FAQ: Improving the Accessibility of Social Media Posts

Last week, I published a short article listing the most common inaccessible posts sighted users tend to make. While it was not meant to instruct, I did intend to shed light and raise a little awareness. I refrained from advising sighted people to alter their posting habits in any way; I did not want to give the impression that I believe they are somehow responsible for making any and all material accessible.

Once the post had been published, though, several sighted people expressed gratitude, and were eager to make minor adjustments to their social media practices for the benefit of their blind friends and followers. Immensely pleased by all the enthusiasm, I agreed to write a brief Q & A, covering the most basic aspects of social media accessibility. And here it is.

Note: I’m using Facebook as a starting point, though many of the same general rules apply on other social media platforms.

Q: What should I do when uploading a photo?
A: If you upload a picture of your own, there will be no caption or description by default. A screen reader user will hear a string of meaningless numbers and letters (this is how photos are rendered) and that’s about it. They will know you posted it, but unless the accompanying comments provide context, it is impossible for a blind person to interact with your post. Most blind users will be perfectly happy with even the briefest description. For example, if you post a picture of your cat, you need only mention its name. Your blind friends don’t need to know all the details; if they are truly curious, they can contact you for more information.

Q: What should I do when sharing a photo?
A: When sharing a photo from someone else’s page, you may get lucky: there might already be a description or caption attached. Blind users can often interact with shared photos, because either the comments or the description provide enough context. If, however, the photo stands alone, you may have to add a short description, which is very easy to do, especially on Facebook where space is not at such a premium.

Q: What should I do when sharing screenshots and text embedded in images?
A: Many sighted people don’t realize that text embedded within images is completely inaccessible to screen reader users. The reader interprets the image as a graphic, and cannot recognize the actual text inside it. In this case, you may actually have to write out the contents in plain text so your blind friends can understand it. If it is a particularly long post, (or, as in some cases, the post is a lengthy article constructed entirely of images) it may be wiser to wait for a blind person to request information. Don’t spend ages writing everything out before you know whether your efforts are necessary.

Q: What should I do when posting from Instagram, Pinterest, or other largely-visual platforms?
A: Again, you must consider what you’re posting before making a decision. If you’re posting from Instagram, and it’s just a picture of what you had for breakfast, write a quick, plain text description like, “Look at my scrumptious chocolate muffin!” Blind users will understand the gist; they don’t necessarily require lavish descriptions of the muffin’s various attributes. Keep in mind, though, that most blind people understand that Instagram and similar platforms are primarily intended for sighted people. As such, it is not a sin to post visual items from those sites without taking the time to describe every single photo. There will be certain things we just can’t access properly, and most of us are totally fine with it. It’s not life or death, after all.

Q: Can you give me some general advice that will cover everything?
A: Yes. The best general rule is this: perform a cost-benefit analysis. If what you are sharing is important, taking steps to make it accessible is greatly appreciated. If you run a business or promotional page, you are obligated to make your content as accessible as possible. I recently admonished the CNIB for posting on Facebook without including a description of the photo they’d uploaded!
If you’re just posting on your private page, though, don’t worry too much. Blind people may skip past four out of five visual posts without being particularly bothered about what they’re missing. If you’re worried, extend an invitation to them, encouraging them to contact you when they want more information. That way, you never waste your time adapting things no one will benefit from.

Your time is valuable. Thank you for the minor adjustments you make for us. They don’t go unnoticed.