Captions and Accessibility: Facebook’s photo catastrophe,and what you need to know about alt-text

So the universe has a funny way of providing. I was sitting here this week, kinda stuck, having zero ideas about what my next blog post should talk about. ‘What do I even have to write about?’, I lamented to my cat. ‘All I have is complaints about strangers calling me inspirational, and long expositions about how I’m introverted and anxious. People aren’t going to keep reading about that!’. The cat was unmoved, and unhelpful. And then, bam, Facebook totally screwed the pooch and broke everything, in what I’m sure shall be known as the greatest photo catastrophe of this or any age. And thus was born, a blog post!

For those who live under a rock, or who actually spent their time outside yesterday, Facebook and Instagram users lost access to their photographs and videos for several hours. Where once timelines streamed with images of pets and food and new trendy vitamins,, there was only “one person, beard, indoor,” or “cat,” or “Jane Smith, cloud, outdoor.” Yes… they were left with nothing but THE ALT TEXT, the automatically generated terrible descriptions Facebook puts on photos to ‘help’ blind and visually impaired people! The horror! The weeping! The refreshing of tabs and the mashing of buttons! Civilizations came close to crumbling, I’m sure.

But guess what? This world-ending thing that happened to you? This is the daily reality of Facebook, for millions of users with visual impairments. The literally hundreds of millions of photos, gifs, memes, and other visual media that fly around Facebook and these other platforms on a daily basis are not accessible. And given the current high value status of visual media, this is a real problem. This is often how people share information, images of friends and family, memes, PSA’s for inclusion and equality… And all of it’s totally important, and, without intervention,  totally inaccessible.

Okay, you say, that sucks. How about you just ask your friends and family, who know and love you, to put in picture captions? Facebook makes it super easy.

First, Facebook actually publicizes the feature that lets you do this incredibly poorly. And second… I do ask. We all do. Over, and over again. Sometimes people listen, more often they don’t. Or they listen for a feel-good day and then stop. And I’ve got news for you; it’s exhausting! Imagine the amount of ‘important’, or amusing, or enlightening, things you scroll past every day. Now, imagine having to stop to ask Every. Single. Poster. to describe their image for you. You feel annoying, you feel irritated, and you get tired. We all realize that half the time people are sharing without even really thinking. It’s quick, and often hardly seems important enough to post, much less describe. There’s no personal slight intended. I know this, most of us know this. And yet… it starts to feel like a slight. It feels like we don’t matter enough for someone to take the time to include us in the joke, or the moment, or the activism. Maybe it’s fine the first time, or the tenth time, even the fiftieth time, we keep trying to be understanding. But by the thousandth time… well, the understanding runs thin. We spend so much of our lives understanding, giving people passes because they didn’t know. And often they don’t know, and we should be patient. But you know, it would be nice for someone to return the favor, to do the thing, so that I have to do a little less being patient, and a little more sharing important life moments with you.

Some attempts have been made to help with this problem from on high. Back in 2016, Facebook had a cool idea to start adding image captions, to help out the folks that couldn’t see. It was neat; it’s always nice to be considered. Only one problem, as people finally witnessed, the captions are next to useless. If you post a picture of your cat laying on its back in a box with its paws adorably up in the air, I don’t think “cat” was the most important thing I was supposed to take from that. If you post a picture of your kid holding up his diploma in a field outside of school, “one person, outdoor,” is not really that relevant or distinguishing. I don’t want to demean the effort, because I always want to give credit to companies for trying. But really, with the state of image recognition these days, and with the bankroll of Facebook, I believe it’s not unfair to expect better. But often, when other folks drop the ball, that’s what we’re left with. “No image description available.”

Which brings us to yesterday. Guys, I have to admit it, me, on my high horse, I’m enjoying myself a little. Scratch that, a lot. I have literally said to other friends, in the past, “Wow, I wish someday I could convince everyone to just post crappy alt-text tags instead of real photos, to give people a taste of what I experience.” And it happened! Facebook gave me a pony! I feel like I’ve been given a good karmic joke, but, more importantly, I’ve been given an opportunity. Because for a little bit, people are looking up from their recently-restored images and paying attention. Writing this post is actually really nerve-wracking; I feel like I have one shot to get people to listen to me, and I don’t want to blow it. I so badly want you to listen to me, to all of us, who have been quietly, or loudly, pleading with you to let us be a part of your lives, your jokes, for years, and who have been ignored time and time again.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made a public plea like this, and I would love it if it’d be the last. I’m much more realistic than that. But if I could see some improvement… if a few more people would understand and follow through, that would be spectacular. I’ll take being ignored by like 20 fewer people… in the accessibility world, sadly, that’s a pretty good increase.

Now, I could go on about this for a really long time. Short-winded I am not. But I don’t want you all to wander away from me and my soap box before I finish talking. So rather than beat the dead horse of my point, I will leave you with the important highlights.

1. I understand that many of you never even realized this was a problem. You weren’t ignoring it, you were just unaware and didn’t know. That’s fine; I understand. Now, you know. So moving forward, you can be awesome, and the past will not be held against you at all. Just do the thing.

2. I know a lot of you who have heard this before and have forgotten feel bad. Every time I start shouting about this, I get many kind apologies. Again, it’s fine. Sometimes we don’t know things. Sometimes we forget things. Stuff happens. When it becomes not fine is if you apologize here and still keep doing what you were doing before. That’s when I get frustrated and want to cry or throw things. I’m not asking for an apology; I’m asking for action.

3. Facebook does a crap job of advertising how to add alt-text to your pictures. To be fair, I didn’t know how to do this either. So I provide for you, the results of my google:

Instructions for Facebook:

Instructions for Instagram:

Instructions for other sites like twitter:

(I will caveat this one, I think they maybe go a little over the top with some of their suggestions. And they really seem to think blind people hate acronyms. I personally don’t mind them, so acronym away, as far as I’m concerned. Unless someone requests that you help them out by not. But at least this post has instructions on all the different platforms that let you add alt text in one place. Use your discretion for its other suggestions. I’m happy to take baby steps).

4. If, for whatever reason, you can’t add alt text to the picture, then just…type it in the normal text of your post. TBH, it’s probably faster, it’s usually just as informative, it doesn’t have a character limit, and you can do it in realtime instead of having to go back and edit. I don’t really care whether the description shows up on the photo, or if it shows up in the post. I just want the description.

That being said, and this is *important*, if you share a picture from someone else, this includes memes, pictures of text, comics, anything that’s not a picture you physically uploaded to Facebook,you *cannot* add alt-text to that. If you are going to provide a description, you *must* type it up as regular text. Alt-text only shows up for the photos *you* post. But if you add it to the things you upload, and someone shares it, then the alt-text will still be there, and the next blind person will be very grateful.

5. If you’re wondering what all needs a description/alt-text, the short answer: Everything. If it’s an image, whether that be a photo, a gif, a meme, a picture of text… if it’s not straight text, that has been typed in a Facebook post,it needs it. If someone didn’t type it, I get nothing about it. Facebook will tell me “this is text”. That is… decidedly unhelpful. People seem to be consistently confused about which things are inaccessible… it’s all of them. Just assume it’s all of them.

6. Finally, if you’re wondering how much detail to include in your descriptions, I can only give you my personal feelings. But generally, think about what makes the image worth sharing. I don’t necessarily need to know people’s clothes colors or that they’re standing next to a tree, unless those things are important to the point of the image. So think about what about it is funny, or interesting, or important, and describe that. And if there’s any text, just always assume you should write that up.

So, there’s the rant, and the instructions. I hope this was informative, and helpful. My intention here is not to guilt anyone; my intention is to tell you what’s up, in hopes that you’ll help the disability community going forward. Facebook and Instagram worked hard to fix your photo problems yesterday. No one on high is fixing them for us. We’re asking *you*. So don’t feel guilty and wallow, just caption your pictures. If you feel bad, captioning is the *best* apology you can give me. I, and so many others, want to be a part of your lives, and right now, we’re not. I’ve never even tried to use Instagram because I just assume no one is captioning and I am entirely unwelcome there. Whether your friends and family who are blind or visually impaired are part of your life on social media is your choice. You have a lot of power here, in either direction. So I’m just here to ask you to use it. Tell me, and your friends, and other people around you, that they matter to you.

Does it take more work? Yes. Do you maybe have to think about what you’re posting, and why? Yes. Is it more time consuming? Yes. You have to decide if we’re worth that trouble to you. I hope we are. And in exchange, I will be patient, when you forget, or don’t have time, or have to post the description later in the comments because days get hard. It will be mutual, and it will be better.

And if all that’s not enough to convince you, consider this…. If you guys caption better, if Facebook and Instagram break their pictures again, the awesome captions and alt-text you’ve gotten into the habit of leaving on everything you post will mean that you still get to enjoy some of the content while you wait. And wouldn’t that have been nice yesterday?

If you have questions about this, or other things related, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And please share this post around. I think this is a topic most people don’t know about, and I’d like to spread this information.

Alright, that’s really it, I promise. Thank you, truly, for sticking with me to the end of this post. For all those celebrating the fourth, enjoy yourselves happily and safely, and I’ll see y’all next time.

Be well!

The brand-new!

Hello, world!


I am, despite all evidence to the contrary, still alive and kicking in blog-land. It hasn’t been *this* blog, but that is neither here nor there. I think of you guys often, and have missed you terribly. But guys grad school is super busy and it gets even busier once the coursework is *done* who knew?! So writing here has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside.


Or it had, until one of my colleagues asked me to be a guest speaker on our departmental podcast, where I was going to get a chance to talk about working in academia with a disability. This is super exciting to me, because, as y’all know, it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. And that podcast made me think that I should really pop back in here. And then my brain finally kicked into gear, and realized that I should be promoting the blog on the podcast. But I wanted to have something a bit nicer to promote. The cobwebs around here are pretty embarrassing. But I think the conversations I want to have here are really important, and so, in the best interests of the blog, I upgraded my WordPress a little, and thus, a domain name was born. Tell your friends, your family, your well-intentioned-but-missing-the-point coworkers… lives! (It may be going through some growing pains for the next few weeks, because I am bad at WordPress, but it still counts as living. Please be patient).


I want to promise that I’m going to develop a more consistent blog schedule, now that I’m paying money to maintain this, and will maybe even have an audience. And while I really do intend to do this, a trip through the archives today has shown me that, embarrassingly enough, I have made that promise no less than eight times. So, take it with the grain of salt that you obviously should, because my brand of dumpster-fire apparently never changes. But I’m going to try. I would really like this to become a good platform for the issues in higher education that affect the under-paid and under-represented, and also a place where my rampant and unappreciated sarcasm can be broadcast to the world.


So, if you’ve been here since the beginning, bless you and your descendants for hanging around. And if you’re new, welcome! I really, really hope to be talking to you on the regular, and I hope you’ll stick with me.


And because other things never change, please excuse me while I go lesson plan for my class…tomorrow.


Be well.

Happy 2014

Well, here goes another year.  2013 was…interesting to say the least.  There are too many world events to count, and huge momentous things that I am in no way qualified to talk about on a teaching blog.


On the personal front, it was a year of learning to wait.  I did grad apps in the spring that didn’t pan out, got let go, got re-hired, and had one of the most challenging semesters I’ve had yet.  But all in all, it shaped up pretty well.  It was a strange year of limbo for me, but also one that taught me a lot about patience, and finding the good even in the ugly, and about enjoying simple things no matter what.  I think I grew a little, and that seems like about as much as anyone can ask from a year.


The most interesting, and relevant to this blog (yes, sometimes I stay on topic), was my collection of students this semester.  Partially because of me, and partially because of them, we had trouble getting places this semester.  I talked and talked, but it felt like we never really got anywhere.  I left the semester fairly convinced they hadn’t learned anything.


And then I looked at the class reflections, and almost cried.  I got several comments that this was their favorite English class, that it challenged them, and that it helped them come out of their shells.  Now granted, I forgot to give them the talk about how I don’t read these until after I grade, so some of them might be sucking up, but those folks aside, I got some very sweet and uplifting comments.


As a teacher, that’s my main goal–I want to help them.  And if I can’t teach them how to formulate a bloody argument, or that a thesis statement is not a question, I’d like to at least teach them that they can write, that writing is important, or that they have opinions worth listening to.  And I think I managed to do that, and that makes me feel good about the last five months.


So even though things kind of ended on a whimper instead of a bang, I still have a warm fuzzy for these kids that I never expected to have.  I might actually miss them.  And so many of them are teetering on the cusp–I hope they tip over on the side that lets them do great things.


So that’s me.  As for you, I hope your year was full of learning and interesting discoveries, that you moved beyond something, or gained something, or just left 2013 a little better and more interesting than you found it last January first.


All the best from the blog.  Everyone have a safe and happy night, and let’s give 2014 a run for its money.



Morning grumpies

This post is nothing of substance.  If you are feeling intellectual, move on by.  It is merely a post to say that life is unfair.


I lent my loaf of bread to my neighbor (because my apartment building has turned amish), and this morning all I could have desired in life was toast.  Then I got to campus, and the entire first floor smelled like…you guessed it, toast.  Life is cruel and unusual and Tuesday you can stop pretending to be a Monday at any time now.


On the bright side, I have tackled some of the adjuncting insecurity and gone down to the faculty lounge magic land to retrieve coffee.  Necessity is the mother of…getting over myself for the sake of caffeine.  Still haven’t snitched a baked good yet, but I don’t actually know if there were any there.  I had eyes for coffee alone.


Also, if I suddenly drop unconscious on the spot, that sugar packet I used did not contain sugar.  I’m going on good faith that the multitude of packets in the little basket next to the coffee machine are sugar–if someone decided to hide sweetened drugs in there, I am now transporting them in my coffee.


What. Conquering my insecurity meant going in there, not asking someone with functioning eyeballs if what I was using was creamer or powdered meth or something.  I don’t know if meth is already powdered, but that seems beside the point.


Judging by the above post, I need more coffee.  I’m going to go attend to that.  The ducklings are turning in their first papers today, so I may have more legitimate things to talk about later.

It is officially time for school to start..

August has decided to rally for what I hope is its one last heat wave, which means, for the most part, I am stuck in my house being sweaty and miserable, and talking to the cat a bit too much.


…Not only that, but I just ate peanut butter out of the jar and chocolate chips out of the bag, combining them for dessert-y goodness… while watching old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on my phone.


Summer vacation is all well and good, but I feel I have reached a new low, and should probably start doing something productive and professional now.  After all, how can I have the dignity and poise necessary to finish a syllabus when my hands smell like peanuts?


I’m not sure if I should hope people are reading this, or not.  It makes me look pathetic if you are, and if you aren’t, I’m discussing my slow descent into summer-induced madness by talking to myself.


Come on, September…

Tech Camp…is anyone listening?

So, as a blind teacher of sorts, I got “drafted” by a good friend to come give a talk at the district technology summer camp for teachers.  It’s exciting and horrifying, as you might expect for an event that has me do a lot of talking to strangers and educating people.

…oh, wait, that’s my job. Oopse.

But, introvert terror aside, it’s a really interesting environment.  Tech has been a huge part of my education; without it, I wouldn’t have one.  I’ve been using portable devices since long before they were common in schools (go go hipster teacher).  Technology is the only reason that I’m able to participate in my classes at all.  I read on various devices, I type up all my papers and notes, and if I didn’t have a calendar in my phone, I’d have forgotten to show up for college.

So this is great; tech is awesome!  And yet… there is such an atmosphere of resistance here, which I find very disturbing.  Coming from a “need tech” perspective, the idea that technology is damaging in the classroom is unsettling to me.  If I know, simply from personal experience, what an impact it can have, how much should these teachers know,  when it could have an impact on their entire class.  It should be a great resource, not a mysterious boogyman.

So why are so few of them paying attention?  It’s like we’re dragging them to the dentist’s office and shoving a laptop down their throats.  They’ve built technology into this big scary unclimbable mountain, and they’re unwilling to realize that it’s not an obstacle; it’s really the rope that helps you climb, perhaps panting and sweating but still climbing, up that mountain of trying to educate a thousand different kids a thousand different ways (I have had one thermos of tea and have been up since 6. Your metaphors wouldn’t be that great either so stop rolling your eyes).

I should probably preface this with my opinions on tech for tech’s sake; it’s annoying.  If it’s something that’s easier done by hand, do it by hand for the love of God.  But if tech  can help… use it!

Another thing you should know is I LOVE paper.  I love books, I love ink.  If they made a perfume of “old bookstore”, I’d wear it.  I think the real and true death of the printed book would be an irreversible tragedy (which is a post for another time).  But using a bit of tech in your classroom is not going to kill the printed page.  And these teachers aren’t resisting this change for the love of books, for the most part.  Mostly, it’s hard and it’s confusing and they just don’t care enough to want  to learn something new, which is the most obnoxious reason for shying away from something that I have ever encountered.

But, on behalf of every kid with a disability who’s had to sit by while their group members did all the work on the presentation, who felt insecure because of their lack of ability to participate, who ever got dirty looks because they weren’t helping… get with the program.  Put the computers in the classroom,  use something like a mac or a chromebook that has built in speech software, make them feel included. You have the power to   improve their educational experience by a thousand percent.    I got this new chromebook to play with for the purpose of this presentation, and, even though it’s a baby and it’s still in development, it’s amazing.  If I’d had this in a classroom where everyone else had it too when I was in school, it would have revolutionized my education, and maybe even boosted my confidence.  So the fact these teachers are denying these kids that opportunity because it’s “too hard” just makes me angry.  They could save everyone so much discomfort, and engage their students so much better, if they would use all the resources available.  It’s time to make the students with disabilities feel like functioning students.  There are many students who could avoid being sent into special ed entirely if they just had this available.  I hate to say it, but there is a stigma behind being sent into special ed.  So if we can make it easier on some kids, it seems to me that there’s a responsibility to do so.

And, on a purely administrative note, if that happened, the kids who really needed the extra help would have access to the help they needed.  The inundation of kids in special ed simply because they can’t read a piece of paper is hurting the students who need more one on one assistance, and it’s a fixable problem.

…Okay, that’s my rant.  We just finished with a really great morning speaker who encouraged the use of technology, and I could just feel the hesitation in the room, and it just upset me.  There are so many uses, and my specific purpose is just one of hundreds, and this is still getting treated like a sub-par option.

So, if you teach, if you’re an administrator, if you’re *anyone* who has influence in a school… listen. Help a person out, put a bloody laptop cart in your classroom.  Get a few iPads.  Do something to become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Now I should, you know, plan out that presentation I have to give, which is sort of like this post, but less angry and with more demonstrations.

And finally a disclaimer: this nifty little chromebook thing… still needs work. I edited as best as I could here. But I’m still sort of a noob.  If I screwed something up, it’s hopefully a tech fail, not my momentary morning illiteracy rearing its ugly head.

Mind the Gap

I was going to have my first post here be the telling of the witty and amusing story of how I decided to start up a blog.  Instead, you will be getting the “blogger is new. Blogger is sorry her site looks like crap” post.

If you come to see what’s up, and it looks like shit in here, please don’t leave. I promise I will learn what I’m doing and then it will be pretty, I swear.

…And this is what they call the insecure place-holder apology.

Carry on.