More

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

Facebook wants every one of its users to feel connected.

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:

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash
True

It is said that once you've seen something, you can't unsee it. This is exactly what is happening in America right now. We have collectively watched the pot of racial tension boil over after years of looking the other way, insisting that hot water doesn't exist, pretending not to notice the smoke billowing out from every direction.

Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away—it prolongs resolution. There's a whole lot of harm to be remedied and damage to be repaired as a result of racial injustice, and it's up to all of us to figure out how to do that. Parents, in particular, are recognizing the importance of raising anti-racist children; if we are unable to completely eradicate racism, maybe the next generation will.

How can parents ensure that the next generation will actively refuse to perpetuate systems and behaviors embedded in racism? The most obvious answer is to model it. Take for example, professional tennis player Serena Williams and her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

Keep Reading Show less

Most women, at one point or another, have felt some wariness or fear over a strange man in public. Sometimes it's overt, sometimes it's subtle, but when your instincts tell you something isn't right and you're potentially in danger, you listen.

It's an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless.

A Twitter thread starting with some advice on helping women out is highlighting how real this is for many of us. User @mxrixm_nk wrote: "If a girl suddenly acts as if she knows you in public and acts like you're friends, go along w[ith] it. She could be in danger."

Other women chimed in with their own personal stories of either being the girl approaching a stranger or being the stranger approached by a girl to fend off a situation with a creepy dude.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo from Dole
True

As you sit down to eat your breakfast in the morning or grab an afternoon snack, take a minute to consider your food, how it was made, and how it got to your plate.

The fruit on your plate were grown and picked on farms, then processed, packaged and sent to the grocery store where you bought them.

Sounds simple, right?

The truth is, that process is anything but simple and at every step in the journey to your plate, harm can be caused to the people who grow it, the communities that need it, and the planet we all call home.

For example, thousands of kids live in food deserts and areas where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited. Around the world, one in three children suffer from some form of malnutrition, and yet, up to 40% of food in the United States is never eaten.

Keep Reading Show less

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a badass in the movies, but he's increasingly building a reputation as a heroic "action star" in real life. Only, instead of dropping ungodly amounts of fake bullets into his enemies, Schwarzenegger has been dropping rhetorical bombs against his political opponents while building intellectual and emotional bridges to those who disagree with him but still have open hearts and minds.

The most recent example found Arnold responding to a comment someone made on Facebook. On the surface, that may sound like just about the least unique or original jumping off point for a story.




Keep Reading Show less

LEGO recently unveiled plans to roll out a set of bricks for use by the visually impaired. Using each LEGO brick's 3-by-2 grid of raised dots, the educational toy includes bricks imprinted with every letter, number, and mathematical symbol in the braille alphabet.

Why LEGOs? Well, the American Printing House for the Blind recently found that only 8.4 percent of visually impaired children read Braille, as opposed to 50 percent in 1960. With the advent of audio books and voice-to-text technology, reading and writing are becoming lost arts for the visually impaired, often for lack of resources or time — modern braille education methods include expensive "Braille writers" or a slate and stylus, both of which create text that is difficult for students to edit or erase. LEGO bricks are not only swappable, but children are already familiar with their mechanics!

Keep Reading Show less