Facebook for the Blind?

One of the recent posts that has popped up in my Google Alerts is Facebook’s new announcement in improving accessibility for visually impaired users with Automatic Alternative Text. What is Automatic Alternative Text? Essentially, it describes images on Facebook newsfeed through its key features based on object recognition technology. For example: “Image may contain food, pizza”.

This article instantly caught my interest because it always intrigued me into knowing more about what technology can do for the society in the future. While we who are more fortunate to experience new innovations in technology that has been commonly designed to our needs, technologies can often neglect those who have been marginalised and secluded from the bigger community due to lack of accessibility. As mentioned in the article, Matt King–who is “a member of Facebook’s accessibility team”–expressed his hardship in browsing through Facebook and felt extremely torturous on numerous occasions.

In the past, the visually impaired has been able to keep updated with the society through a touch of morse codes on new information. However, the increasing touch-screen technology introduced in new devices these days along with a visual-driven culture can make visually impaired people tougher to participate in the online conversation. Despite the availability of voiceover and speech functions, the speed of information that are flooding the internet space can be daunting to the blind since they are required to spend more hours processing all the information as compared to us who flicked through news feed in quick glances. This creates a bigger gap for visually impaired community who already faced difficulties reading and absorbing new information with their pure imagination, but also having to accept that they are constantly one step behind participating in the conversation.

Albeit a new promising step for visually impaired users, there remain some limitations to the introduction of this feature. First of all, it will only be launched on iOS devices on its introductory phase. This mean Android and Windows phone visually impaired users will have to wait longer for the launch that enables them to enjoy the same feature. The update will also come later for web users as well. Second, the article has also mentioned that “Facebook users are required to launch Siri in order to enjoy the feature”. For iPhone users, Siri is only available on models from iPhone 4s to its latest model, iPhone 6s. Unfortunately for those who owns models earlier than iPhone 4s, they will not be able to use the Automatic Alternative Text feature, albeit being first launched on iOS. This means that visually impaired users would have to purchase a new phone or device due to the lack of technological support.

While it can be a good news to be celebrated, there are still some disadvantages as well. Nevertheless, these are baby steps taken to help the marginalised groups a more accessible way to participate not only within their social circle, but also potentially with the bigger community. It is obvious that there are still lots of room for improvement, thus it is highly anticipated on how this features can function to its best potential as more research and development are invested into it.

Credit: Facebook on Vimeo



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