Social media platforms fail to offer options for visually impaired users
Sharing one’s life on social media has become an everyday occurrence for many. But nowadays, rather than posting a photo on their feeds, many people prefer to make “stories.” Major social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram offer “story” features that allow users to post images or short videos that disappear after 24 hours. Twitter also services a similar feature called “fleets.” Because they disappear, stories are popular among people who want to briefly share personal updates, their current interests or what they are doing at any given moment.
But posting stories on social media is not an option for everyone; a realization college student Jung Yoon-ho had last year.
“One of my friends is visually impaired,” Jung said. “He still has limited sight such as distinguishing between light and darkness, so he is eager to use social media. We tend to think of completely blind people when we say ‘visually impaired,’ but the majority of them are actually people who just have low vision, like my friend.”
According to Statistics Korea, over 252,900 Koreans identified as visually impaired as of 2018.
When Jung was promoted to a higher jiu jitsu belt last year, he shared that news on his Instagram story. But the next time Jung met up with that friend, he had no idea about Jung’s belt promotion because he was unable to view the story on Instagram stories due to its lack of alternative text.
Alternative text, also shortened to alt text, is written descriptions of an image which allow people who cannot see to know what the picture is depicting. In most cases, the person making the post manually types in alt text for the images they upload, so that visually impaired users can use software known as screen readers to have the alt text read out loud.
“I had been writing alt text for all my feed posts ever since I met that friend, but I didn’t think as far as stories,” said Jung. “Before my friend told me, I hadn’t even noticed that there was nowhere to type in alt text to begin with. Then I realized how strange that is.”
Instagram and Facebook offer alt text functions for posts, but not for stories. As of now, only Twitter offers alt text for both its feed posts and fleets. Screen readers cannot read regular text written in stories, as they become part of the image or video after posting.
While there is a feature that automates captions for short video stories on some versions of Instagram, that is a different function from alt text as screen readers cannot read the automated captions.
“Watching social media stories might not sound like a big deal, let alone an essential human right,” said writer Shin Hong-yun. Shin, who has a physical disability, hosts the Korea Disabled People’s Development Institute’s YouTube channel and podcast “Dangjangmannah” (which translates to ‘Let’s meet right now’) which features people with various disabilities who share their stories and challenge society’s prejudices.
“Discrimination doesn’t always have to be something overt and severe,” Shin said. “If someone is excluded from using any kind of service for whatever reason, that’s discrimination. In the case of social media stories, visually impaired users are denied their right to choose whether they want to use that service. There’s a big difference between ‘I won’t use Instagram stories’ and ‘I can’t.’”
Taking into account that many people today communicate primarily through social media and share personal updates via stories, Shin says social media stories’ inaccessibility for the visually impaired only worsens the exclusion from society they are already experiencing, and the difficulties people with disabilities face to maintain social relationships even in the digital sphere.
When Jung shared this concern with his friend Choi Bo-min, who is also a college student, the two felt the need to raise awareness about the issue and find a solution. Jung and Choi have been chronicling their progress on a YouTube channel they named “Woo-dangtang” since June of 2020. Two more members, college students Kim Min-ji and Kim Young-bin, joined along the way.
Udangtang is an onomatopoeic term for bumping noises, a reference to the countless trials and errors the group has faced due to the scarcity of precedents.
At first, the group submitted customer complaints to Instagram and its parent company Facebook Korea, addressing the lack of alt text for its stories. But after months of no response, they decided to visit the building in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, in which Facebook Korea’s office is located, only to be denied access to the office by the front desk.
The four students then resorted to filing petitions to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, but the result was equally disappointing.
“The Human Rights Commission of Korea dismissed our petition twice, each time on different grounds,” said Jung. “The reasoning was that we had to identify who the specific victims were, and what specific damage was caused. We considered specifying my friend as the victim, but the damage seemed difficult to prove. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Commission deemed that our petition was more fit for the Human Rights Commission and forwarded it there, where it was dropped again, this time for the reason that if the responsible entity — Facebook’s headquarters in the United States — is located abroad, there is nothing that the commission can do.”
As seen in the case of Twitter fleets, implementing alt text for Instagram and Facebook stories is more than technologically viable. Facebook, which owns Instagram, even has the technology to automatically generate alt text for images using artificial intelligence. So the question of why Facebook chooses not to implement this technology in its stories, as well as why no major organization in the U.S. has filed a full-fledged complaint on this matter, persists among the members of Woo-dangtang.
“Nowadays, many government offices such as the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency post Covid-19 updates and notifications on their social media stories,” said Kim Min-ji. “Major news companies also post their top news on their stories. It’s a big problem when visually impaired people are denied access to that information.”
Freelance anchor Lee Chang-hoon, who became the first visually impaired news anchor at state-run television channel KBS in 2011, shared his experience using social media.
“I appreciate how Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been offering alt text for over 10 years,” Lee said. "But I can’t use Facebook and Instagram stories. I can only know if someone tagged me in their story, without being able to know what it is about, because there is no alt text for the screen reader to read to me. It feels like I can only use half of the features a platform offers.”
There have been some legal precedents where companies were successfully sued and ordered to grant full web accessibility to users with disabilities. In 2012, the National Association of the Deaf in the U.S. sued video streaming platform Netflix for failing to provide closed captions for its online content, thereby violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The landmark ruling concluded that because the internet is widespread and indispensable in modern people’s lives, the online sphere is also considered public accommodation under the ADA. This is why Netflix today provides closed captions for every video it offers.
Another U.S. ruling in 2019 ordered pizza chain Domino’s Pizza to make its website more accessible to the visually impaired after a blind man sued the company. He had failed to order pizza on the franchise’s website despite using screen-reading software because the website was designed poorly in terms of accessibility for the visually impaired, not adhering to ADA standards.
Korea also has a similar precedent. In February, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that Korea’s ecommerce giants Emart, eBay Korea and Lotte Shopping’s websites failed to provide adequate alt text for images of their products, rendering visually impaired consumers unable to properly shop online and thereby violating the Anti-Discrimination against and Remedies for Persons with Disabilities Act. The court ordered the companies to improve their websites and make them fully accessible via screen reader within six months.
Nonetheless, there are no legal precedents regarding social media platforms and their accessibility to disabled users, according to Kim Min-ji’s research.
After realizing that their efforts face serious limitations as individuals, the group decided to reach out to various, more high-profile associations of people with disabilities.
"We are hoping that these associations help us contact Facebook Korea or its headquarters and be taken more seriously,” said Choi.
The group also sat down to discuss the issue with a number of relevant experts, including National Assembly Representative Jang Hye-young. Woo-dangtang plans to continue its endeavors while recording their struggles and progress on YouTube, hoping it serves as a guideline for individuals to approach human rights concerns in the future.
But even if Instagram and Facebook decide to start offering alt text for their stories, it will bring little change if users do not write the alt text for their stories.
Unfortunately, as of now, the concept of alt text itself is relatively unknown in Korean society. Even Kim Young-bin said that she had never written alt text in general before joining Woo-dangtang, nor does she know many people that do.
“Korea tends to institutionalize and separately educate the disabled population for administrative convenience,” said Shin. “That’s why most Koreans don’t have the opportunity to form personal relationships with people with disabilities, or even see them in real life. So it’s no wonder that awareness about the importance of web accessibility for the disabled is low.”
At the end of the day, individual users writing their own alt text is just as crucial as the function being enabled on social media platforms. That is why the Woo-dangtang channel also focuses on promoting alt text itself.
“We will continue reaching out to Facebook while also hosting campaigns to spread awareness on alt text and the importance of users writing it,” said Jung.
“We want people to know that defending the rights of people with disabilities doesn’t have to be something full-time or serious,” added Kim Min-ji. “It can be as simple as just typing in a few sentences of alt text whenever you post something on social media. Anyone can participate.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]