Accessibility on social networks, a real challenge

The platforms have developed various tools to be usable by everyone, including the blind, visually impaired, deaf and hard of hearing. It is clear that they still have a long way to go in this area.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat… social networks have billions of users, but the use of these platforms is not necessarily suitable for everyone. Allowing individuals to connect, communicate and share, yet some people may feel excluded, including those with disabilities. We are thinking here of the blind, the visually impaired as well as the deaf and hard of hearing, whose access to social networks is not optimal.

Aware of this problem, the platforms have deployed functions and tools to make their services usable by almost everyone. Recently, instagram announced the arrival on its application of automatically generated subtitles for all videos. Other tools have also been developed and implemented, but are they really effective?

Alternative text, an option to improve

One of the solutions available for people who are blind or visually impaired is alt text. This is a written description of the image accessible using a screen reader that reads the text aloud using voice synthesis or by displaying it on a Braille display. Depending on the platform, it can be done automatically or manually. On Twitter, for example, users have the option of writing it themselves. Once published, this alt text can be viewed by hovering over an “ALT” label in the lower left corner of the image.

Facebook, for its part, is betting on artificial intelligence (IA) for his tool. In 2016, it introduced a technology called Automatic Alternate Text (AAT) that uses object recognition to generate photo descriptions. Concretely, a blind or visually impaired person using a screen reader hears what an image may contain. Facebook’s technology is able to recognize places, objects, activities and types of animals. It can also identify each person in a photo, but it no longer does so since a Meta measure announced last November. The American giant has ended the use of facial recognition on Facebook, which automatically identifies the people present in the photos or videos published on the social network. In other words, the AAT recognizes the number of individuals in an image, but it no longer includes their names.

Whether manual or automatic, alt text on social media still needs improvement. Some platforms have limitations that make it difficult to add an appropriate description. Until May 2020, Twitter users only had 420 characters to describe an image, forcing them to write a short description of the image. This limit has since been extended to 1,000 characters. And the function on Facebook may be wrong or may not offer a complete description. Aware of the risk of errors, the social network also begins each description with “Maybe”. It also allows the user to modify the automatically generated text.

An option for accessibility and entertainment

Text-to-speech is another technology used on social media to help the blind and visually impaired. It allows an automatically generated voice to read text aloud. This kind of features are available on TikTok and for Reels on Instagram. While these tools are useful, they can also be problematic, even outside of these platforms. They may mispronounce words such as first names or homographs. This risk is present with several languages, including French. A voice synthesis tool could, for example, make a mistake with the word “proud” which serves as an adjective and a verb. Another obstacle with voice synthesis: the language. Available on TikTok since December 2020, this tool is limited to a few languages ​​and is still not accessible in France.

Note that even if voice synthesis was created to help blind and visually impaired people, it is also a way to make content fun. It is not necessarily to make their platform accessible that social networks have deployed such a feature. When Instagram announced its arrival in the Reels in November 2021, no mention was made regarding accessibility. The platform launched it for its video creators to allow them to add narration without using their voice or humor.

Subtitles, a useful function for the deaf and hard of hearing

In order to make their platforms accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, several social networks such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter offer subtitles in their videos. They are generated automatically, with the platform interpreting what is said and transcribing it. People can then play the content of a video. However, this is not always suitable, because certain words can be misinterpreted and social networks themselves are aware of this problem.

Youtubewhich uses voice recognition technology to automatically create captions, says their quality may vary: “Automatic captions may not accurately reflect audio content due to pronunciation errors, accents, use of dialects or background noise. » It is for this reason that the video platform, along with others, allows users to check and edit subtitles. However, this option is not available on some social networks. Twitter, which caught up with the others by introducing automatic captions at the end of 2021, does not yet give its users the possibility to modify them. Another easier way still exists to avoid errors: manually write the subtitles to add them to a video.

A necessary development in the future

Among all these tools to help people with disabilities, a social network acts as a bad student by not offering any: Snapchat. He only recently introduced a filter with which users can learn American Sign Language and it has not announced plans to make its platform more accessible. Be that as it may, social networks still have progress to make in the area of ​​accessibility. A question that also arises in relation to the metaversea universe of more immersive virtual worlds and considered by some to be the future of these platforms.

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Accessibility on social networks, a real challenge


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