Update October 2018
Thanks to everyone who has expressed support for the issues I have raised in this post. I'm pleased to say that the issue is now largely resolved. RNZ is including descriptions of the images they tweet in most cases now. It's meant that blind people like me feel more included in the work of our public broadcaster which we help fund.
If the post has made you more aware of the needs of blind social media participants, you can still do your bit by ensuring that every image you post to Twitter contains a textual description. it only takes a moment, and it ensures you're not shutting anyone out.
Here's the post for historical reference.
Thanks, RNZ, for listening and doing the right thing.
I've been using social media since long before we called it that. As a totally blind kid who pestered his older siblings to read as much of the newspaper to him as they could stand, I'll never forget the sense of empowerment I felt when, as a teenager over 30 years ago, I logged into the NZ Micro BBS in Auckland, run by Selwyn Arrow, for the first time. The idea that I could communicate and access information independently using my computer that spoke what was on the screen or displayed text on a Braille display was incredibly empowering and liberating.
Cyberspace, (we didn't use that term 31 years ago either), is game changing in many respects for disabled people. We are free to disclose our disability or not. Not disclosing it when it isn't relevant to do so means our opinions can be taken at face value, without the taint of prejudice that a disability can sometimes engender. Disclosure, when relevant, can make people realise that disabled people are in all walks of life, and thus make us less invisible.
Having abandoned Facebook earlier this year as a matter of principle, Twitter is my social network of choice. I use it to communicate with friends, as a communication tool for my Internet radio show, and as a source of news, information, and debate on issues of the day.
Twitter was founded based on the good old SMS, which has a maximum length of 160 characters. So tweets maxed out at 140 characters, offering 20 characters for header information. The textual nature of Twitter made it attractive to someone like me who is totally blind and can't see pictures.
Technology moves on. Tweets are now a maximum of 280 characters, and many people attach images to their tweets.
This is Geekzone, so I know many readers here will be familiar with at least some basic accessibility principles, particularly the use of ALT text on websites. It's well known that when you upload pictures to a website, it's good practice to add a text description to an image, so screen reader users like me know what the image contains. It makes all the difference between being able to use a website effectively and not, and if you run a business, that means it makes all the difference to whether you'll get money from people like me, or whether we'll shop elsewhere on a site that is more accessible and considerate.
What many people may not know is that Twitter has its own form of ALT text, so images you upload don't exclude blind people like me. All it takes is for you to write a sentence or two describing what's in your image. It takes just a little extra time, and makes an enormous difference to those this feature is designed to help. Here's Twitter's official guide on how to enable the feature.
I hope you'll consider making your tweets more inclusive by tagging your images. Not only will you be helping blind people already using Twitter to fully appreciate your tweets, but by setting a good example, you may be helping yourself down the road. Most people are not born blind like me, but instead develop vision impairments later in life due to conditions like age-related maculopathy. So if, in your senior years, you find yourself using assistive technology to continue using a computer or smartphone, you'll be glad you encouraged inclusive social media practices. Doing the right thing now creates a sort of e-karma.
Who does it well?
I'm sad to say that New Zealand really is a bit of an accessibility backwater, with a lot more inaccessible apps and websites than a country with our egalitarian, inclusive routes ought to have. This is a theme I'll be coming back to in future posts.
But one kiwi Twitter account that is exemplary is the one belonging to our Parliament, @NZParliament.
Many of us used to think of Parliament as an austere, never-changing place full of traditions. Largely I believe thanks to the presence of Mojo Mathers for six years, Parliament took a good hard look at itself in terms of how inclusive it was of disabled people. One positive benefit of that process is that its Twitter account is exemplary. Every tweet sent from the account that contains an image includes a text description of that image. The taxes of disabled people help to fund Parliament's running costs so it's only right that the account be inclusive, but I'm still grateful that Parliament is setting such a fine example.
Our Public Broadcaster drops the ball
My taxes also help fund RNZ, a fact that I'm generally pleased about. I consider it a taonga.
When Radio New Zealand seriously started investing in its web presence over a decade ago, it's then webmaster, Richard Hulse, was a national leader in accessibility. He went beyond the basics and created an exceptional web accessibility experience. When I was asked to give talks about accessibility, something I do often, I used to demo RNZ as best-in-class.
To me, this epitomised the values that should be at the heart of everything RNZ does. Inclusivity, diversity, making every New Zealander feel that RNZ belongs to them.
This is why I am a supporter of RNZ using the Maori language during regular programming. But sadly, it seems that the sensitivity and courtesy it extends around diversity and inclusion no longer extends to disabled people.
Around a month ago, I was surprised to read a tweet from the @NZMorningReport Twitter account in which it published some feedback from a listener as an image. The important thing to note here is that this feedback was sent as an email, so it started life as text, which is accessible. Morning Report converted that text to an image, which a blind person can’t see, thus rendering accessible content inaccessible.
Since I’d not noticed RNZ doing this before, I thought it a one-off, perhaps thanks to someone temporarily running the account, and left it at that.
But a few days later, the same Twitter account published more listener feedback in the same way. This time, I sent the following tweet in reply.
“@NZMorningReport You may not realise, but when you attach images of content like this, it’s inaccessible to blind people using screen reading software. Not at all a good practice for our public broadcaster which should be inclusive.”
No one did me the courtesy of acknowledging my tweet, although, ironically, it did result in a useful dialogue with the new Head of Digital at MediaWorks.
A kind member of the public typed the listener feedback out for me to read.
If there is some good reason to convert perfectly readable text to an image, the least that can be done is to copy and paste the actual text into the description field Twitter provides for creating accessible images.
On Friday 8 June, both the Morning Report and main RNZ account tweeted a graphical image of a translation to English of the te reo Guyon used at 7 AM. It's ironic and disappointing that they would trumpet their diversity with a tweet excluding another minority.
There's been a high staff turnover at RNZ lately, and I wondered if accessibility best practice had got lost in the shuffle. So I wrote directly to RNZ's Chief Executive, Paul Thompson, politely pointing out the issues and how for years, RNZ has been the organisation I've pointed people to as an example of how to have accessibility in your corporate DNA.
In that email, sent on 9 June, I wrote in part:
"I’m hoping that, having raised this issue with you directly, you’ll be able to assure me that excluding people in this way isn’t the kind of RNZ you want. I’d suggest a clear policy stating a commitment to accessibility in online content, making specific reference to the use of images. It’s not difficult to do, but it makes the difference between some people being able to consume information and not."
A month later, I've not received a reply from Paul to that email.
I was able to have an email exchange a week ago with others at RNZ, but so far, the inaccessible images keep on coming.
I appreciate that when a mobile journalist is out in the field dealing with a breaking news story, it may not always be possible for every image to have a text description, even though typing something brief doesn't take long. But when social media account managers in the office are tweeting images to accompany a story, a public broadcaster like RNZ, which I am helping to fund, should be as inclusive as our Parliament.
What you can do
I believe most kiwis believe in a fair go. Many of us buy fair trade or free range or try to refrain from plastic because we care about the welfare of others. If you believe our public broadcaster should be inclusive, I encourage you to let them know, particularly on Twitter.
You can also show your solidarity by being inclusive yourself, and typing out a quick description of images you're uploading to Twitter and including them in Twitter's recommended way.
I believe it's in our values for New Zealand to be an accessibility leader, so please join me and be the change we want to see in the world.
Other related posts:
Let's go Shopping!
Why does Universal Access seem not to be a part of 2Degrees Company Culture?