Yesterday, Instagram announced two new features it was adding to make the platform more accessible to visually impaired users. First, newly uploaded photos would have automatically generated alt (descriptive) text added to them. This feature is powered by the same technology that Facebook added to its platform a few years ago, which attempts to determine and name the objects in posted photos, and make those results available to screen readers so users of the software can benefit from the description. These days, that technology has advanced enough so that a lot of the memes people post and share on both of these platforms can be enjoyed by visually impaired users.
Second, users of Instagram have the option to add alt text to photos they post, potentially providing a more detailed description for their visually impaired followers. This is similar to the way Twitter and Mastodon have decided to handle making images accessible. While this is a huge step forward for the platform, and while I had lots of fun testing the feature on my own Instagram account, there are a couple things that need to be worked out before I adopt it as my main outlet for nurturing my interest in photography.
The process for adding custom alt text to photos when you post them on Instagram is somewhat complicated. In addition to the normal steps for posting a photo such as adding filters and captions, you actually have to click the advanced settings at the bottom of the posting screen, add the alt text, then share the photo. To be fair, this is still easier than Twitter’s execution, which requires you to go into the accessibility section of your Twitter settings and enable the option to add alt text before it even becomes available in the tweet posting box. Mastodon offers the option to add a description to photos right out of the box, and that makes it the best, but all three of these platforms are handling the ability to add custom descriptions better than Facebook. Facebook does allow custom alt text to be added to photos. At the time of this writing, this help article explains that this is only possible from a computer. After expressing my displeasure about this, on the Facebook accessibility home page, I arcvd a response that the vthe version of the iOS app released today does allow the editing of alt text, though in an extremely complicated way.
Alt Text Does Not Transfer
My interest in photography is a growing thing, and I want to share the experience with as many people on as many platforms as possible, and I want to make sure it’s an accessible experience. When I found out that Facebook wouldn’t let me edit the alt text of photos, I thought: Hmm. Instagram lets you cross-post to a number of services, including Facebook. I bet if I add the alt text on Instagram and cross-post to Facebook, that’ll solve the problem.
Unfortunately, no. When I went to my Facebook timeline and looked at the photos, I either got the message that no alt text was available, or the automatically generated stuff that Facebook’s been putting out for a few years now. The alt text was also not posted to Twitter. One possible work-around is to configure an IFTTT applet that posts Instagram photos as native Twitter photos, but I haven’t tested this yet. It’s worth noting that if you cross-post from Twitter to Mastodon, the alt text is transferred 98% of the time.
Instagram’s support for automatic alt text and its giving users the ability to add custom alt text to photos is a huge step for accessibility. However, as a blind person who is posting more photos and wants to make sure their posts are accessible on all platforms, the experience is missing a couple of key features I need for it to become my main platform for sharing my experience as I develop my interest in photography. Right now, I’m separately posting to each network, and adding descriptions in the main post section of Facebook. There’s more effort involved, but the end result, to me, is worth the extra energy.