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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:

[vimeo_embed https://player.vimeo.com/video/161532965?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0 expand=1]

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