What Twitter's New Accessibility Feature Could Mean for People Living With Sight Loss

Post date: 
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Terry Hawkins.jpg

Terry Hawkins, Head of sales at RNIB, writes about his delight at the latest photo accessiblity technology in the Huffington Post.

There are currently around 38m active social media accounts in the UK; that's around one account for every two people. This number rockets to two billion on a global scale. And while there's no hard stats, I'd bet that a decent percentage of these users are blind or partially sighted - there's two million people in the UK alone living with sight loss, after all.

So I was pleased with last week's news that Twitter is set to introduce a new accessibility feature to the platform, to enable blind and partially sighted people to digest images more easily. If you're not familiar with the story, the social media giant will enable users to tag their images with alt text, so people with sight loss will be able to use assistive technology - like braille displays and screen readers - to hear what an image is about, even if they struggle to see it. And if you're not sure about the term 'accessibility' in general, it's basically the practice of designing products and services for people with disabilities.

But moving away from the facts, figures and definitions, the most pleasing thing for me about this is that the announcement felt like a huge step in the right direction towards making life easier for those living with sight loss - particularly in Generation Y. Working with partially sighted and blind people on a regular basis, I can vouch for many when I say Twitter's change will be well received. Social media can be a poor performer when it comes to accessibility, which poses a particular problem for visually impaired millennials who rely hugely on these platforms.

Imagine being tagged in an image on Facebook but not being able to join in the conversation around it, struggling to stay connected with peers and colleagues on LinkedIn, or not being able to see beautifully visual things on Pinterest. These are just some of the issues concerned with bad accessibility on social media, and can leave users living with sight loss feeling pretty isolated.
The fact social media is constantly being updated to meet consumer demands doesn't help either. While it is great for your average user, having to re-train on how to use these platforms each time there's an update can be extremely frustrating for those living with sight loss, and assistive technology often can't keep up. And while many tech giants and social media platforms have their own accessibility teams to work specifically on making products easy to use for disabled users, it's sometimes debatable whether the needs of those living with sight loss are properly considered at the development stage.
At the moment, I'm unsure what the uptake of Twitter's new feature might be like with the average user - having to manually think about tagging a description onto every photo you upload could be a pain. But saying this, I do think it presents a huge opportunity for brands, businesses, and public sector organisations. Public sector organisations are increasingly using social to engage with citizens, and deliver information and services quickly and effectively, while big brands and businesses have long used social media to communicate with consumers, and build a loyal following.
Due to the huge diversity of content shared across social media platforms, these organisations now have a responsibility to make it accessible to all - which can pose a challenge. And while it won't be an easy ride, it's a necessary one. As our reliance on technology and the web continues to increase, and we access more of our services online, this change has never been so crucial.
So kudos to Twitter for getting things moving and starting a proper national conversation around the wider issue; I'm hoping the move will encourage more people to consider the challenges facing those living with sight loss, and adapt their products and services accordingly.
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