Instagram layout asking for a description of a purple crowd photo at Holi — a Hindu festival of color. Photo credit: Pichamon Chamroenrak.
More than 7 million Americans are blind, and more than half of these individuals are ages 16 and older. A further 21 million Americans report functional vision problems or eye conditions that may compromise their vision.
I’m one of them.
I was born with congenital idiopathic nystagmus, a condition that’s estimated to affect 1 in 1,000 individuals. Having this condition means both my eyes make repetitive, involuntary movements (it can also affect one eye only in some people).
These movements vary between fast and slow, and my eyes might move more when I have to look in certain directions. It also means I often tilt and turn my head to see more clearly.
And while the United Nations declared internet access as a basic human right in 2016, the internet still isn’t truly accessible — especially for people like me.
When I’m looking at photos on social media, I often have to zoom in the photo to see finer details. Or I’ll spend at least five minutes trying to understand a photo and what’s going on in it. For photos that are busy, or with lots of action, it’s even harder for me to gauge the whole story.
There are many resources on making sites accessible for people who are 100 percent blind (which usually revolves around making your website accessible to screen readers). But these methods rely on designers, web engineers, and product managers.
For now, there’s not many tools to help users with visual impairments — although there’s one communal act anyone, not just techies, can pledge to do.
Blind twitter user Rob Long introduced this hack on Twitter and it went viral, garnering more than 140,000 retweets. But here’s how you can spread this movement across every social platform.
Write an image description for every photo you post or see
Photos usually have alt text. This is the text that shows up when an image fails to display. It’s what screen readers use to tell people with visual impairments what the image is showing.
But not all alt text is great. This is why people love having image descriptions that go into more detail.
It takes less than a minute and can literally make the internet a friendlier space for people in the middle — people, like me, who still need extra help navigating online.
It’s a way of including others who might have trouble distinguishing images, especially when a viral photo takes the internet by storm.
Facebook: Changing alt text or adding image descriptions
Did you know Facebook has an accessibility feature where photos are automatically captioned for you? This is the result of a learning neural network that recognizes objects and backgrounds in the photos.
Both features use an alt text standard that’s available for users with visual impairments reading their feed with a screen reader or Braille display. But the captions automatically generated by Facebook are often broad.
To make the image descriptions even better:
- Click on the photo you posted, select “Options” on the bottom right (it’s between “Tag Photo” and “Send in Messenger”).
- Select “Change Alt Text,” which will then bring you to a section where you can change the automatically generated image description.
However, this process can get fickle, especially on Facebook mobile. An easier way may just be to put the caption in the text body. People often format their captions with brackets, like this: [IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A dog]
Twitter: Turning on accessibility and adding image descriptions
When uploading pictures with your tweet in the Twitter mobile app, take advantage of a feature called Accessible Image.
To do this:
- Go to your settings and privacy and click on “Accessibility” under the General settings.
- Turn on “Increase color contrast” and “Compose image descriptions.” Turning on “Compose image description” will allow you to describe the image. (Don’t describe it in the tweet field. Composing image description is a separate button.)
- You get 420 characters, way more than the Twitter average. Remember to keep your image description simple and concise.
While the feature is only available on Android and Apple iOS at the moment, it’s still useful for users with visual impairments.
Instagram: Take advantage of caption space
When captioning your photos, it’s good practice to include a few sentences in brackets that detail what the photo is about.
To do this:
- You can do this underneath your normal caption. To space it away from the rest of your copy, use a “.” as a paragraph break.
- Example: For a photo of a park, write in brackets: [The park is busy with lots of families having picnics, with many sitting under the large, green trees.]
Three rules to remember
Rules to writing image descriptions
- Image descriptions should be simple and easy to understand.
- Their length should be similar to a tweet — about 280 characters — and could include features like placements of objects in an image, colors, names of people, animals, emotions like smiling, and the general surroundings.
- Try to avoid emoji, obvious details (such as a person having eyes or descriptions of the colors as it’s not necessary to describe what blue looks like), and anecdotes that aren’t in the focus of the picture.
There’s no cure to this visual impairment I have, just like there’s also no avoiding the internet or advancement without the internet. But with one image description, it could change the way people like me enjoy social media.
June Eric-Udorie is a journalist and feminist activist whose writing has appeared in Catapult, ESPN, The Guardian, New Statesman, and more. In 2016, the BBC included her in the top 100 inspirational and influential women for 2016. She’s the editor of “Can We All Be Feminists?” an anthology of intersectional feminist writing, which will be published by Penguin Books on September 25, 2018. She’s currently an undergraduate at Duke University.