Visual Impairment And Internet: What I Learned When I Started Transcribing Facebook Memes

Partway through July, I started thinking about Facebook memes and how inaccessible they can be to people with visual impairment. I decided that for the rest of the month, I’d transcribe any memes I shared, and see if I could make it a habit. Once I started, I realized just how often social shares are actually pictures of text — which people who are blind or have impairment of vision cannot read.

Maybe you’re wondering how someone with visual impairment is accessing Facebook at all. The answer is that many use screen readers. Others have some visual impairment, but see well enough to read some text.

The problem with a screen reader, of course, is that it doesn’t “see” the text, in the visual sense — it’s a program and it “reads” only what is recognized as text, which means something typed out. If you take a photo of yourself and write “Selfie day!” across it and post it on Facebook, a screen reader won’t see those words as text, but as part of a visual image it should skip. If you want your friends with visual impairment to see those words, you may need to type them out.

Many of us go through life without considering how much we rely on visual input. I can definitely be guilty. Fortunately for me, I have a friend with low vision who has gently made me more aware. When I think of my friend, Keith Zimmerman, I don’t think of him as “my friend with visual impairment” or “my friend with low vision.” I think of a capable guy who DJs a radio show, reads a lot of the same books I like, and has a sense of humor I identify with.

People with visual impairment do the same things sighted people do.
Unfortunately, forgetting how visual impairment affects people can lead to embarrassing (and let’s be honest, rude) mistakes. A while back, my friend shared a meme that centered around the Care Bears. Keith transcribed the text of the meme but referred to the bears as “characters.” Shocked that my ’80s-loving buddy didn’t know the Care Bears, I jumped in to “educate” him. He soon corrected me — he knows the Care Bears, but while his vision is good enough to read the text, on some platforms it isn’t sufficient to identify the characters.

He was nice enough not to directly call me out on how rude my assumption was, but it was definitely clear that as someone who knows about his visual impairment, I should have known better.

I didn’t stop thinking about that for a while, and it’s part of why I started transcribing memes and pictures-of-text. Not because I thought it would somehow cancel out my gaffe, but because the error made me think a lot more about the visual nature of many memes.

So, as I said, I made a rule for myself: if it was visual and I wasn’t willing to type it out, I wasn’t allowed to share it. I invited my Facebook friends to call me on it if I forgot.

Visual impairment shouldn't stop you from communicating with friends.
It doesn’t take very long with that rule to realize how much people with visual impairment are shut out of a lot of viral social media content. I started noticing that instead of sharing a really brilliant text post, we often share a screenshot of that post. Again, a person with visual impairment can use a screen reader to access the text, but not the screenshot.

A tweet by Joe Biden went rather viral yesterday. As seen below, it’s a birthday wish from the vice president to President Obama, with an image of friendship bracelets bearing the names “Barack” and “Joe.”

On Twitter, the image got around a quarter of a million retweets. On Facebook, though, it was a screenshot that went viral. As I transcribed it, laughing to myself at the VP joining in on the joke about just how much he admires President Obama, I realized how visual the joke itself was — if you aren’t aware of the cute friendship bracelets adorned with beads shaped like flowers and smiley faces, you’re missing a lot of the punch line.

During the Democratic National Convention, I shared a letter from Bernie Sanders to supporters about protests on the convention floor. More accurately, I shared a visual image a delegate had posted. It was long enough that transcribing on mobile meant memorizing a few sentences, typing them, then going back to the image and repeating.

It’s not just individual memes that can be visual. Entire albums sometimes go viral — a complete comic strip or other story told in visual images, in individual parts, or a dozen individual funny signs. There really isn’t any good way to transcribe an entire album, short of downloading all the images and reuploading them.

There were several things I didn’t share last month that I might have if I wasn’t making an effort to be aware of visual accessibility.

I don’t describe this to exult my efforts in transcription, but to explain how the effort made me realize how much we share that people with visual impairment may not get to enjoy. I doubt many, if any, people hop on Facebook thinking, “Today I’ll share some things only for my sighted friends!” and yet that can be the end result.

When I went to Keith with my revelations, of course, I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. In fact, he went on to enlighten me further about how visual impairment affects internet use. A lot of online shopping sites don’t work well with screen readers, he told me. Of course, shopping sites are very visual, and text is scattered across the screen along with products, rather than in lines. Sports and entertainment sites, like the NFL website, can be similar. We tend to think of sports as a visual entertainment, but radio broadcasts of games are popular too.

Apps and mobile games often aren’t created with visual impairment in mind either. The currently popular Pokémon GO app, for instance, relies a lot on visual cues. Until recently, it used footprint images to tell how near a particular Pokémon was, and depends on visual images to declare what Pokémon are near. There is a visual cue (a circle fluctuating in size) to tell when to toss a Pokéball. The same can be said of many other games — they don’t take visual impairment into account.

Aside from entertainment, online job applications aren’t often designed for visual impairment, and applications for college courses and financial aid can also be problematic.

What sites and apps are accessible to those with visual impairment? Keith told me about a few. Some music sites and apps, like Pandora, Winamp, and iHeartRadio work well with screen readers, as does the iTunes app. Sites where text isn’t broken up into columns are more easily read by screen readers. There’s also a program called Station Playlist Studio that Keith and many other broadcasters with varying levels of visual impairment use. Reviews (such as the one below) even cite its accessibility:

“All of the key strokes make it one of the easiest programs for the blind and visually impaired that I have ever worked with, bar none.”

(In fact, Keith told me many of the broadcasters at Sky106, where he broadcasts his Candid Radio show, have degrees of visual impairment — and they rely on Station Playlist Studio or similar products.)

The American Foundation for the Blind also has a list of products and apps that can make the online world more accessible.

Overwhelming? I thought so too. Am I telling you you have a duty to type out the text of anything you’re sharing on Facebook? That’s not my message here. I’m not the morality police and everyone makes their own choices. What I am telling you is that if, like me, you don’t post on social media with an intent to exclude friends and loved ones with visual impairment, you may be surprised to learn that you could still be doing so.

[Photo by RawPixel Ltd/Thinkstock]