Twitter Steps Up Its Game: Can We Do the Same?

Last week, Twitter announced that users can now use alternative text with images, a device to help the visually impaired make full use of social media. Now, tweets can associate images with text for screen readers, which read aloud text on web pages. Prior to this announcement, images on Twitter were irrelevant for people who are visually impaired. (If you’re interested in using it, read this article.)

This bit of news reminds us about something that often escapes our view: accessibility. As we organize and execute digital projects we are unfortunately too overcome with ideas about design, budgets, or management to imagine the needs of those who are disabled. We forget, amidst the pandemonium of project-building, that a reasonable portion of the population will probably have difficulty making the most out of our work if we only stick to our own accessibility standards.

So good on Twitter. It’s a cultural phenomenon within social media: those who aren’t in the Twittersphere can sometimes really be out of the loop, but like many aspects of the digital world, it can be exclusive. People with disabilities who want to participate in that phenomenon may find it challenging. Tweets can often depend on images for context, especially considering the limitations of length, but this new feature can help address that problem.

The internet may proclaim its universality, and digital humanists may say the same for their own work, but it isn’t always true. People with difficulty in hearing or seeing (for example, those who have trouble distinguishing between colors), can miss out on significant amounts of functionality of the work we produce. Even additions like captions and subtitles for videos can dramatically increase the potential user base. After all, audience is a huge consideration for our work in the digital humanities.

In a chapter titled “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” from Debates in the Digital Humanities, George H. Williams describes something called “universal design,” a principle which proposes that we make our work as accessible as possible. It focuses on ideas of openness and accessibility, while simultaneously insisting that those points contribute to overall use—not just for people with disabilities.

With universal design, we aren’t bending over backwards just to help people with disabilities. In fact, everyone benefits from solutions for people with disabilities. Facets of usability such as searching are greatly improved when we add transcriptions to videos or, as Twitter may now attest to, alternative text for images.

When we realize it isn’t so hard to address the concerns of accessibility, we only make our work stronger.