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11 January 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:49pm

The tiny change you can make that will transform the internet for blind people

We use social media for the same reasons as everyone else, and you have the ability to reach us.

By Rob Long

On 8 July 2010, whilst on operations in Afghanistan my patrol was hit by an IED. The result of the blast was my left eye being ripped out of its socket. When I returned to the UK, the doctor explained to me that my left eye had been completely and utterly destroyed. Not only that, but due to my injury, my right eye would never work again, and leaving it in there meant there was a risk of blood clots.

A couple of days later, they did the surgery to remove it.  I remember waking up afterwards feeling like someone had shoved a red hot poker into my eye socket. I had entered a confusing, painful world, and it took me a long time to figure out the full impact of what had happened.

This was when blind veterans approached me with their offer of a rehabilitation programme. My rehabilitation officer handed me a flat, smooth, rectangular device. And with this iPhone, my journey back into the modern world began.

I had a Facebook account, and at first after my injury I logged in on my laptop, using the keyboard to navigate, and software to read aloud the text. It was a frustrating process, not least because I had to listen to every individual story. When I got the iPhone, though, it was like magic.

When you think of speaking software, you may be imagine the slow robotic attempt at received pronunciation. In fact, there is an entire world of voices from Northern Irish to a rather authoritarian South African. I settled for Karen who is  an upbeat Australian.

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On an iPhone, voiceover software works by reading out the icon or text your thumb is over. I can use all the same swipe and scroll features that regular iPhone users enjoy, with the exception that I have to double tap to click on something. Thanks to touch typing, I can also write quickly – essential during heated Twitter battles. 

Even speaking software, though, has its limits. When I think back over my own life, I see how images shaped me into the man I am today. I’ll never forget the image of the towers expelling the dark clouds of smoke over New York’s clear September skyline, or the bus burst and broken in the streets of my hometown on 7 July 2005. This is all the more true with social media. When you have only 280 characters for writing, you can say so much with a powerful image. A great picture will be shared and shared. And yet it can be lost on me.

In this brave new world of pets in tutus, cats who resemble dictators and wardrobe malfunctions of political candidates, blind users can be left wondering how bad can a hairpiece be to warrant this level of anger. After all, a picture that has caused such furious debate may just be read out as “box contains image”. 

Different social media platforms have different approaches to this problem. Facebook automatically uses its software to try to recognise what the image is. It will give you a very rough estimation of whether it is a natural landscape, or someone is taking a selfie. It will tell you if there is a man or a woman in the picture, if a man’s got a beard and glasses, if there’s animals, water or clouds. It can go slightly wrong though – it assumes any indoor space is a basketball court. Apparently my friends are now spending a lot of time shooting hoops. 

On Twitter, on the other hand, it is up to the users to make their pictures accessible to the blind. You can describe your own images, so that when a blind users scrolls over the image it is replaced with a specific description.

One of the first images I came across that had such a description was a picture someone had posted of their dog in a hoodie. The way they described it, the dog was wearing a hoodie with holes cut out for the dog’s ears to poke through. They didn’t say which breed of dog, but I automatically imagined a collie, close up, in someone’s room. 

It wasn’t a groundbreaking photo – it was just normal. As I scrolled past it, I wasn’t conscious about being blind.

Recently, I tweeted screenshots of the simple steps that bring up the caption box and the public support for access was overwhelming, with the Tweet being seen (or heard) over 24 million times.

Captioning is about normalising social media use for the blind and allowing us full access to the conversation. After I lost my sight, I felt cut off from the world, even when people were there with me, because I couldn’t experience the social interactions others take for granted – facial cues, body language. People with a wide range of disabilities use social media to get involved with social issues, chat to support networks or just escape for a little while (possibly an afternoon) looking up goats that climb trees. 

In other words, we use social media for the same reasons as everyone else, and now you have the ability to reach us in the same way. Make us laugh with with you, make us cry with you, make us rally to your cause or oppose it with intensity. Just don’t leave us out.

Please remember to caption your image with a description. It’s up to you what you write, but I would say use your language as well as you can. Go wild.

Rob Long is a blind veteran and martial arts competitor. Follow him on Twitter @_Red_Long.

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