by Rab Bruce’s Spider

Thursday 16th May was Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Ironically, it was one of the worst days on my Twitter timeline for finding pictures with added image descriptions, which made it a very wearing experience. But it prompted me to think about the advances in technology since I last wrote a post about how to add image descriptions. And, since very few people add descriptions, it’s worth reminding everyone of how this system operates, as well as providing an update on what technology can and cannot achieve.

First of all, there are a lot of blind and partially sighted people who use smartphones to access social media. Their screen reader apps can read Tweets, but are stuck when it comes to pictures. To help them, Twitter came up with a rather poorly thought out system to allow users to add descriptions to explain what their photos show.

So, a quick recap of how to set this up. It does vary slightly depending on what sort of device you use to access Twitter, but specific instructions can be found in Twitter Help. As a rule, go to your Twitter Settings, then Accessibility, then scroll down to a tick box to enable Image Descriptions. Note: the precise wording may vary depending on your device.

Once enabled, each time you add a picture, there should be an extra box marked something like, "Add Image Description". Click this, then you should see an extra text box which you can use to explain the picture. Type the description, click "Apply", then tweet as normal. You won’t see this extra text (known as Alt Text) once you’ve posted the tweet, but Screen Readers will detect it and read it aloud to visually impaired people (VIPs).

I know some people claim they are far too busy to spend an extra few seconds typing a description but, quite honestly, that’s not a great excuse. I’m fairly sure those same people didn’t grumble about the extra time it took them to type a longer message when Twitter expanded its character limit from 140 to 280.

Twitter’s system is not great in that it relies on people remembering to use it. Many VIPs have been asking them to make it a default setting with the Alt Text screen appearing automatically as soon as a picture is added but, thus far, Twitter have ignored these requests. In the past year, however, other technology improvements mean that many (but not all ) visually impaired people have an extra tool in their VI kit. Microsoft’s SeeingAI app can now scan pictures within Twitter and explain what they show. SeeingAI is, however, only available on Apple devices, but there is an Android app called (I think) Envision which I have heard does a similar thing. VI Tweeters can also send a tweet to @Describot and receive a reply explaining the contents of a picture.

Whichever system the BIP uses, it’s not as great as it sounds. SeeingAI is generally very good at reading the text contained within a picture, although it struggles with copies of newspapers which are laid out in columns. It also has a facial recognition feature which often explains who is in the picture if the person is well known. What it does not tell you is what that person is doing other than vague comments like "Sitting at a desk" or "Smiling at the camera". It’s better than nothing, but the scans also have spectacular failures. I recently scanned a picture which was, I am told, of the audience at the Scottish Tory Party Conference. My scan said it was "Probably a bunch of brightly coloured flowers", and I’ve had another one where a shot of a marching crowd at an All Under One Banner event was described as "Probably some people with skis on top of a building". With feedback like that, it’s no wonder image descriptions remain vital for understanding.

Some people worry about how to describe their photo, but it’s not that difficult. Anything is better than nothing, but if the picture contains text, then a short note explaining the context should suffice. For example, if you post a picture of a Tweet by Andy Murray, then the description could simply say, "Tweet by Andy Murray". You don’t need to re-write the text of the tweet because the scan should detect it, but at least a VIP knows what the picture shows and can scan it if they wish to know more.

For more visual images, more detail is very helpful, and it’s really a case of, "Say what you see". So, you could explain a picture as, "A woman reading a magazine", which provides the basic context, or you could expand it a bit and say, "A young woman sitting at a table in a coffee shop. She’s reading a copy of the iScot magazine. She has long, dark hair and is wearing spectacles. it’s really up to you how much you type, but try to think how you would describe the picture if you were speaking to someone over the phone and telling them about it.

Finally, please add image descriptions. There are a lot of people I follow who still refuse to do so. I’m often tempted to unfollow and, in a couple of cases I have actually muted people who persist in posting undescribed pictures. It’s not something I like doing, but reading Twitter with a screen reader is a slow process at the best of times, and having my timeline full of stuff I can’t understand is extremely frustrating. Also, just because I seem to be the only visually impaired person banging on about this doesn’t mean there aren’t other VIPs who won’t see your Tweet. I know I have at least half a dozen VI followers. They may not all complain about the lack of image descriptions, but I know they all appreciate one when they find it.

Thanks if you’ve managed to read this far. If you have questions, just send me a Tweet or DM.