What happens when you use social media with a screen reader?

Woman using a computer and screen reader

If you’ve used social media, ever, you’ll have likely seen image descriptions on the social posts of some of your favourite influencers. The purpose of these descriptions is to make posts more accessible to those with visual impairments, whether they’re using screen readers or not.

They have the additional benefit of raising further awareness to those of us who do not require screen readers, but want to make the digital landscape more accessible. They are also pretty good for SEO and search functionality too… which is nice if you’re into that sort of thing.

“But Kelsey, you don’t use alt text OR image descriptions” I hear you say… Exactly! I’ve never been one to do something without first understanding what the outcome will be (I’m incredibly risk-averse).

I wanted to understand exactly what kinds of issues people are faced with when using screen readers, to provide a guideline for not only Electric Peach, but our clients, friends, family, and random people on the internet.

So I downloaded a screen reader on Desktop and Mobile, and looked through the good, the bad, and the not-too-bad-but-could-be-better™. Here’s what I discovered.

Why is accessibility important on social media

Accessibility and the internet is no new thing. Public sector websites were legally required to meet accessibility regulations way back in 2019, however, there are currently no regulations on how these organisations should be using their social media.

With 45% of people surveyed by Ofcom stating they gain their news from social media, it stands to reason that our social channels should match the same standard of accessibility as our websites do.

But are they?

Looking specifically at screen reader use, I will be exploring how popular screen readers handle different social platforms.

“Go on then, tell us about the experiment”

Ok, I will!

To do this experiment, I used two devices and their respective screen readers. These include:

  • Mobile: Google Pixel – with it’s native screen reader TalkBack
  • Desktop: HP Omen – With NVAccess

“Kelsey quit showing off about all the technology you own and get to the point”

That’s incredibly rude, and actually only a little bit of what I was doing. You see there are multiple different kinds of native and downloadable screen readers, each of which may process social media platforms differently. So, my experience with these readers may be vastly different to others out there.

Let’s review how these screen readers work with LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram:

Screen reader use on Twitter and Linkedin

Oof mate, Twitter and Linkedin.

So the positives… They do have an option for adding alt text to images.

Negatives, well… if you have Hashtags, @’ed contacts or external links throughout important content, it breaks up the screen readers flow, causing the reader to stop reading. My recommendation would be to save hashtags, @’s and links to the very end of any content you post.

They also don’t have the same level of smart features that systems like Facebook do. So they won’t try to decipher what your images include, and instead will state there is “No alternative text description for this image”.

Pretty annoying really, when all you wanna do is have a little afternoon scroll through your network and that one teacher you added in school to pad out your followers… Just me? Ok.

But we shouldn’t be relying on those smart features anyway. When uploading a post, particularly one with crucial information, it’s more accessible to put key information in a description, rather than an image.

Screen reader use on Facebook and Instagram

Oof mate, Facebook and Instagram…

They do make an attempt to translate or describe images on behalf of the reader. BUT as I said previously, we should not rely on this. If the image is not clear enough, at a great enough colour contrast, or if the text isn’t laid out linearly, it can come out… weird.

Video and gif readability is limited/non-existent. My suggestion would be to always add any key visual components that require reading to the image description or adding a URL or PDF for further information. Always ensure that everything is explained verbally. In this instance, tell, don’t (only) show.

Random other annoyances include things like multiple full stops. If you use a full stop to leave a gap between description and hashtags or image descriptions, each and everyone one of those dots is read out loud. As an alternative, just use standard spaces or paragraph breaks.

How to make your social posts accessible

I am sure there are tips and tricks used by the screen reading user community that alleviate the types of issues that I experienced. Nonetheless, 30.4% of blind users report losing time due to frustrating screen reader experiences, so it’s worth doing everything we can to make it as simple as possible.

5 tips to make your social media screen reader-friendly

  1. Don’t break up content with emoji’s, URLs, @’s or hashtags. Let the content flow naturally, and add any peppering of these things to the end of your copy.
  2. Make use of alt and image descriptions! Big exclamation mark here. Don’t hide written content in your images, you are reducing your chance of being noticed by a whole community of people who rely on screen readers, and also reducing your chances of being picked up on search, too. Alt text always, and image descriptions, particularly if there is something valuable in video content.
  3. Don’t use full stops to break up content. And by this, I mean typing a regular description, then using a full line of full stops before sharing an image description. It’s not common, but I did experience it, and it felt like an ellipsis apocalypse.
  4. Use capital letters to separate words in your hashtags. Not only does it prevent misreading content, but it also helps the screen reader separate the words and read them properly.
  5. When sharing PDF’s, make them accessible too. You can make your social channels the most accessible spaces out there, but if you are directing users to a PDF of non-screen reader friendly content, then there is still room for improvement. More on accessible PDFs here.

And there you have it. Since there are no existing regulations on social media use and accessibility, all we can do is continue to research, try our best and make improvements any way we can. It won’t happen overnight, but hopefully with time, these processes will become a natural part of our day to day posting.

There are some incredibly valuable personal experiences out there of social media use for visually impaired people, such as the blog Life of a Blind Girl. These resources give far more additional insight into how these platforms are engaged with and help us all to understand how we can put a focus on accessibility.

Woman using a computer and screen reader

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