How Facebook Is Helping Blind People 'See' Their Friends' Photos

April 5th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

For blind people, navigating the internet presents a series of unique challenges, especially on media-heavy social networks like Facebook. In an effort to create an easier and more user-friendly experience for people with disabilities, Facebook rolled out a new accessibility service on Tuesday, designed to translate their friends' photos into text that's read aloud.


While technology has advanced to help visually impaired users read and communicate on the web, not all websites or apps offer alternative services like Facebook's new "automatic alternative text" feature, which automatically identifies objects in photos uploaded to the site and describes them in text form with the help of a screen reader. (A screen reader is a program that vocalizes things like links, buttons, and text for blind users).

A description of how Facebook's new feature will work

"Facebook's mission is to make the world more open and connected. This means that we want everyone to have equal access to connect with others," a Facebook spokesperson told ATTN:. "As Facebook becomes an increasingly visual experience, we hope our new automatic alternative text technology will help the blind community experience Facebook the same way others enjoy it."

How Facebook's automatic alternative text works.

When you scroll over a photo online, you'll often see a small display box pop up with what's known as "alt text," which are basic descriptions of the photo. But when your friends upload photos on social networks without descriptive captions, for example, visually impaired users are generally left in the dark. That's why Facebook made it a goal to automate the process, improving accessibility for any of the world's 39 million blind people who want to stay connected online.

So now when blind users login to Facebook, their friends' photos automatically come to life. A photo of three people playing at a park will be analyzed and captioned with basic alt text descriptions (e.g. "three people," "park," "outside") to allow the visually impaired to "see" what their friends' are sharing, to an extent.

"By default, Facebook will only suggest a tag for a photo if it is 80 percent confident that it knows what it’s looking at," The Verge reports. "But in sensitive cases — including ones involving race, the company told me — it will require a much higher level of confidence before offering a suggestion. When it isn’t confident, Facebook simply won’t suggest a description."

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