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Spotlight: Alexa Heinrich on Accessibility in Social Media

  • 8 Minutes
As social media becomes increasingly visual, accessibility advocate Alexa Heinrich explains why marketers and content creators need to lift their game.

May 20, 2021 is the tenth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). As GAAD continues to be an annual event, there’s still a long way to go before everyone, regardless of their disability or situation, can successfully access and enjoy a digital online experience.

When Alexa Heinrich isn’t working in her nine-to-five role as a social media strategist, she is an outspoken advocate for digital accessibility. I spoke to Alexa about why we’re still talking about awareness in 2021, as well as some of the ways content creators can embed accessibility into their processes.

JC: Social media began as primarily text-based, but it has become dominated by images and video. Does accessibility still lag behind innovation in social media?

AH: Someone sent me an article today, excited to see that auto captions are coming to TikTok. Snapchat has started talking about it. Snapchat has been around for years. How are they just now talking about captions? So yes, I would say that accessibility is still under-prioritised by social media platforms.

When I give presentations on digital accessibility to teams, brands, organisations, most of the reactions that I get are, “I did not know about this”. I always explain that it’s not an individual failing. It’s an industry failing. The platforms don’t prioritise it, so the people using the platforms don’t know about these practises if they don’t directly impact them.

Is the lack of awareness or deprioritising because there aren’t enough disabled people working in these businesses and marketing departments?

The caveat that I always give when I present is that I’m sharing this information as a digital marketer who has done her research. I’m not impacted in my day-to-day life by accessibility best practises for social media. I do not have a serious vision impairment or a serious hearing disability. I can only tell you so much from research. I cannot tell you what the full experience of being disabled and being online is like.

So yes, I do believe that more businesses and marketing agencies need to hire disabled people. And not just because we need someone to tell us what this is like, but because they are valuable content creators who know what they’re doing.

They’re content creators just like the rest of us. They deserve the same level of access and respect as the rest of us.

What are some of the things marketers and content creators can do to lift their alt text game?

First and foremost, you should be adding alt text across platforms. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest all allow you to manually write your alt texts – and you should always manually write your alt text.

Yes, AI-generated alt text has been around for a couple of years. But it’s still horrible. It’s very vague. It’s the bare minimum. It’s not really alt text.

Instead, really focus on the key details in your images. What do you want the screen reader user to understand about your image? How is it relevant to the rest of your content? What kind of information are you trying to convey?

Personally, I’m pretty clinical with my alt texts. I try to capture all the big details, but I’m not overly effusive because I want the user to be able to put themselves into that image and visualise in their head what it is without me inferring too much.

And I don’t focus on SEO. That is so not a priority for me personally. I’m focused on making my image as accessible as possible.

I host a weekly exercise on Twitter called #AltTextTuesday where I post an image and encourage other content creators to write alt text for it.

It’s really interesting to see how differently everyone writes alt text. I have content creators who write short and sweet alt texts, but still manage to get in all the large details. And I have others that write alt texts more descriptively than I do.

A lot of people say it really helps to practice and to see what other people are doing. Writing alt text is a very subjective exercise.

Should content creators test their content with a screen reader?

I highly encourage everyone to test their content. I use the text-to-speech program built into my iPhone all the time.

You should think of the screen reader experience when you create your content. If I have a graph that is a JPEG, so it has flattened text, I would probably mention the data somewhere in the block of text, with parentheses to say, “See chart”. The alt text for the chart would be a repeat of the data that I’ve already used in the blog post.

I typically don’t repeat content like that, but in a larger format it makes sense. Like I said, alt text is such a subjective practice that you really have to think through each piece of content.

Is the experience different depending on the screen reader someone prefers to use?

Yes. I have an iPhone, so I use Voiceover. My iPhone can’t pick up on the special Unicode characters that people sometimes use on Instagram and Twitter, but I’ve had Android users tell me they don’t have any issue with them. So, there’s a weird disconnect between the Android user interface and the iOS user interface.

Build content for the lowest common denominator of technology. For some reason, iPhones struggle with picking up the alt text on Instagram. So, I write image descriptions in the captions of my posts because I’m paranoid that my posts will be inaccessible. I’ll write my caption, type two hard returns, and then I write Image Description followed by the alt text.

Accessibility isn’t only about the blind. What are some of the other accessibility issues content creators overlook?

Strangely, in 2021 people are still not captioning their videos, which as a marketer is kind of mind-blowing to me. It’s a well-known statistic that 85% of internet users watch videos with the sound off, based on preferences. And that’s me – I like to watch videos with the sound off because I don’t initially want to hear the sound. It’s jarring for me.

TikTok doesn’t have captioning yet; they’re rolling it out in the next few weeks. So, content creators have been captioning their videos manually using text within the apps. They write “CC” and then they write their captions.

CC means closed captions. These aren’t closed captions. These are open captions. It’s interesting to see that people want to caption their stuff, but they don’t understand the difference.

It’s also interesting to see how many people don’t realise that emojis and Unicode characters impact the accessibility of their posts. How you write your hashtags can impact how accessible your posts are.

When you create content, ideally there are three components. There’s the visual element for people who rely on their sight, there’s the audio for people who rely on their hearing and there’s the written text. You need all three of those elements for your content to be 100% accessible, which is why social media features like Stories are an issue because most Story features can only be visual or audio or both. There’s no written text function that a screen reader can pick up, except for Twitter Fleets, which supports alt text.

In 2020, Instagram released AI-powered video captioning. While content creators shouldn’t rely on AI-powered alt text, are AI-powered video captions worth using?

They’re just for IGTV for now, but Instagram is also introducing a captions sticker for Stories. It’s still in beta and it’s only supposed to be for the internal team, but it got turned on somehow.

I’ve tested it. It’s pretty good. But the nice part is they are captions you can edit. After you’re done speaking, if you double-check them and think, “That’s not actually what I said,” you can edit them, which is wonderful.

Is one of the reasons some users skip or ignore the accessibility features because they see them as extra work that detract from the real-time spontaneity of social media?

It’s more that content creators are expected to be the only people who should care about accessibility because they’re hitting the final button, whereas it’s everyone’s concern. Everyone from the digital marketing team up to the C-suite should care about this, because then you can bake it into your processes for creating content. Accessibility shouldn’t be, “Oh, I need to do this” at the last second. It’s part of the process.

The video team needs to provide a subtitles file, or bake captions into the video for open captions. We need to send the written copy for the social media manager with the alt text for the image as well. It’s about making it part of the overall content creation process.

It’s about stepping outside of your own experiences and listening to your audience – listening to people who are impacted. It’s about not going on the defensive when someone tells you, “I’m affected by this”, but really listening to them and learning from what they’re telling you.

I don’t know when that utopia will happen, but that’s how it should be.

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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