This is not a comprehensive guide, and obviously (or hopefully would be obvious once you read this) it is meant for individuals or small grassroots groups with NO BUDGET. If you can, then you should budget to hire an accessibility specialist. Similarly, if you have a budget, then you should be budgeting to hire someone to caption your videos. Etc. You get the idea. I wrote this information for the people and groups who have zero dollars and who frequently say “well we really WANT to be accessible in our social media but it’s SO HARD and WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!!”
It’s mostly not that hard. I’ll be honest. Some of it’s not super easy because entities like Facebook make it not super easy, but hopefully this information will help you navigate the obstacles. If you’re as committed to accessibility and inclusion as you say you are, you’ll research and figure it out. Toward that end, read on. Comments are fine but keep in mind that I am not your accessibility specialist. If I were healthy enough to be your accessibility specialist, I would expect you to pay me.
The two most frustrating things about Facebook as a media creator who tries to generate and maintain accessibility in my content & groups:
- Facebook is constantly tweaking their product and it seems that bug checking accessibility features does not happen pre-release. If they happen to break an accessibility feature, like the ability to view video captions on mobile devices, Facebook leaves it to individuals with disabilities to send in complaints via the massive black hole that we call Facebook Support. FB does not announce when they’ve broken an accessibility feature, nor do they give updates on when they expect to fix them.
- Individual Facebook users have to take on the job of making sure their content is accessible, and yet Facebook gives individual users very little support in doing that. Consider video captions, again. Facebook has an autogenerate caption feature for videos posted by some pages, but not for videos you post as an individual. And Facebook has no mechanism of support for group admins to help ensure their group’s media is accessible. In a group, each member (and each admin/moderator) who posts or shares a photo, or who uploads or live streams a video, is the only person who can add a description or a caption file. Admins can point out their absence, offer to help write, but we have to rely on individuals to edit their content to add these features. This makes it more difficult for admins to try to maintain accessibility in a group.
Here are a few FB accessibility issues and some suggestions on how to address them.
Facebook Status Posts (i.e. “all the pretty colors!”)
- Stick with the black on white default font to keep your status updates and posts accessible. FB offers color and pattern combinations for backgrounds on some posts, but using them can create illegible text due to color/contrast issues, and can be difficult for people with visual processing, migraines, or certain forms of dyslexia to read.
Sharing or Posting Images on Facebook
- When you post or share a photo, PLEASE write your own description in the main text of your post in the “say something about this photo” prompt.
- For example, “[Image: candidate with state Senator Someone and Mayor Somebody, smiling and holding shovels at last month’s ground-breaking ceremony for new middle school in whatever Town]”.
- Who, what, where, when, and why: these are the questions you want to address in your image description.
- You can put the description between brackets, i.e., [image:…], and label it; this post has a real example of that format. Or sometimes, you can work the description more organically into the post text.
- Put your description near the top of your post content.
- You NEED to transcribe into your post all of the text in a text-heavy image, e.g., memes, a flyer shared as a photo, a photo of a news article. So if you made a flyer and would like to share it accessibly, you can post a photo of it to FB, but you should also either copy and paste the text from your flyer into your post…. OR you could upload the text version of your flyer to a service like Google Drive, and then copy and paste the link for your flyer into your post with the notation of “full text available at…(link)”.
- Facebook does have some alt text features in development. HOWEVER, currently Facebook’s alt text features are neither reliable enough nor robust enough to be effective options for accessibility.
- “Alt text” is a way to describe an image “behind the scenes”. Alt text appears in the code for the page and not out in your post text. The descriptions written and published in an alt text field are not easily perceived by anyone who doesn’t have special technology called a “screen reader”. This is a significant drawback, because not everyone who needs image descriptions/transcriptions uses a screen reader.
- Facebook has a feature that does “automatic alt text” image descriptions, and they have made a pretty big deal about it. However, it’s results are often insufficient (more on that below) and it doesn’t work AT ALL for text in images.
- Generally, you do not need to describe an image that is the byproduct of a link.
- I.e., say you share a link to a news article in a group. It generates a thumbnail image from some image in the article. That image from the article SHOULD have been captioned at the article. The same goes for when you share an event on Facebook. Unless the event’s cover photo is the only place where important info can be found like where, when, why, who; then generally you do not NEED to describe that photo when you share the event.
- You could describe them if you want. A minimal description is usually sufficient in these cases, because the important info should be discernible when people click through to the link.
Example of a problem Facebook post (and of a detailed description):
Here’s an example of an inaccessible Facebook photo post.
[Image: Screenshot of Facebook image post by Massachusetts Democratic Party on February 22. The post text reads “Dear Charlie Baker:” with Charlie Baker tagged. The photo is the cover of the Boston Herald newspaper, date illegible due to image resolution. Front page shows a big photo of over 100 commuters waiting for buses on a Boston sidewalk. Most of the commuters face away from the camera, towards the curb. The few whose faces can be seen look serious, concerned, or displeased. Many are holding phones to their ears. At the curb in front of this crowd are two MBTA buses, the first with closed doors and a “Not In Service” message on its marquee. A smaller photo on the front page shows two people in safety colored vests inspecting train tracks. Relevant text at the top of front page reads “28 derailments in 3 years – and 275 reports of disabled trains and signal problems THIS YEAR ALONE!” then comes the headline splashed over the top of the large photo: “FIX IT!” Smaller text at the bottom of of the large photo reads “Rider says T communication was off track on nightmare day”]
I hope you read my description. If not, go back and read it. Now compare it to what the Facebook automatic alt text said about this image: alt=”Image may contain: 10 people, people smiling, people standing, hat and outdoor”
10 people!? People smiling??! Well, they are outside. And there’s at least one person wearing a hat since it’s Boston in February. But there are over hundred very pointedly NOT SMILING people here in this photo. Well done Facebook!
Beyond Facebook’s for-shit automatic Alt text, here’s the thing that really gets me down: a person posted this photo. A person took the time to tag MA Governor Charlie Baker in the text of the post. And this person failed to even consider accessibility.
My description could be pared down and still be so much more informative than what the Facebook automatic Alt Text gave us. For example, you could write a brief description like [Photo of cover of Herald. Large crowd of unhappy people wait for buses, workers inspect tracks. Headline reads “FIX IT!”]….. although I personally think all the relevant text needs to be transcribed in a complete image description. I also think it would have been good if the person who made this post had bothered to mention why all these people were waiting for buses (i.e. the “why” part of image description).
FB Video Description:
It’s a good idea to say what is in the video visually. You don’t have to get super involved unless it’s a very detailed video, but as with the image posts, a short description that says who, what, where, when, and why is so helpful.
A LOT of videos have text on screen with no voice over. These aren’t CCs or burned in captions or subtitles. These are typically dramatic phrases superimposed over images which float across the screen to the strains of some heartrending music. THESE VIDEOS ARE NOT ACCESSIBLE. If you share a video like this on a page I admin, I will take it down. Unless you want to sit down and write up all the visual-only information and phrases and what images or video shots they appear over, just don’t share this shit.
Tip: if you MAKE videos, please don’t make them like this. Put in a voice over (and captions) at least ffs.
FB Video Captions:
As of June 6, 2017 captions on Facebook live videos can be done. However, getting real time captions on a live Facebook video requires that you contract with (and pay for) a third party live captioning service. Detailed instructions on how to add live captions to a live video are here.
The person who uploaded/live broadcast the video can add a caption file after the fact. See below for DIY captions. Caption files are basically just a special text file. The file type Facebook uses is a SubRip Text file, abbreviated “.srt”.
- DIY add captions to existing videos on Facebook.
- If you have a Facebook Page (not profile!), you can use the “generate captions”/automatic captions option, HOWEVER, you WILL need to edit the captions Facebook generates because they will not be entirely correct.
[Description: Screenshot of caption tab for a video published on a public Facebook page. Options include setting default language, uploading a caption file, and editing captions]
- You can also (externally) create a caption file (.srt file) and then upload it to your Facebook video.
- Externally creating and then uploading a caption file is the only option for adding captions to a video that is owned by a person (not a Facebook page). En route to creating a caption file of the sort FB requires for videos, you will probably create a transcript document. If you simply can’t get a caption file uploaded to FB’s video manager, you can at least copy/paste or link to the transcript with the video.
- Tip: consider using YouTube for captioning, because they have a better interface and more options than Facebook.
- If you don’t have the time or patience to create your own SRT file by hand, YouTube offers some work-arounds (How to create a SRT file using YouTube). You can use this YouTube generated and edited SRT file to create a caption file that can be uploaded to your video Facebook. Alternatively, you could just upload all your videos to YouTube, do your captioning with their (better) interface, and then share the captioned YouTube video on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Once you have a starter SRT file, maybe one downloaded from YouTube, you can post it in a Google doc and ask volunteers to crowd-source the caption editing. Be sure to follow guidelines for good captions.
Twitter does support alt-text image descriptions for static images only (i.e. not for GIFs). HOWEVER, you have to turn on the option to compose image descriptions. Because of ableism, the ability to compose image descriptions is set to off by default. Turn that on! Go to Settings/accessibility/Compose Image Descriptions and switch it on. (On my Android device, the path to turning on the ability to compose image descriptions is: Settings and Privacy/General/Accessibility).
- After your picture uploads but before you tweet it, there should be an option to “Add description”. Click that and you get a screen where you can see the picture and type up a description below it. You are limited in the number of characters you can include in your alt-text. Keep it short. Link to a file if you have a very texty-image. Refer above for info on writing descriptions.
[Description: Screenshot of image description window in Twitter (desktop). Photo appears above description editing window. Description reads “Meme style, text reads ‘ATSEMA Volunteers wanted! ActionTogetherSEMA@gmail.com’ around a photo of 4 women working at computers. Clothing, hairstyles, and technology suggest photo is from 1970s.”]
Twitter does not support video captions. If you want to share a video with captions on Twitter, you can:
- “Burn in” the captions (e.g. in video editing software such as Camtasia, saving a captioned video as an MP4 should give you the option to do this).
- Rather than directly uploading to Twitter, you can caption the video in a platform like YouTube or Facebook and then share the link to that YouTube or Facebook hosted video on Twitter.
- If you want to share a video on Twitter that has dramatic unspoken text floating over images/footage, you can f**k right off. There’s no way for you to describe all of this in a Tweet, due to character restrictions. Share the video on YouTube or FB instead and describe it there if you must. Or maybe just find a better, less inherently inaccessible video. Or make one.
Or as I call it, “Instagraaaaaaaaaaaaam!” (Kirk/Wrath of Khan style).
Instagram has all the worst “inaccessibility” properties of Facebook without any of the less bad features of Facebook.
- Autoplaying videos that cannot be turned off.
- No alt text option.
- No captioning option for videos.
So I say f**k Instagram. Due to my visual processing problems, vestibular issues, and migraines, I had to stop using Instagram when they made it impossible to turn off autoplaying for videos. But if you simply must post on Instagram, you can at least describe your photos/images, refer above for info on writing descriptions.
On Instagram, as with Twitter, videos can be hosted somewhere that does support CC and just linked on Instagram. Or, if you have the technology, you can “burn in” your captions. It’s a less good solution, but if you NEED to upload a video to Instagram (first, ask yourself why, and then if you still really think you need to…) you’ll need to find a way to burn in the captions before you post it.
Oh Tumblr. I want to like you but you have too many animations on god damned everything and you make me physically ill.
- The dashboard/home page tends to have lots of animated, moving things in the background. This is a problem for accessibility, as discussed above. I cannot even sign in sometimes.
- If you do post on Tumblr, for photos / images, you should write your description in text under photo. Refer above for info on writing descriptions
- Captions for videos: no. Same as Twitter and Instagraaaaam. Link out to a captioned video, let users know the video can be seen with captions at the link. Or, if you have the technology, you can “burn in” your captions. It’s a less good solution, but if you NEED to upload a video to Tumblr (first, ask yourself why, and then if you still really think you need to…) you’ll need to find a way to burn in the captions before you post it.
Snapchat, whatever else, etc.:
Look, I’m over 40. I have never been on snapchat. I’m going to leave that for someone else to figure out. At least for now.
“This is great! I want to learn more about these topics!”
Here are some links if you want to learn more about accessibility and social media (with dates because social media technology changes fast – general info is usually stable but specific “how to” info from just a year ago can be obsolete.
(last accessed, March 14, 2020) Image Description Guidelines from the DIAGRAM Center
- January 31, 2018 How To Improve Your Social Media Image Accessibility
- April 28, 2016 Beyond Access: Facebook’s Automated Image Descriptions and Disability Justice
- August 25, 2012 Image Descriptions And How To Write Them
- August 31, 2016 22 months writing image descriptions: 4 awesome side-effects / resources & explanation of the need
September 24, 2016 #NoMoreCraptions: How To Properly Captions Your Videos
- More coming…