Could Blind People be Facing the End of a Twitter Golden Era of Accessibility?

Edit for Twitter’s clarification about their experiment, see the follow-up post to this one.

The Internet has helped us all to think more expansively about the meaning of the word “community”. Prior to the mass-adoption of the Net, most of us thought of the community in which we live, the community where we worship if we practice a religion, perhaps a community that brings people of a racial minority together to keep a distant culture and traditions alive in a foreign land.
But the Internet has allowed us to think of communities differently. In the case of blind people, while blindness isn’t the characteristic that defines us, it is a characteristic which can cause a group of people to share similar experiences, interests and challenges.
In recent years, Twitter has been at the heart of bringing blind people from many countries and all walks of life together. It’s fundamental textual nature, and robust API supporting an ecosystem of innovative accessible apps, has struck just the right cord.
While communication has gone on between blind people, bringing us closer together and letting us discuss issues of significance to us, Twitter also represents one of the most empowering aspects of the Net for disabled people. It’s an equaliser. Behind the keyboard, no one need know you’re blind or have any other disability, unless you choose to communicate the fact.
I use Twitter in both ways, as I think do most blind people who frequent the service. I enjoy discussing issues that affect me as a blind person, and receiving information about blindness-related products and services, but I also use it to keep in touch with issues happening in my city, my country, and global issues that I like to follow.
Sadly, if a new feature being tested by Twitter is rolled out to the masses, Twitter may be much less attractive for blind people.
Mashable reports that Twitter is testing a feature on a select group of users, designed to provide more room for a user to comment when retweeting. Most of us have been there. There’s an interesting tweet we want to share with our followers, but we’d like to add a bit of editorial commentary. The trouble is, when you add your commentary to the text of the tweet, you exceed 140 characters.
What’s Twitter’s experimental new solution? It’s to turn the original tweet into an image, leaving almost the entire 140 characters free for your comment. The problem with this is that an image, not being textual, won’t be read by screen reading software that makes computers accessible to blind people.
It’s possible that if you were viewing such a tweet on Twitter’s website, the original tweet may be able to appear as ALT text. But I know of few blind people who interact with Twitter on a regular basis via its website, or for that matter via Twitter’s own official smartphone apps.
I’m not one to claim the sky is falling on a regular basis, but if thought hasn’t been given to how these images of retweets will be represented textually in popular third-party apps, rolling out this feature will cause Twitter’s accessibility and value to blind people to decline significantly.
It’s possible this feature will go nowhere. Features come and go as Twitter tries and abandons things. It’s also possible that the impact on blind people using third-party clients has been well-considered. But I think it’s better to raise these issues now, and seek clarification, than to play ostrich and then complain about the degraded accessibility when it’s too late.
Already, I see an increasing number of journalists tweeting pictures of documents instead of linking to the text. If retweets also become graphical, then frankly, given how much more accessible Facebook has become in recent times, Facebook may just become my primary social network.
This may not be a bad thing. If more of the discussions that rage on Twitter raged on Facebook instead, perhaps the lack of 140-character confinement might help us understand each other a little better when the difficult discussions get going. Then again, I’ve been on too many email lists to really believe that utopian idea.
I have a real fondness for Twitter, and my fervent hope is that it remains true to its core mission of providing a fundamentally textual means of interaction, and thus an accessible medium that brings us all together.

7 Comments

  1. martin

    if this happens, it will really cut down the accessibility of twitter, I too am concerned about the number of twitpic and other images flying around twitter.

  2. Lulu Keel

    I truly, madly, deeply hope this never happens. I am a Twitter girl first and last. I just can’t get on with Facebook at all, I do have it and try to keep up but the preponderance of photos, videos and other nonsense I have to wade through every time I look at it discourages me from using it much. I love Twitter for so many reasons and never ever want to see it dumbed down into a “look at this picture” kind of media, we have too darn many of those already!

  3. Steve Sawczyn

    So glad you’re drawing attention to this as Twitter is a fantastic service and this could seriously ruine it. I’m also curious if this means Twitter will be phasing out SMS functionality?

    • Jonathan Mosen

      You raise a critical question Steve. As Twitter embraces more features such as Vine and images, one has to ask, is the SMS component of Twitter becoming less relevant, given that those features are lost to less-capable phones?
      And if that’s the case, why not just up the 140 character limit rather than resorting to the kind of measures they’re testing now?

  4. Drew Weber

    It’s going to be interesting to see how this one place out. In my opinion there could be two options along someone to retweet this comment as an image or text. I understand that this may pose a problem for people using the official Twitter app or Twitter website, but for those using other Twitter clients it would be interesting to see if the text retweet as a comment was still an option.

  5. Aaron

    I’ve always felt that twitter would be better off with a 200 character limit, as sometimes it’s really hard to get my points across. I wouldn’t go much higher than that though, as the idea of twitter is to keep posts short and most likely relevant too. I don’t think this image-based thing is a good idea especialy for third party client users.

  6. Monica Willyard

    I don’t like the sound of this. I don’t mind people sharing photos of things, but making images of text is a trend that’s been creeping in from some blogs and magazine sites.
    I think we may need to contact Twitter in a polite but clear way to let them know how much this could hurt our community. They may not be aware of how many blind and dyslexic people they could marginalize in this way. If they won’t buy that argument, shouldn’t they at least consider what affect this would have on search engines that index content and help people find news posts? What’s bad for blind people is usually bad for search engines too. And while we may be small, business needing referrals from search engines shouldn’t be happy about this either. They’d have more clout than us alone.

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