Using a screen reader to navigate Instagram, as some people with low vision do, is a strange patchwork of sounds. It can be overwhelming, especially if you’re used to quickly scanning information with your eyes, to hear a synthetic voice awkwardly rattling usernames, timestamps and like counts as if they were all as important as the actual content of the post. If someone has added alt text to their photo in between all that auditory stimulation, you might hear something like “John and I are standing with our ankles in the water on the beach. John makes a sad face as I menacingly hold up a dead crab and laugh.”
The image descriptions used by screen readers must be added by users, and like many accessibility features on social media, these fields are frequently neglected. In those cases, the voice will sometimes recite alt text that Instagram or the user’s device generates automatically. The result, Danielle McCann, the social media coordinator for the National Federation of the Blind, tells me, can be quite funny. The descriptions that emerged from years of machine learning still often misidentifying what is happening in photos.
Recently, she was scrolling through Instagram when her screen reader said there was a photo of “two brown cats lying on a textured surface.” Her husband told her that it was actually a bridal shop ad featuring a woman in a wedding dress. “Thank God I wasn’t [commenting] like, ‘Oh those cats are cute,’ you know?’
These kinds of algorithmic misinterpretations are quite common. Here’s a sampling of descriptions I heard while browsing Instagram with VoiceOver on my phone: “red polo, apple, unicorn” (a photo of a T-shirt with a drawing of a couch on it),” maybe an inside picture” (a picture of a cat next to a houseplant), “maybe a picture of food” (a picture of sea shells), “maybe a cartoon” (almost any illustration or comic panel), and a whole lot picture of one person” (a variety of photos with one or more people).
As devices have been given accessibility settings such as magnification, high contrast and built-in screen readers, social media has also slowly become more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired: many sites and apps respond to users’ device settings, have options to switch between light and dark modes. switch and allow users to compose image descriptions. But the existence of those features does not guarantee that people with disabilities will not be excluded online. Social media accessibility is a group effort. People need to know the features, understand what they are and remember to use them. A platform can have a hundred accessibility options, but without buy-in from every user, people will remain locked out.
Even when people use alt text, they often don’t think very carefully about what’s important to convey to someone who can’t see photos. Some people will write overly simplistic descriptions like “red flower” or “blonde girl looking at the sky” without actually describing what it is about the images that make them worth sharing. On the other hand, multiple paragraphs of text to describe a single image can be tedious to navigate with a screen reader. McCann tells friends to think of alt text as a writing exercise: “How do you give as much information as possible in as few words as possible?”
“The general rule is to be informative, not poetic,” says the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). “But on social media, feel free to add some personality — you’re probably sharing that photo of your dog because, for example, he has a hilarious, questioning expression, not because he’s a black and white pit bull mix.”
While automated image descriptions can eventually improve beyond the level of confusing a woman in a wedding dress for some cats, they can’t replace the human element. Facebook had an image crash in 2019 that showed all of its users the photo tags that are usually hidden, with machine-assigned descriptors such as “Image may contain: people standing”. Are the people in that image embracing and making silly faces? Do they stand for a breathtaking view? Social media can feel a lot less social if your access to the content shared within it relies on conservative interpretations of computers.
Proponents emphasize that accessibility should always be a consideration from the start, “not as an addition to an already existing platform long after,” AFB says. But most popular platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, didn’t go that route during initial development and instead are constantly catching up to improve their accessibility. When those improvements are rolled out, there is never a guarantee that people will use them consistently.
One of the biggest barriers is the assumption that blind people just aren’t interested in visual media. “Just because they’re visual doesn’t mean they aren’t immediately attractive to people who are blind or visually impaired,” McCann says. “I think that’s a big misconception: ‘Ah, they don’t care about pictures.’ But we do.” When culture is formed on social networks, it sucks to lose a shared social language because you can’t see the images everyone is talking about.
Christy Smith Berman, a low vision editor at Can I Play That, responded to a tweet from TT Games announcing the delay of Star Wars Lego with text on an image. When she replied with a request for alt textSmith Berman got responses from people expressing disbelief that blind people would even be on Twitter to begin with, let alone care about video games.
Those false assumptions often keep people from having fun cultural moments on social media. Memes usually involve rapidly evolving iterations of blank images with small words in strange fonts. Viral videos are reposted and shared without any description, via audio or text, of what is happening on the screen. “Oh, that must be someone dancing,” McCann thinks when she encounters a TikTok with no audio other than music. “Well no, it’s basically someone making a cheesesteak. But I didn’t know that because there is no audio indication.”
“A lot of the memes people share don’t add alt text to them,” said Steven Aquino, a legally blind journalist. Aquino doesn’t use a screen reader, but relies on magnification, but he sometimes wonders what goes on in memes. “It’s really hard because I can’t see very well, and I just feel like, ‘Okay, it should be funny, but I don’t know.’
Aside from a simple neglect of accessibility features, conveying visual humor through text isn’t something everyone has a knack for. The funniest images are based on comic timing through careful visual composition, foreknowledge of a specific meme, or familiarity with various cultural references. Writing an image description for an esoteric meme can feel like explaining internet culture to your grandparents: you suddenly don’t know how to describe exactly what made you laugh. The complicated nature of meme literacy isn’t something we can blame on platforms — it’s just not something the average person is used to putting into words.
But there are other, less complicated factors that can affect the online experiences of people who are blind or visually impaired. Aquino points out that people will use special unicode characters in their Twitter display names that are more difficult to read and will not be interpreted as letters by screen reading software. A screen reader isn’t technically incorrect if it reads a character as “mathematical bold capital”, but most sighted people will simply read it as a letter with a different format.
“For people who do use screen readers, this software is just so smart,” Aquino says. “So if you have a smart name, your voiceover or whatever you use will fail.” Tweets with rows of emojis or lots of special characters to create an image or convey cursive writing can hell to listen to when read by a screen reader. Posting a screenshot of the tweet with alt text is a workable alternative, but people rarely know about this.
McCann is happy that many sites have improved their accessibility options over the years, but she wishes they were more widely used and wonders why they aren’t promoted better. TikTok has text to speech and warns people when flash effects in their videos can trigger seizures, so why can’t all social sites have better prompts to encourage users to add captions, visual descriptions, and alternate text?
“It’s up to the disabled community to educate,” she says. “Why isn’t there more education from these mainstream companies?”
McCann wishes it was easier for her to join the party when things like TikTok videos go viral. “Unless I have someone sitting next to me and explaining to me what’s going on, I definitely feel like I can’t talk to anyone about it,” she says. “It’s exclusion to a degree, because I like jokes. I like pasta recipes. I want to know those things! I am still part of the social fabric.”