Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have both announced changes to their platforms this month which set to make them much more accessible to partially sighted and blind people.

Twitter’s addition of alt text will allow braille or screen readers to tell users what is contained in pictures, while Facebook will start applying artificial intelligence to its images, to automatically decode and describe them when they’re uploaded to the site.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and the BBC are working to make their services much more accessible to blind people © iStock/ondine32

With 38 million active social media accounts in the UK at the moment, stretching to two billion globally, these changes are vital to ensure no one is excluded from such a rapidly progressing technology.

That’s not to mention how important social media platforms are in terms of social inclusion and belonging, particularly for millennials. Imagine struggling to stay connected with peers and colleagues on LinkedIn, or not being able to join in a conversation with friends around a tagged photo on Facebook. Inaccessible technology has the potential to leave users feeling very isolated.

Hopefully, these changes by Facebook and Twitter will get the rest of the tech sector thinking and spur other businesses to develop and optimise products in more accessible ways. That’s not to say that some big businesses are ignoring accessibility– Google and the BBC incorporate some great accessibility features and some of the big social media platforms already have their own dedicated accessibility teams. However, there’s still much more to be done.

Working with blind and partially sighted people on a daily basis, we know all too well the struggle many face when dealing with websites and apps which aren’t accessible. Text-to-speech tools (which convert text into spoken words) and braille displays help this community better understand what is being shown on sites but, unfortunately, not all online services are well suited to the tools these people are using. And this needs to change.

Businesses must focus on accessibility, or risk losing out  

As the majority of websites online contain images and visual icons of some form, the benefits of making these accessible will be huge – not only for blind and partially sighted people, but also for businesses. Take online clothing sites for example – adding alt text onto images of models wearing the clothes will allow people living with sight loss to recognise the style and colour of the garments, making shopping for clothing online much easier. But making images accessible is just the start.

Big brands and businesses have a lot to lose by not incorporating a variety of accessibility features into their online services and products – not least their reputation. CSR is a powerful business tool and something that all businesses should be doing as standard; neglecting it can be hugely damaging.

Not making specific efforts to facilitate the needs of disabled people and open up products and services to everyone isn’t an issue we should come across in this day and age – yet, unfortunately we still do. And while it’s not a legality, making strides to ensure accessibility is the progressive thing to do.

Opening companies up to millions of additional users

If the reputational risks of not doing so weren’t enough, businesses are also in danger of ostracising millions of additional users if they fail to make products accessible. Nearly two million people in the UK live with sight loss – that’s about one person in every 30. It’s predicted that by 2020 this number will rise to over 2,250,000. By 2050, this will double to nearly four million.

An aging population contributes hugely to these figures - one in five people in the UK aged 75 and over live with sight loss. Full digital inclusion is now necessary to ensure these members of society have the same experience online as others.

Sustained effort and investment  

Of course, making all online products and services is not going to be an easy feat -  particularly for developers working on online platforms that are constantly changing, like social media sites and content-based websites.

It’s those working in these fast-moving companies that must try even harder to ensure these changes don’t affect the assistive technology relied on everyday by blind and partially sighted people. With changes to technology constantly running the risk of undermining assistive technology, much more due diligence is now required.

Improvements to consider

The are a number of things that developers and business can consider to begin making their technologies more accessible. App developers, for example, could ensure that all buttons and elements within an app are clearly labelled for screen reader use. Without this, apps can be very difficult, and in some cases, impossible for blind and partially sighted people to use.

Websites would also benefit from using clear and uncluttered layouts – people living with sight loss often prefer mobile versions of websites as they provide a less busy interface and tend to rely more on text links than standard versions do. For this reason, organisations that invest into their mobile websites tend to be seen as more accessible.

Moving forward

The world in general, and particularly tech companies, are gradually becoming more conscious of the needs of blind and partially sighted people and it is slowly but surely getting better. There is a greater awareness of accessibility needs, which hopefully means developers are more aware of, and responsive to, the needs of people affected by sight loss.

We now need all businesses with an online presence to take the same approach as Twitter and Facebook and look at how their sites and apps can be altered to cater for those that live with sight loss. If we don’t address this now, millions of people could be left behind: the exact opposite of what we want when we aim to be a nation of full digital inclusion.

About RNIB

Every 15 minutes, someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. We are the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and we're here for everyone affected by sight loss - that's almost 2 million people in the UK. If you, or someone you know, has a sight problem, RNIB can help. Call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or visit www.rnib.org.uk

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