Gordon Anthony: Here's one tiny thing you can do on Twitter to make life better for visually impaired people

CommonSpace contributor Gordon Anthony says technology has come a long way in enabling visually impaired people to be active on social media - but there is one thing that needs us all to play our part

BEING blind isn’t a whole lot of fun. You get used to not being able to do things which other people take for granted and you do need to rely on others far more than you would like. Frustration is a common emotion, but many visually impaired people (aka VIPs) feel this so intensely that they develop feelings of isolation and helplessness.

Fortunately, technology has advanced to a level where VIPs are able to participate in social media thanks to smartphones and tablets which come with built-in apps known as screen readers. 

For many of us, this is a lifeline. It’s a way to keep up with the world and to interact with other people. The benefit to the mental wellbeing of people who might otherwise be isolated is enormous.

One thing we have all found frustrating is that there are a lot of tweets which contain images. Screen readers can’t do anything other than tell you that you are touching a picture.

Many sighted people have no idea about screen readers, so here’s a quick summary of how they work. They are clever apps which operate on a touch basis. You place your finger on the screen of your device and it reads aloud whatever it is you have touched. It can take a while to learn the various finger movements such as swiping and tapping which allow you to navigate pages, but you soon get the hang of it.

Naturally, VIPs tend to shun visual media such as Snapchat and Instagram, but many of us use Facebook and especially Twitter which is a great way to keep up to date with current affairs and learn what your favourite celebrities are up to.

One thing we have all found frustrating is that there are a lot of tweets which contain images. Screen readers can’t do anything other than tell you that you are touching a picture. This can be extremely frustrating, especially when a photo is receiving lots of comments which make it sound very interesting but which don’t explain what the picture actually shows.

But help is at hand. There is a little-known function in Twitter’s accessibility settings which allows users to enable image descriptions. With this turned on, a sighted tweeter can upload an image and then add a description of what the picture shows. 

This additional text is invisible to most people, but a VIP’s screen reader will detect it and read it aloud, letting them know what the image shows.

Click here to find out how to update your Twitter settings

I cannot tell you what a joy it is to find a picture with a described image. The big problem is that very few people know about this function. Recently, the Royal National Institute for the Blind has been trying to raise awareness and encourage people to enable image descriptions.

And, instead of simply shrugging and moving on when we find an undescribed image, several VIPs, me included, have been telling others about it whenever they post an undescribed picture. I’d like to thank all those who have started to add descriptions to their images as a result, but they are still in a minority, so the campaign continues.

From some online discussions I’ve had in recent days, I appreciate that some people are nervous about what they should put in the description. There is no need to worry about this. After all, anything would be better than nothing. The more you put in, the more it will be appreciated by your blind audience, but even something short and simple like "man sitting on a park bench reading a
newspaper" provides the context. 

You could add more detail if you have the time. For example, you might say "elderly, grey-haired man sitting on a park bench. He is dressed in a business suit, is wearing spectacles and reading a copy of the Daily Mail". That level of detail is terrific, but you don’t need to write War and Peace to get the basic message over.

It’s a pity Twitter doesn’t have this function enabled as a default setting, but if you want to make your tweets more accessible, then please start adding descriptions to your pictures. It really doesn’t take very long to type a few extra words which can make a massive difference to people who spend their lives wishing they could see. It’s a small thing, but its effect is tremendous.

So, if you are on Twitter, please enable this function and spare a few extra seconds to explain what your picture shows. Every time you do this, you are helping brighten the lives of those of us who live in perpetual darkness.

Picture courtesy of Uncalno Tekno

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