March 7, 2018

Sometimes things happen in weird ways. I think we can all agree with that! So, let me tell you a little story... A while ago, I wrote a post about effective social media captions. I preach this repeatedly to almost anyone that will listen. Especially on Instagram, but on any platform, I believe the caption of a social media post should augment the image and take the story that much further. These short little one sentence captions or lack of a caption all together drive me crazy.

So, I had posted about this. And I got a message that changed my perspective on social media in a way I had never considered.

You see, I have always created, educated, and advised content based on people being able to actually see the image in front of them. I, erroneously, never considered that someone who was blind would be scrolling through my content or reading my posts. Call it naive, call it oblivious, call it whatever you want, that's the truth.

But a wonderful fan of mine reached out after that post I had made about writing better captions. He's blind. He explained to me that he often relies on the caption of a post in order to understand what's on the screen in front of him - since he can't actually see the image itself.

I literally stopped.

My mind started reeling a million miles a minute.

It had never occurred to me to create content for someone who couldn't actually see it. But now that I was thinking about it, how was I supposed to change my content going forward? What could I do differently? How could others learn from this?

He and I chatted more about the topic and I was determined to get more information. He graciously answered a long list of questions for me and provided me with a load of information regarding the blind community and how they use technology to navigate our world.

This post is in full honor of my friend, Paul Ferrara with American Printing House for the Blind (APH), and his generosity to the topic of blindness and social media.

First of all, let me point out that, yes, someone who is blind can absolutely use social media. Paul informed me that they have a variety of tools like screen readers that can detect what is on the screen and relay that information. Apparently Apple products are much better at this than Androids, so Apple gets a point from me on this topic (which you know is not something I like to do!).

There are, however, some challenges with certain types of technology. Paul explains "Except for all Apple devices and at least some Android phones, just about anything with a touch screen is impossible to use with no vision. Examples include but are not limited to: Self-checkout devices in stores, appliances with touch screens and no buttons or so few buttons that only 10-15% of the functionality is controlled by them, check-in kiosques at airports, many ATM machines (though a few do talk if you insert headphones), and vending machines." Paul shared a relateable story with me:

"I don’t know what I would do without my Keurig coffee maker, now, but I remember the day my wife, who also is blind, and I were watching QVC. They described this particular Keurig, what it did, etc. Fortunately, I was able to call Keurig, give them the model number, and find out that it had buttons that operated the machine. There was a display, but you could operate the machine
without it. We had the same thing happen when we were looking at an air fryer. The on-air presentation touted it as having ten preset functions; you assume that means ten buttons, but do you really know? Not if you can’t see what the hosts are doing during the presentation."

When it comes to social media, I asked Paul if a blind person is a likely to use social media as someone with typical vision. His answer was a resounding "Definitely yes!"

Like everyone else in the world, "Age plays a role in it; some just have no interest in it. Having no vision, low vision, or typical vision would have no effect on that. People who are blind and visually impaired, however, use just about every social network: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. Snapchat is the lone exception. I never bothered to create an account, but others have tried and have reported that many portions of the app are inaccessible. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many people who are blind and visually impaired feel much more connected to individuals and even to the world because of social media."

If you want to know how each of the social media platforms stack up, well, I'll quote Paul on this directly:

"For the most part, they do pretty well. They have their kwirks as do the mobile apps. For instance, I use the regular Facebook desktop site to create Facebook events for our Museum because the app has many unlabeled buttons, and the m.facebook.com site gives me an error when I try to create an event. I can edit the event from the app and mobile site, but I can't create it. Most of my work, when I'm not posting through Buffer or Social Report, is on the m.facebook.com site as it is very easy to use. If I have to create a photo album, I use the desktop site. I use a Twitter client and the phone app or an alternative app like Twitterific. Pinterest--well, they are OK with accessibility, and I have found workarounds (Social Report helps quite a bit), but they have not been receptive to accessibility inquiries... Instagram isn't bad; sometimes, it's difficult to know if your caption was added as VoiceOver, for some strange reason, does not read what you type in Instagram. I have no explanation for this; Buffer and Social Report make posting to Instagram much easier. I don't use filters because I don't understand what each one does, even with the explanations given by Instagram. LinkedIn is almost entirely accessible, and I only, for now, use the site and not the Windows 10 or iOS app."

But, as I already mentioned, Paul says "The biggest issue for me, personally, is content where people add photos and give no description at all. There are apps that do try to find text in photos and describe them, and they will improve, but now, they are rudimentary and limited in their capacities."

And, things like infographics and gifs are nearly impossible for the technology to translate so they become essentially useless from this perspective. Furthermore, Paul says he doesn't "often understand what’s in a photo someone puts on Facebook. Sometimes friends add a photo; there’s no text, so it literally could be anything. Facebook’s photo description feature is nice, but it only can tell you so much. I cannot understand the content of a pin on Pinterest if it lacks a textual description. If there is no text description of a pin, you just hear a series of nonsense characters,
probably the actual name of the graphic file. On Twitter, you can add a text description called alt text to your photos. This is the same thing that people use in Microsoft Word documents and web sites to provide brief descriptions of photos. The great thing about alt text is that it is read by a screen reader but doesn’t intrude on someone else’s screen, distracting them in any way with extra text they don’t care to see. Thus, a tweet that is a photo with no text is of no value to me. Photos with text embedded in them are useless to someone who is blind and visually impaired. (PDF documents that are scanned images of text fall into this category also). Memes are too, and there is really no way to fix that, so add a description so I know what the post is about."

The good news is, they can understand emojis! "On a smartphone keyboard, emojis are accessible because the screen reader on the phone, VoiceOver, in my case on my iPhone, offers a description of them—“Slightly smiling face, basketball, hands raised in celebration, etc." So, if you want to add endless emojis to your captions, those won't go unnoticed 😉

Paul also brings up an interesting perspective on video content. Most of us hate when videos play with sound automatically (we're usually watching at work or in a location where we don't want the sound on). But he has a different perspective (which makes perfect sense). "Silent videos are a problem too. I don’t want to go to a site and have a video start playing without me selecting the button to hear it, neither do I want to have you introduce a video to me and have it have no sound or have the sound muted." This makes perfect sense when you think about it and realize that the viewer may have missed half the video if it starts playing without sound before they can turn it on.

That being said, when I asked about photos versus videos, Paul said "Videos, generally, are better as long as they have sound. The autoplay feature, though, is distracting, so please don’t make your videos play automatically. Instead, make the video player controls accessible so I can find the buttons for playing, pausing, and stopping. Then I can start the video whenever I want, and its sound is not overriding my screen reader. Also, please do not default sound to muted. Give me the autonomy to choose to listen or not, not by muting the sound, but by creating an interface with those clearly defined buttons. And, if I’m just not into the content you’ve provided, give me an easy way to close the video. Whenever possible, also include a transcription/close captioning, too. This helps people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and it makes it easy for everyone to find certain portions of a video."

In wrapping it all up, I asked Paul what businesses can do to create content that is more accessible or interactive. He answered "Caption everything, ensuring that the captions actually describe the content. An Instagram photo with a caption that says, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” tells me nothing. Thanks for the commentary, but I would prefer that you tell me something about the photo. Did you get the perfect sunrise, a photo of birds outside your window, children playing, puppies chasing each other? Describe your content. Add alt text to all photos, graphics, and other visual material. I don’t need a thousand-word description, but give me some basic information. What is important about this photo? If you know that, then you probably know what to include in alt text."

The reality is that most of what he recommends for businesses isn't hard to do, or that much more work that you're already doing. It's just taking a couple extra steps or bit of strategic effort to create social media content that serves your whole audience.

Now, does this mean you need to go and re-examine your entire social media strategy? No. But it's a reminder to know who your audience is. In reality, your audience is comprised of people from all walks of life, all levels of experience, from all over the world, with unique challenges to each of them. You can't possibly create every piece of content to serve every single person. But, take the time to get to know your audience. If there is a diversity or characteristic that defines a portion of your audience, it would benefit you to accommodate them with content that better meets their needs - whatever those needs are.

In closing, Paul left me with a brilliant caveat of perspective. He wants us to be able to "talk about everyone’s accomplishments equally without spending an inordinate amount of time
also mentioning disability. Yes, we have to make reasonable accommodations and make things accessible, but we still are people; some things we accomplish while others we don’t. We fail; we succeed. We do everything everyone else does. Some of us have kids while others don’t. We travel, go out to restaurants, etc. Now to say that this or that technology is fascinating, saying that you had never considered/thought about something, that’s all fine. Honestly, we’re amazed at the technology that’s available. Bottom line: For APH and for all of us, we work to level the playing field so that everyone has the same opportunities. Not all will succeed, but it should not be because they lacked opportunity.

I am not perfect nor do I understand what many others experience. But I do always try to learn with an open mind. I asked Paul a plethora of questions, including proper vernacular when referring to a blind person, and he generously answered them. He graciously participated and enlightened me. I hope this blog post brought some new awareness to you as well.

Paul Ferrara is full of information on this topic and is a lovely man to talk with! If you want to learn more about the ways modern technology help him navigate the world, APH has a YouTube channel with fun videos and informational content. You can view that here. And you can meet Paul's dog through these videos 🙂

Did you find this helpful? Please share:
  1. Jenn, all I can say is wow! There is no doubt that people often forget what it is like to deal with the world and everyone in it when you are different (in whatever way that may be!!). I really appreciate you sharing what you learned from Paul and, no doubt, it made me think! Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad you had such a positive reaction to this one (not that I would expect otherwise from you 😉 ) and I’m glad it made you think about this too.

  2. While content formats are changing on Social Media, like 3D posts in Facebook, this will become more important for marketers not only to focus on the topic of the content but also to decide the best format of the content to make it more meaningful and remarkable.

  3. Thank you so very much! I’m teaching beginning HTML classes and I will definitely keep passing along this information. This is a topic that needs more emphasis. On Coursera there is a great teacher from University of Michigan also teaching HTML5 who encourages captioning and other features for accessibility as the mark of all good programming. I totally agree!!

    1. I’m so glad you found this valuable in relation to what you’re teaching! And I think it’s great that you are considering this as a topic to be discussed in teaching 🙂 I’m also happy to hear others (the teach at Michigan) are advocating accessibility as good programming. That’s awesome!

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