by Rab Bruce’s Spider

Over the past couple of weeks, several blind Twitter users, backed up by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), have been trying to raise awareness of a Twitter function known as “Image Description". I’ve been trying to do my bit to help by Tweeting lots of people to alert them to this feature. The high-profile targets have included the BBC, STV, Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn plus several other MPs, MSPs and MEPs, along with some high profile bloggers within the Yes movement. The response has been nil so far, probably because these people and organisations receive so many notifications they generally ignore them.

I’ve also been pestering some grass roots Tweeters when they post an image without a description. Here, the response has been better although a few (you know who you are) simply ignore me and continue posting undescribed images. I’ll keep hassling them.

One thing that has become clear, though, is that many sighted people have no idea how blind people can use Twitter nor what difference a description makes. So I thought I’d set out the issues in a blog post because, even with 280 characters, Twitter isn’t the best forum for explaining this.

Let’s start with the How. Technology has advanced tremendously in the past fifteen years or so. This allows blind people to use PCs and smartphones thanks to programmes / apps known as Screen Readers. On a PC, there are a few options available, with differing capabilities depending on how much you can afford to pay. The best (and most expensive) is called JAWS (Job Access With Speech). However, while JAWS is fine for reading documents, emails and most websites, Twitter isn’t great with it since Twitter hasn’t been particularly well designed for accessibility and, even if it was, the constant refreshing of the feed knocks JAWS out of its stride far too often.

Fortunately, smartphones and Tablets usually come with a built in Screen Reader. The one I am familiar with is Apples’ VoiceOver which comes as standard on every Apple device. So, if you know someone who has sight loss and wants to be able to use the internet or other online apps, an iPad or iPhone are ideal because VoiceOver works exactly the same way on every Apple device. I should say that Android phones and Tablets also have Screen Readers, but they all work differently in terms of which finger movements to use. The beauty with apple is that the tactile commands are always the same.

What the Screen Reader does is read aloud when you touch the screen. So, if using Twitter, you touch the screen and VoiceOver reads the name of the person who has Tweeted and then reads what they’ve said. You can then find the Reply, Retweet and Like buttons by swiping a finger across the screen like Tabbing on a PC keyboard.

So far, so fantastic. The problem comes when people post pictures. Imagine, if you will, hearing your phone read the following Tweet:

“Rab Bruce’s Spider.

Isn’t this hilarious?"

It’s not very informative, is it? If you then go into the Tweet and touch the image, you get more information along the lines of, “Landscape image. Double tap to see full size image".

Again, it doesn’t tell you anything. This is why, up until now, blind users have simply ignored Tweets with pictures. This can be very frustrating, especially if the picture is attracting comments such as “LOL" or “That’s brilliant!". Everyone is enjoying the Tweet except those who cannot see.

But there is a solution. Some months ago (or possibly Longer), Twitter announced a new feature called Image Description. At the time, I Tweeted back to them that I thought it was a poor idea since it relied on Twitter users having the patience to type a description of the image. Sadly, I was proved correct in this cynical forecast. In all the time since the feature was announced, the only picture I’ve ever come across with a description was posted by RNIB.

So now the visually impaired people (VIPs) on Twitter have decided not to simply shrug and move on when they find a picture, but are getting bolshie and starting to ask people to post a description.

Over two million people in the UK suffer from some form of sight loss. Of these, there are around 20,000 people in Scotland who are registered blind or partially sighted, and around 360,000 across the UK. Not all of them are on twitter, of course, but a great many are because, when you are blind and can’t get out and about very much, social media can be a lifeline to the world.

I should also say that many people who are registered blind still have some vision. Only a relatively low percentage are totally blind, but sight loss takes many forms and viewing images is difficult for most VIPs.

OK, hopefully you now appreciate why image descriptions are important. But how do you use them?

First, you need to enable the function in Twitter. You do this by going into Settings, then Accessibility. Image Description is at the end of the list. (High priority as usual, a cynic might say).

Enable this, Save and then you are ready to go. The next time you upload a photograph or any other image, you will be given the option to include a description. Because the description is text, the screen Reader app will be able to read it aloud to the VIP. Sorted.

OK, I know it’s a hassle and inconvenient. It may take you up to a minute to type a description, and the target audience will be small. But the Yes community has always prided itself on being inclusive, and this is one way you can demonstrate a genuine example of that essential trait. It will make your pictures accessible so that VIPs won’t simply skip over your tweet because it is meaningless to them, but will allow them to participate in whatever message you are trying to share.

If you are worried that you don’t know how to write a description, don’t panic. It’s not hard. Even a brief outline is better than nothing. It can’t possibly replace the sheer joy of actually being able to see the picture, but it can help explain what is going on.

For example, you could type: Ruth Davidson sitting on a tank, holding a Union flag.

That explains it perfectly well.

Or you could expand it a bit and say: Ruth Davidson, wearing military dress, sitting on a Mark 2 Challenger tank holding a union flag above her head.

That’s even better, although it must be admitted that it’s the sort of image which might make VIPs momentarily glad they are blind.

Equally, “Donald Trump playing golf" is perfectly adequate, although “Donald Trump lining up a putt on a golf course, with a crowd of photographers behind him" gives even more information.

One important point to note is that you might be posting a screenshot of a Tweet or a document of some sort. Because Twitter regards these as pictures, they are effectively invisible to the VIPs. The Screen Reader will not read the text contained in the image, so to make it accessible, I’m afraid you need to type out the text in the description. This, admittedly, rather ruins the time-saving aspect of taking a screenshot, but there is no way round it at present.

So there you are. I can’t emphasise enough how important Image Descriptions are to the visually impaired community. If you can help spread the word, and can try to remember to add a description when posting an image, you’ll be doing a great favour to people who would otherwise be excluded and who generally don’t speak up for themselves. Living in perpetual darkness isn’t a lot of fun. Social media provides a valuable lifeline. You can make that lifeline even more accessible with just a little effort.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.