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Facebook’s Newest Feature Aims To Enhance The Experience Of It’s Visually Impaired Users

Alt-text update

Facebook’s newest bid to make its user experience better is here, and it builds on a pre-existing accessibility feature implemented in 2016. The features update will improve on the company’s 2016 automatic alt-text tool, introducing Facebook’s face recognition tool into the automatic alt-text tool, so that screen readers will be able to tell the blind or low vision user both what and who are in images posted to Facebook.

Alternative text is used to give descriptions of images and buttons on websites, so that the visually impaired and blind don’t miss out on any context that images may give. Facebook’s initial release of the automatic alt-text tool was praised by blind and visually impaired users, but since it’s release, the number one request from users with screen readers was for alt-text to tell users who were in photographs. Before 2016, when users with screen readers hovered over a photograph, the reader would only give the term, “photo”.

The changes to the way Facebook allowed screen readers to operate on the site was pushed by blind engineer, Matt King. King joined Facebook as a user in 2009, before the accessibility team he now works in even existed. After finding the experience of trying to navigate the site challenging, King described the site by saying that, “the basic foundation of accessibility wasn’t present.”

Why accessibility matters

Under the Equality Act of 2010, all providers of goods, services and information must follow a set of behaviours and guidelines. In the context of websites, they are deemed as a service provider, and guidelines referencing, “provision of a service” applies to websites. The Equality Act states that, “websites provide access to services and goods, and may in themselves constitute a service, for example, where they are delivering information or entertainment to the public.” Because of the Equality Act and the way it regards websites, sites that aren’t accessible can be sued for discrimination.

Recent criticism

In the last few months of 2017, Facebook received criticism for multiple things, not least the scandal involving the use of Russian ads on Facebook being used to ‘sway’ political elections. Of the social media giant’s critics included former vice-president of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, who said he felt, “tremendous guilt” for his involvement in what he says is a tool that is, “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Palihapitiya then went on to call social media a “global problem”, stating that, “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Facebook’s mission to do good

Despite the criticism and controversy, over the last few years, Facebook has tried to do good, adding a number of helpful features to the sight. Before the automatic alt-text feature, Facebook had been adding a slew of user-focused, helpful features. Last year, Facebook added ‘Donate’ button to their Crisis Hub in a bid to make helping natural disaster and terrorist attack victims easier than ever. The ‘Donate’ button is able to work through a partnership between Facebook and nonprofit giving organisation GlobalGiving.

In 2013, Facebook gave users the ability to donate to nonprofit orgs, then in 2014 brought out the Safety-Check feature, which is also apart of their Crisis Hub.

Also last year, in October, Facebook rolled out a feature that prompted users to become a blood donor, and allows users to tag themselves as users on their profile. It also allows organisations and users to create requests for blood when it’s needed. These posts can be geotagged, and Facebook users tagged as donors in the vicinity will receive a push notification.