Photo of Kerry standing in front of a pink wall with her guide dog, Miles, a Black Labrador.

Unlocking the Power of Accessible Communications on World Sight Day

Blog by Kerry Thompson, DRF’s Senior Advisor for Inclusion and Accessibility

Photo of Kerry standing in front of a pink wall with her guide dog, Miles, a Black Labrador.
Kerry with her guide dog, Miles. Photo: Rucha Chitnis

For over ten years, I ran Disability Rights Fund’s social media and communications prior to hiring our wonderful Director of Communications, Rucha Chitnis.  During those ten years, I learned a lot about accessible communications, especially as I was losing my eyesight.  The ironic thing is that as my eyesight got worse, DRF’s communications became more accessible as I learned more and more what is accessible and what’s not.  To mark World Sight Day today, I share with you the three perspectives of accessible social media for the sighted, the low-vision, and the Blind.    

The Sighted

When I first began doing DRF’s communications, I was still sighted though my Usher Syndrome would mean my eyesight would get progressively worse as I got older.  My eyesight went through many changes – a narrowing tunnel vision, challenges in seeing in the dark or dim lighting, and a sensitivity to light and the color white.  In the beginning, I did not give too much thought to accessibility in social media because I made accessibility a top priority in planning accessible in-person meetings and events. That’s typical of most people who are sighted; they tend to think of accessibility only for meetings, but the truth is, we should all be thinking about making all communications and social media accessible.   Why?  Because people with disabilities use social media and for some, it is their only connection to the outside world.  

For those who do think about social media accessible, the thought tends to only be about people who are blind, but there are sighted persons who also need accessible communications.

People who are Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing need closed captioning for videos shared on social media.  People who are Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing and low-vision and the Blind need a video transcript when they cannot keep up with the captioning. People using a screen reader cannot read the captions on the video but can read the transcript.  

There are sighted people with physical disabilities that may struggle with typing and navigating with a keyboard or mouse.  They need social media that is easy for them to navigate.

There are also sighted people with intellectual disabilities and sighted people who are neurodiverse.  Both groups may struggle with processing language and/or information.  Content that is long, complicated, or overly literal needs to be rephrased in a more accessible way.  In some cases, these groups can also struggle with processing what is displayed in a picture.  Image descriptions (ID) are not just for the visually impaired; people who have an intellectual disability or who are neurodiverse also benefit from ID.  

The Low-Vision

When I entered the low-vision stage of my eyesight, I became more keenly aware of how this group is constantly left behind in the conversation about accessible social media and communications.

There is a false assumption that all people who are low-vision use screen readers and can read the alternative (ALT) text.  Yes, some may use a screen reader, but some are Deaf like me and cannot hear a screen reader reading ALT-text.  There are hearing people who are low-vision but do not use a screen reader, especially if they like me were gradually losing their eyesight.  We did not learn all these tools during our school years.  And a screen reader can be complicated to learn.  Persons with low-vision group especially benefit from image descriptions.  We may still be able to read some text on a screen but it’s a challenge to see an image.

For years, I kept asking colleagues who were sending me pictures to post on social media to provide an image description of the picture, not because I couldn’t identify who was in the image but because I could not figure out what was going on in a picture.  My low-vision had me scanning the picture repeatedly to put the “pieces” together.  Is that a man or a woman in the picture? I think that’s a tree.  I would try an artificial intelligence (AI) scanner that would autogenerate a description for me.  What did it say?  “Possibly a person.”  That’s helpful; at least I know now it is not a tree.  I often had to get creative in writing image descriptions for social media: “A group of people standing outside.” I couldn’t tell how many people were in the group or if there were also trees in the image, or if they were men or women.  I became a master of the vague.  

When I am asked what’s better—image description or ALT text, I always say the former.  An image description is shared within the post and not only can it be seen by those who are sighted and low-vision, it can also be seen by those who are using a screen reader. If you only use ALT text, which is embedded into the image and not visible, only screen reader users will benefit.  The rest of us will be left behind.  

The Blind

At this stage in my life, I am transitioning over from being low-vision to being completely blind.  Thankfully, DRF now has a director of communications, and I have happily handed over the reins.  Now, I can just focus on enjoying social media and not having to create it for a high-level organization where I worry about typos and incorrectly describing a picture.  In this stage, I continue to learn more about what accessible communications means for those who are Blind.  I finally did learn how to use a screen reader, which I can use with captioning and a braille display.  I will spare you the very complicated details of how a DeafBlind woman “reads” language and images.  

At this stage, I learned how little people understand about ALT text.  Alt text sounds scary and complicated, but it’s really not that difficult to create.  The steps are usually pretty simple: 1) Upload photo 2) Select edit photo 3) Select the option to add ALT text 4) Write ALT text 5) Save.  

Mostly what people struggle with is about the description itself.  You usually need to write a maximum of 100-125 characters.  Only X (formerly known as Twitter) allows you to describe an image in a thousand characters. Please don’t use that many characters!  Most screen readers stop reading the ALT text after 125 characters.  Keep it short, simple, and make it relevant to the post, and why you are posting this picture.  

My ten years of doing social media and communications for DRF have been quite the accessibility journey as I gained perspective through the eyes of the sighted, the low-vision, and the Blind.