Commentary: Facebook’s Accessibility Benefits Everyone

For a little over a year, Facebook has been working on a tool that will describe pictures to people who are blind or visually impaired. It consists of artificial intelligence, and automatically generates captions for the photos we or our friends post. There is no need to install software or take extra steps – the tool is available to anyone using a smartphone, tablet or computer. To get a better sense of how it works, read this Sandy’s View post. I also demonstrate how the technology works in this story from CBS 2 Chicago.

According to this article from CNET, Facebook’s technology promises to get even better! For one thing, photo captions are becoming more enhanced. Now, when I am reading through my newsfeed, some of the picture descriptions also include what people are doing. When this technology was introduced over a year ago, I would only hear something like “image may contain: two people, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” Now, I might hear something like “image may contain: two people, people smiling, people sitting, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” In other words, there are more details in the descriptions, and this allows me to better visualize the image. Using the same example, I can picture two people having a good time at the beach!

All people – whether blind or sighted – will also be able to search for specific pictures using these descriptions. So, if I want to find the picture of my friends at the beach, I can type some of the words from the caption in Facebook’s search box. As of the writing of this post, I have not tried out this new feature, but will review it in the near future. I can see this added enhancement helping anyone. Instead of scrolling through our newsfeed or friend’s wall, we can simply search for a particular picture and save ourselves some time that way. This technology currently doesn’t include detailed descriptions, like the color of the clothes someone is wearing, but I am sure it won’t be long before we start seeing them. This would make the new picture search feature much more useful.

Social media has become an important part of everyone’s lives, and thanks to accessibility efforts like those implemented by Facebook, people with vision loss can also be included. For almost a year, I have been using Facebook’s photo description feature, and it has given me a better picture (no pun intended!) of what my friends and family are sharing. Although this technology is still in its early stages, it has certainly come a long way and made a difference for people with vision loss. Better yet, it also includes features, like the picture search, that will one day be useful even to those with sight. I sure am excited to see what it has in store for us in the future!

Commentary: Finding Different Ways to See Pictures

Making photos on social media accessible to users with vision loss appears to be – at least for the time being – the latest trend. Last week, Facebook released its long anticipated tool that automatically generates captions for all of its photos. The tool, which I have previously reviewed, is only available on iOS devices, and there is no need to download additional software or take extra steps to use it. Similarly, Twitter launched a new feature, whereby users can write descriptions of the photos they post. Since I have already written about Facebook’s tool, this commentary is primarily focused on Twitter’s feature, and the pros and cons of both.

Contrary to Facebook’s tool, the new feature in Twitter is not turned on by default. Users interested in captioning the photos they post must first enable a setting on their smartphone. From then on, they will be able to add descriptions to all photos they post in the future, and those of us who are blind can listen to the descriptions with our screen-reading technology. This, I think, will allow people to provide more accurate and detailed picture descriptions. Unlike Facebook’s tool, Twitter’s feature works on both Android and iOS mobile devices.

Twitter’s effort to make pictures accessible to everyone is definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, not everyone (myself included) takes the time to write picture descriptions for all their photos, making them inaccessible to people who can’t see. This brings me to what I think is the biggest drawback to Twitter’s new feature. I wonder how many people will actually turn it on? What’s even more important, how many of them will take the time to write out a description for each photo? I highly doubt that the average person will know about this feature, let alone take a few extra minutes to describe the pictures.

Neither Facebook’s nor Twitter’s features are perfect. While Facebook’s tool provides automatic descriptions, these are still very vague in detail. In contrast, Twitter is giving users control and allowing them to write more accurate and specific descriptions. Rather than seeing these tools as a form of competition, I see both as great alternatives for making pictures accessible to me and countless others. Both methods are still in their early stages, so honestly it is too soon to tell which one works better.

My hat goes off to Facebook and Twitter for striving to make their sites more accessible for people with vision loss. I strongly hope that other social media websites will also take similar initiatives and develop new methods so we all can “see” the pictures our family and friends post. By introducing these new methods, Facebook and Twitter are helping us all get the full picture of what we should and can do to make social media accessible to everyone.

Happy Giving Tuesday!

Today is Giving Tuesday, the perfect occasion to celebrate giving and generosity. Those of us in the United States celebrated our gratitude last Thursday, and perhaps even got started on our holiday shopping during the weekend. Giving Tuesday presents us with the opportunity to give to those around us by donating money, time or doing simple acts of kindness.


Now in its fourth year, Giving Tuesday celebrates and encourages charitable giving and generosity through social media. Although the observance is relatively new, it has already made a huge impact across the world. In 2014, $30 million were raised in online donations. Today, over 30 thousand organizations and businesses from 68 countries participate in Giving Tuesday. These include nonprofits, small businesses, government agencies and major corporations. Last year, over 40 civic campaigns took place in the United States to encourage the observance of this day. Also in 2014, 15.4 billion impressions were made worldwide in print and social media.


To me, the beauty of #GivingTuesday is that it encourages all forms of giving. You can donate money to a local or favorite nonprofit organization, or simply donate your time to volunteer in your community. This is a global movement, and we all can participate regardless of where we are in the world. By simply spreading the word and encouraging your family and friends to contribute with a small monetary gift or their time, you are already making a difference in the lives of others.


As you might be aware, the Chicago Lighthouse has kicked off its first #GivingTuesday campaign, which aims to raise $30,000 through online donations to support our various programs serving children and senior citizens. Under the motto “My Vision Is…,” the #CLHgivingtuesday campaign showcases several Chicago Lighthouse participants, who share their dreams, or vision, for the future and for  their lives. If you would like to make a contribution to the Chicago Lighthouse, you can find more information about our campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #CLHgivingtuesday or by clicking here.


I encourage you to participate in Giving Tuesday in any way you prefer. Regardless of the cause or organization you support, you will feel good about giving or simply sharing your time and talents with others. The holiday season is here, and what better way to celebrate than by giving to those in need. Happy #GivingTuesday!

Commentary: Getting the Full Picture on Social Media When You Can’t See

The modern concept of social media is relatively young and constantly evolving. Websites like Friendster and MySpace began emerging in the early 2000s. Today, websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn are among the most popular social media platforms. The vast majority of content found in these sites is picture and video based. This can present problems for blind social media enthusiasts like myself, who constantly miss out and cannot get the full picture – literally!

Matt King is Facebook’s first blind engineer, and he hopes to give other blind individuals the ability to “see” the pictures on their news feed. He is currently working with Facebook’s accessibility team on an artificial intelligence based tool that will describe the photos people share, and they hope to release it by the end of the year.

As someone who is blind, I often don’t even bother to read – or listen – to the comments people leave about the photos my friends and family share. The reality is that even if I do take a few minutes to read through the comments or captions, I am still missing out on the content. Although my talking computer and cell phone can read text just fine, they cannot decipher what’s in the pictures for me. It’s not that my family and friends purposely exclude me, but the fact is that most of us don’t think to add in a descriptive caption of each picture. I myself am guilty of doing this. Why bother adding a description to my pictures? After all, about 90 percent of my friends on Facebook are sighted.

Now more than ever, pictures play an important role in social media. I guess we could say that a picture is really worth a thousand words in today’s technologically driven world. As an avid Facebook user, I see this all the time. If I’m lucky, my posts that only include text might get seven or eight likes. Meanwhile, the posts with pictures usually get at least 15 or 20 likes. Society seems to be more engaged with visual content, and those of us who can’t see should also be included as much as possible in this trend.

I applaud Facebook’s commitment to accessibility for people with disabilities. Technology has opened numerous possibilities for us, and staying connected with our loved ones and meeting new people has probably become one of the most valuable and cherished aspects. I hope that other social media sites will follow in Facebook’s footsteps, and that they too will strive to make all content accessible to disabled individuals. Better yet, I sincerely hope that one day technology will make it possible for me and other blind individuals to truly get the full picture of the photos we can’t see. Maybe then I will be able to confidently say that I am fully connected with my loved ones and the entire world.