Facebook Gets One Right: Opening the Internet to the Blind

Computers, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Legislation, Technology

by Joyce Johnston

Even though Matt King has screen reader software, more than half of the websites he visits don’t work for him as an engineer who also happens to be blind. Even small things like captchas—the security feature that requires users to retype numbers or letters before they can access content—are completely frustrating for DeAnn Elliott, who lost her sight at age 41.

Unfortunately, existing legislation hasn’t helped much.  The Americans with Disabilities Act dates from 1990, when private individuals didn’t have web access.  The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, controlling the use of digital materials, was passed in 1998—a time when disabilities and electronics didn’t even seem connected.  Finally, in 2006, the Act was updated to allow text-to-speech conversion of reading materials for students with documented disabilities, but converting digital media was never so much as considered. Worse, the permission, which has to be renewed every three years, was not included in the 2016 review.   The Department of Justice doesn’t plan to put accessibility regulations in place for another two years, even though it agrees that “The inability to access websites put individuals at a great disadvantage in today’s society.”

Enter Facebook.

Starting last November, Facebook began refining an artificial intelligence tool to analyze photos. As Mark Zuckerberg explained to an audience in Delhi, “If you are blind and you can’t see a photo, we can have our AI look at the photo and read an explanation of that photo to you. And, as Zuckerberg pointed out, using machine interpreters instead of humans means that photos can be interpreted at any time, in any location, for anyone with visual limitations.Alternative Text for Images on the Internet

Technically, the next step is to work on navigation features and making sure that screen readers are compatible with different browsers and operating systems.  Joshua Miele, director of the Video Description Research and Development Center, thinks there’s a human dimension too.  If users would just post their own face tags and descriptions, he says, the information would be much more accurate and individualized. To increase participation, he suggests adding a Facebook feature that would prompt users to add descriptors when they upload.

Of course, Facebook is famously oriented to trying to overcome its slowing subscription rate.  Thus, it makes commercial sense to start with photos since 350 million plus are uploaded per day. It also makes sense to add to Facebook’s user base by cultivating an underserved demographic. On the other hand, 2.3% of the U. S. population—almost 8 million people—is visually impaired.  But if Facebook’s initiative creates publicity, and that creates strategies to include so many who are now locked out of internet access, then maybe it’s not a bad place to start.


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).

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