'Loudly Crying Face': Your cute emojis are spoiling social media for blind users

Accessibility consultant Sassy Outwater-Wright is fed-up with people using too many emojis in their Twitter user name. She makes the case for a more inclusive internet while keeping social media trendy with GIFs and emoticons.
Sassy Outwater-Wright says there are easy ways to make social media accessible to blind users. (Thomas White/Reuters)

We use a lot of emojis online. Whether they're replacing the over-used "LOL" with a laughing face or showing off your fury with a red angry frown, we rely on them to convey our emotions.

And for the most part, they're great! After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

For social media users who browse using a screen reader, those words can be helpful, but they can also be a bit annoying.

"When a person puts ten emoji in their Twitter name, my VoiceOver is going to read out all of those emoji," says Sassy Outwater-Wright, director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

"If you see 10 of those in a row — 'Face with closed eyes and stuck out tongue,' 'Face with closed eyes and stuck out tongue,' — that takes a while to get through."

Sassy is blind and uses VoiceOver — Apple's screen reading software that speaks the characters, including emojis, on a screen — to browse Twitter and Facebook.

Because many of us use emoji to describe not only how we feel, but aspects of our personality, in uncommon spots like our usernames, it can be frustrating for those who rely on a synthesized voice to describe the scene.

"I'll unfollow people for it," Sassy says. Emojis aren't the only problem, though. "If all your post is is pictures with no captions, I'm not going to derive a lot of satisfaction from interacting with your content."

That goes for still images and GIFs. Often, these are posted with no context and in some cases, images contain critical text that can't be read by a screen reader.

But there's a fix! Sassy doesn't want you to delete the "Lovestruck Cat Face" in your name or get rid of all those Celine Dion gifs you've been sharing lately. She just wants you to help make social media more inclusive.

Caption your photos

This animated GIF shows how to turn on Image Descriptions in Twitter for iOS.

Twitter allows you to embed an "alt-text" photo caption. This doesn't show up for most users and is only read by screen readers. You can turn on the feature in settings. Facebook's A.I. captions pictures automatically, but often they're just rudimentary descriptions such as, "four people, dog, sky."

"Take a quick moment to think about 'why did I use this picture at this moment in time and what does this picture show?'," Sassy says. "Don't stress about it."

To help paint a picture, describe the photo: who's in it? What's the setting? Is there anything unique, funny or surprising? When posting a GIF, describe the animation and include any text in the caption.

Don't rely on emoji and use your name

Sure, you may want the world to know you own seven dogs and that you're a baseball, hockey and archery fanatic. But, you don't need each of those in your screen name.

"If you're using 10 or 20 of them, can we cut it down to a couple that really express what you're trying to say?" Sassy asks.

Pick one or two favourites to go alongside your Twitter handle and put the rest in your bio. That'll help screen readers scan through a feed more quickly.

Also, even though it might be fun to change your Twitter name to "Spooks McGee" at Halloween, some users might not recognize you as your avatar isn't "read" by a screen reader. Instead, incorporate your name somehow: how does "Zombie Nora Young" sound?

Spark producer Jason Vermes added a few emojis to his Twitter name. In the example on the left, too many emojis are used. On the right, just a handful illustrates what's in the bio below. (Jason Vermes/Twitter)

Listen to those with different experiences

It's okay if you don't normally think about these things. After all, for many, using emojis and images aren't detrimental to the social media experience: they're an improvement. Sassy agrees.

But if a fellow social media user asks for a description, politely offer a solution.

"Don't be offended," says Sassy. "If a blind or disabled person says, 'This isn't working for me, can you do X?' It's not a call-out. … It's just a, 'Hey, maybe you didn't think about it.'"

Even better: make accessibility a part of your standard workflow.

For more information about accessibility elsewhere on the web and for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have physical disabilities, consider these tips from University of California Berkeley.