Facebook releases tool to describe photos for the blind

Billions of photos flow through social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter every day, but for the blind and visually impaired, navigating these networks can be tricky.

It’s getting easier.

On Monday night, Facebook said it was releasing a new feature that describes photos for the blind and visually impaired. Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, the feature is being rolled out first to people who use screen readers set to English on Apple devices such as an iPhone or iPad. Facebook, which has been testing the new feature, said it plans to add it to more devices and incorporate different languages.

To access the tool, people turn on the device’s VoiceOver feature and then open the Facebook app. When they scroll through photos, they’ll hear a description of the image. The company describes how it works in this video:

“While visual content provides a fun and expressive way for people to communicate online, consuming and creating it poses challenges for people who are blind or severely visually impaired,” Facebook said in a statement. “As a result, some people may feel frustrated and excluded because they cannot fully participate in the conversations around photos that take place on Facebook.”

The tool identifies objects that are commonly shared in photos on Facebook such as ocean, water, basketball, ice cream or baby.

More than 2 billion photos are shared across Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, the company said. Worldwide, more than 39 million people are blind and more than 246 million have a severe visual impairment.

In December, I wrote about how Facebook has been testing tools that not only describe items in a photo but allow users to ask what’s in an image. Blind people who use social media also talked about why they were on these sites. While the first tool is being publicly released, the second is still in the works.

Facebook, which has 1.6 billion users, isn’t the only tech firm that is trying to make online tools more accessible to the blind.

As tech reporter Pete Carey wrote in August, smartphones and apps from the iPhone’s VoiceOver feature to Google Android’s TalkBack are allowing the blind to become more independent.

Twitter also said in March that people who use the sites on an iOS or Android device can now add descriptions to photos in their tweets.

Photo Credit: Accessibility Specialist at Facebook Matt King, who is blind, demonstrates how a new Facebook tool verbally describes photos to users, on Nov. 5, 2015 at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group). Video provided by Facebook.


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