Tweeting while blind

Social media is an essential part of everyday life for teens and young adults who are blind, just as it is for their peers with sight

Ashley sits with her laptop, listening to text through earbuds.

Teens and young adults who are blind have different social media preferences, depending on whether they want to keep in touch with friends, follow breaking news stories or just enjoy funny cat videos.

March 1, 2016

Someone once asked me if people who are blind use social media. My answer was, “Of course! Who doesn’t use social media?”

Personally, I’m a big fan of Twitter. On Twitter, I can receive breaking news updates, keep up with my friends, interact with celebrities and find out what’s on sale at my favorite stores.

For a totally blind person like myself, Twitter works in conjunction with speech synthesis software that reads tweets aloud. I can then respond to a tweet by typing, or I can use dictation software to type it for me.

While it’s true that the 140-character limit for each tweet can be incredibly frustrating, it also gives Twitter a certain kind of efficiency that nothing else has. Twitter refreshes instantly, which means any time there’s an update, it will immediately appear on my iPhone. Not only does this make it easy to keep track of what friends, family and celebrities are up to, it gives me instantaneous access to what’s important in the world.

I don’t spend time watching the news or reading the newspaper because I get that same information from Twitter. For example, when the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I followed the breaking news from my Twitter timeline. When Osama bin Laden died, I received a notification of the historic event at 2 o’clock in the morning.

My friends who are blind have different social media favorites.

Perkins student Laura loves YouTube. By navigating the website on her iPhone, she can easily gain access to what matters to her, as well as share her opinions and interact with others in the “Comments” section.

From tutorial videos to funny homemade movies featuring all types of pets, all of Laura’s favorite entertainment can be found in the millions of YouTube videos. Laura enjoys videos, especially when the people on the video describe what’s happening. YouTube has also been very good at implementing accessibility features on its website.

For many others, including Perkins student Bronwen, Facebook is the social media of choice. Bronwen uses text-to-speech software to move through all the content that Facebook offers. For the most part, every Facebook function is accessible, from updating your status to adding a friend. Unfortunately, however, there are accessibility problems with sharing photos, because the screen-reading software has no way of interpreting pictures.

For Bronwen, social media is about connecting with friends. In many cases, sharing a photo is part of that communication. So it would be great if Facebook could offer accessibility features, like the ability to add “alt-text” descriptions of photos. That would really enhance the mostly accessible Facebook experience for people who are blind.

That said, there is a workaround which can be done easily, which is simply adding a caption to a photo when you share it. This way, instead of our screen-reading software unhelpfully saying “photo,” it would read the caption. For example, I could post a picture of me here at my desk and caption it: “Me at my desk.” By doing so, my friends will know it’s a photo of me at work.

It’s safe to say there is no one answer when it comes to social media preferences among those of us who are blind. The truth is, the ideal social network depends on what you want to get from that website or app. For some, it’s keeping in touch with old friends or making new friends. Some desire to quickly access information and news. Some just want to see funny cat videos.

For people who are blind, just like for people with sight, the best social media is the one you like best.

Ashley Bernard is a 2012 graduate of Perkins School for the Blind. She’s currently interning in the Perkins Communications Department.