More

How Facebook is helping your friends with visual impairments 'see' photos.

Facebook wants every one of its users to feel connected.

How Facebook is helping your friends with visual impairments 'see' photos.

Last October, Facebook announced it had found a way to make its platform more accessible for users with visual impairments. Today, the company has done just that.

It's all thanks to the fine folks on Facebook's Accessibility Team.


Image description: Matt King is on the left, Jeff Wieland is in the middle, and Shaomei Wu is on the right. Together, they make up Facebook's Accessibility Team. Photo courtesy of Facebook, used with permission.

The team, which took shape about five years ago with a goal of making the social media giant useable for everyone, celebrated the launch of automatic alternative text on April 5, 2016. The feature looks like it'll be a game-changer for the more than 39 million Facebook users who are blind and the 246 million users who have severe visual impairments.

Facebook is using artificial intelligence to describe photos aloud to those users. This way, users who are blind can "see" what's happening in their newsfeeds.

Many users who are blind or have visual impairments use screen readers, which read aloud the text a user is scrolling past. Previously, when screen readers would come upon a Facebook image, the technology would only be able to voice the word, "photo."

Now, automatic alternative text can scan the image, decipher what's in it — an object? A person? A landscape? — and provide a rough description.

So, in this pic of a smiling couple on a mountain hike with a beach behind them, for example, a user would hear, "image may contain two people smiling, sunglasses, sky, outdoor, water."

Image description: An iPhone screenshot of a photo showing a couple on a hike near a beach. Photo courtesy of Facebook, used with permission.

Or in this photo of a pizza, a user would hear, "pizza, food."

Image description: An iPhone screenshot of a photo of an olive and pepperoni pizza. Photo courtesy of Facebook, used with permission.

The new feature's rollout isn't universal yet. Currently, only those on iPhones and iPads can use it, but Facebook says it's expanding to other platforms soon.

So if you're on one of those devices and interested in checking it out, simply go into your Settings, select "general" and "accessibility" to turn it on. Alternately, you can ask Siri to "turn on VoiceOver," which is an iOS feature that allows automatic alternative text to do its thing.

The audio descriptions may not be all that creative. But they can still make a profound difference for those with impaired vision.

In a video announcing the new feature, Facebook shared reactions from people using it for the first time.

“I feel like I can fit in," one user said. "There’s more I can do.”

GIF of a person saying, "I love it, you have no idea. This is amazing," in regards to Facebook's new feature. GIF via Facebook/Vimeo.

Another user explained how the simple description makes her feel connected to the larger world.

GIF of a person saying, "That makes me feel included. Like I'm a part of it too." GIF via Facebook/VImeo.

Facebook's new feature is a huge step forward. But there are ways you too can help friends on social media who are visually impaired.

The simplest (but most effective) thing you can do is always include descriptive captions on all of your Facebook photos. This way, when visually impaired users are using screen readers, they'll be able to hear how you've captioned the picture (on top of hearing the brief description created by automatic alternative text).

So if you snapped this selfie...

Image description: Here's a happy woman outside in the snow, giving the peace sign with her fingers. Image via iStock.

...you'd probably want your caption to read more along the lines of, "Can you tell how excited I am about our snow day by the way I'm giving a peace sign out on the sidewalk?" instead of, say, "OMG, yes."

Those of you on Twitter can also make the Twitterverse a more welcoming place for the visually impaired by changing your settings to allow your photos to come with descriptions — a new feature the network announced just last week. That way, users with screen readers can hear your description of the photo.

Sure, this option is less game-changing than Facebook's new feature because Twitter users have to elect to change their settings and then make sure to add descriptions manually. But still, it's progress.

Facebook's new feature won't transform the user experience for everyone. But for those it will effect, this is big.

“That whole saying of a picture being worth a thousand words, I think it’s true," one of the users trying out Facebook's new feature said. "But unless you have somebody to describe it to you — even having three words — just helps flesh out all the details that I can’t see."

Now, a picture can be worth a thousand words for everyone. Job well done, Facebook.

You can watch users with visual impairments experience Facebook's new feature for the first time below:

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less