Commentary: Finding Different Ways to See Pictures

April 12, 2016

Making photos on social media accessible to users with vision loss appears to be – at least for the time being – the latest trend. Last week, Facebook released its long anticipated tool that automatically generates captions for all of its photos. The tool, which I have previously reviewed, is only available on iOS devices, and there is no need to download additional software or take extra steps to use it. Similarly, Twitter launched a new feature, whereby users can write descriptions of the photos they post. Since I have already written about Facebook’s tool, this commentary is primarily focused on Twitter’s feature, and the pros and cons of both.

Contrary to Facebook’s tool, the new feature in Twitter is not turned on by default. Users interested in captioning the photos they post must first enable a setting on their smartphone. From then on, they will be able to add descriptions to all photos they post in the future, and those of us who are blind can listen to the descriptions with our screen-reading technology. This, I think, will allow people to provide more accurate and detailed picture descriptions. Unlike Facebook’s tool, Twitter’s feature works on both Android and iOS mobile devices.

Twitter’s effort to make pictures accessible to everyone is definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, not everyone (myself included) takes the time to write picture descriptions for all their photos, making them inaccessible to people who can’t see. This brings me to what I think is the biggest drawback to Twitter’s new feature. I wonder how many people will actually turn it on? What’s even more important, how many of them will take the time to write out a description for each photo? I highly doubt that the average person will know about this feature, let alone take a few extra minutes to describe the pictures.

Neither Facebook’s nor Twitter’s features are perfect. While Facebook’s tool provides automatic descriptions, these are still very vague in detail. In contrast, Twitter is giving users control and allowing them to write more accurate and specific descriptions. Rather than seeing these tools as a form of competition, I see both as great alternatives for making pictures accessible to me and countless others. Both methods are still in their early stages, so honestly it is too soon to tell which one works better.

My hat goes off to Facebook and Twitter for striving to make their sites more accessible for people with vision loss. I strongly hope that other social media websites will also take similar initiatives and develop new methods so we all can “see” the pictures our family and friends post. By introducing these new methods, Facebook and Twitter are helping us all get the full picture of what we should and can do to make social media accessible to everyone.

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