What’s That? Explaining the Who, What, and Why of your Social Media Pics

Imagine you’re on a business conference call. You’re working remotely from San Francisco, and you have a call with three colleagues, all in the same office in NYC.

When you dial in to the call, two of your colleagues are chatting, waiting for your boss. “Little Henry’s growing up so fast!” one of them says. “He just started doing this cute thing where he goes like this, and then he’s like, does that thing….” The other colleague giggles. Meanwhile, you have no idea what they’re talking about, because they’re gesturing to each other and this isn’t a video call.

Your second colleague chimes in, “Yeah, look at my daughter in the little bunny outfit, isn’t she cute?”

Then your boss gets on the call. “Let’s talk about this quarter’s performance metrics. Here’s a chart showing our company’s productivity for the last three months.” Again, this isn’t a video call, and no one bothered to send you the chart ahead of time. None of your three colleagues seem to recognize that you have no clue what they’re looking at.

Sounds awful, right? Well, this is often the experience of blind and low-vision social media users. Oftentimes, our relatives, friends, or colleagues post images with little or no explanation. Sometimes entire photo albums may go undescribed. People may share flyers for important events on Facebook, but instead of sharing the actual flyer document, they share a photo or screenshot of the text, which screen readers cannot decode and screen magnifiers may not be able to magnify. We notice that our other friends are commenting on those images, and we’re left out of the discussion. This rarely, if ever, occurs intentionally; in fact, sometimes even people who go out of their way to include the disabled person sitting next to them, or who fight for their children with disabilities to be included, forget to ensure access when they share content electronically. Others may remember, but not know how to ensure access.

A first step to inclusion is recognizing from the outset that people with disabilities may wish to interact with material you share, and being proactive about making that content accessible, instead of waiting for someone to stumble on your content and ask for access. In this post I am going to offer a few concrete tips for making your content accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. We will address other disability concerns, such as captioning audio, in future posts.

We often share pictures on social media in order to tell a story or capture an event for others to experience. Blind people cannot see the pictures, and people with low vision may not be able to make out all the details. Photo captions allow us to experience the story you are telling in your own words. I wrote a bit about using photo captions in this post. Critically, to tell the story to a bblind person, a photo caption needs to make sense on its own without the picture. Although many people use photo captions on Facebook or hashtags on Instagram, they sometimes write captions that are so cryptic as to be meaningless without the picture. If you aren’t sure whether your caption is descriptive enough for a blind person, here’s a test: Try sending yourself an email with the caption in the subject line, without the accompanying picture. Look at the email and see if it makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, it probably won’t make sense to someone who doesn’t know the story behind your photo post.

Here’s an example:
Bad caption: She loves dressing up.
Questions: Who is “she”? What is she wearing to support your claim that she loves dressing up? Why is her outfit interesting enough to post?
Better caption: Little Annie loves wearing her pink dress to school.
This tells us who you’re showing off, what’s interesting about the photo of her (her pink dress) and why it’s interesting (it shows a bit about her personality, she loves wearing it to school).
Optional, more descriptive caption: Little Annie loves dressing up. (Description: picture of a little girl wearing a pink dress with a flower pattern).

Some people write wonderfully detailed photo descriptions in the caption box. These are great, but not essential in my opinion. When I read stories on social media, I’m mainly interested in the who, what and why behind the images included. Who’s in them, what are they doing, and why are they included? Often those questions can be answered in a one-sentence caption.

It’s important to caption screenshots as well, because screen readers do not recognize their content. If you can’t get the original version of a flyer or some other text shared on the Web, or a link to the original content, type the text into the caption box.

Again, the best-case scenario is to make your posts nonvisually accessible from the outset. Occasionally you may forget to add a caption, run into a technical problem, or if you are yourself blind, you may genuinely not know how to describe something. In those cases, if you can, edit your original post and add captions once you have discovered your oversight or received the necessary information. You may also invite commenters to expand upon your description.

Ensuring nonvisual accessibility on your personal social media pages will help all of your friends and followers feel included in the conversation. If you run an organizational page or post to a group, Ensuring nonvisual accessibility is even more critical, because the posts there will set a tone for the entire community. Describing visual content is one way that we can make the world more accessible, one image at a time.

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