accessibility awareness among developers has recently increased, but even a few years ago, I met a web developer who was convinced that the main task of the ALT attribute was to increase page searchability. Presentations on how to make the web accessible were always eye-opening events.
In the past if you wanted to make web content accessible, you needed to have knowledge. Good intentions were not enough. You had to know at least basic HTML. If you used a CMS, the situation was even worse, because at that time CMSes rarely allowed adding alternative text to images and changing the page source was (and still is) prohibited. This meant that laypeople, who ran their pages using webpage creators or provided content on behalf of their organizations, could actually do little to increase digital accessibility.
Social media changed the digital world. Now everybody is a publisher. Everyone is a creator and commentator. Social media is now as integral to our lives as face-to-face meetings, going to the cinema or travelling. Publishing an image has become easier than publishing text. It requires just a phone with a camera. Publishing an accessible image has also never been so easy; or, it could be easy if social media tools were designed differently.
A well-designed app is one that doesn’t make you think about its interface. The less you must configure, the less you must tap, click or press to achieve your goal, the better. You take a picture, add a few words—or not—and publish it. If you would like to make your picture accessible (which you should), you just add an alternative description to your photo. Actually, this part is not so easy, though it could be. Neither LinkedIn (important for professionals), nor Facebook or Twitter (media popular among blind persons) make it easy to post images with alternative descriptions.
When you sign into LinkedIn, the process of adding an alternative text is close to ideal. When you upload a photo, you see various editing options including “Add alt text”. It is not perfect, however, because the user needs to know what “alt text” is. If you are a curious person and select the “Add alt text” button, you will learn that “By adding alternative text that describes the contents of the photo, you are making your image more accessible”. Again, if you are not familiar with accessibility, you may ask yourself “accessible for whom?”. Ultimately, LinkedIn allows you to publish accessible images easily and rather comfortably.
“But what about mobile apps?” you might ask. The answer is simple. You cannot add alternative text in either the LinkedIn app for Android or for iOS. Why? You’ll have to ask the developers.
Adding alternative text on Facebook is relatively easy. When you upload a photo, you need to open “edit photo”, though I’m not sure how many people edit their photos before publishing. Those who don’t will not learn about the feature to add alternative text to images. The option to add an alternative text on Facebook is called “Alt text”, so again, you need to know what you are looking for. But if you are a curious person and open “Alt text,” you will find that: “Add alternative text that describes the contents of the photo for people with visual impairments”.
It is also worth mentioning that Facebook provides automatically generated descriptions for images. So, if no alternative text has been provided by the publisher, often a blind person may still learn something about the content of the image. However, the automatically generated description, even when correct, is almost always general, e.g. “Image may contain: bird, sky, outdoor, water and nature.”
By no means should they be treated as a replacement for human descriptions (at least not yet).
Whereas adding alternative text via Facebook is relatively easy, things become complicated when we want to perform the same task on the Facebook app for iOS. On your iPhone, you must publish an inaccessible photo first and hope that your blind audience does not notice it too quickly. Then, you open your post, select “More” and then select the “Edit Alt Text” option, where you can replace the automatically generated description with your own. You cannot add alternative text before publishing the photo.
As for Android, adding alternative text is not available at all in the Facebook app. Why? That’s a question for the developers. But I still remember showing some pedagogy students how to add alternative descriptions to Facebook images, and how disappointed they were to learn that that feature is easiest to use on PC, and not available at all on Android. It seemed that none of these young people used a computer to publish to Facebook. Frankly speaking, I don’t either.
Let’s start from the end. On Twitter, you can add alternative descriptions to your images on Android, iOS and at www.twitter.com. Hurray! Moreover, as with LinkedIn, you don’t need to search for the option. When you add a photo, there is an “Add description” button available. But, unlike LinkedIn and Facebook, you don’t have to know what “add description” means. There is no risk that you will mistake it for a caption, for instance. However, you will never see the “add description” button unless you go to “Settings and privacy”, open “Accessibility” and check “Compose image descriptions” to enable the feature. You would be a very curious person to accidentally learn about the “add description” feature on Twitter, as it is so well hidden.
Is it accessibility?
It is great that on LinkedIn on PC, on Facebook on PC and iOS and on Twitter on PC, iOS and Android, you can describe your photos and other images so that they are meaningful for blind persons. But as long as this feature is not properly displayed, described and available on mobile phones (with the exception of Twitter), people will not use it. “Fake accessibility” is perhaps too strong a term, but there is something neither real nor accessible in a feature that is well hidden and/or not available on most devices.