The Industry

When Things Go Wrong for Blind Users on Facebook, They Go Really Wrong

The social network wants to be accessible. Blind users and former Facebook workers say it isn’t doing enough.

Photo illustration of a cracked screen with a phone showing "Awesome Text Status" on a colorful Facebook status background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Last December, Tasha Chemel agreed to participate in a Facebook study. A professional academic coach at a college, Chemel had been blogging about Facebook’s problems with accessibility for blind people like her and complained directly to the company. She was used to not hearing back. But this time a Facebook envoy had humbly reached out, admitting “that Facebook is not as accessible as it should be, and the frustration with accessibility gaps you and others share with us is understandable.” He was trying to make things better. Facebook offered Chemel a $75 gift card for her time. But the researcher soon realized the website for choosing a gift card wasn’t fully compatible with the screen readers blind people use to browse the web and asked if Chemel would be OK with an Amazon gift card. The roadblock felt all too familiar. “I’m really not OK with having fewer choices than the non-screen-reader users who complete this survey, and you shouldn’t be OK with it, either,” Chemel responded, and when she didn’t hear back about a fix, she withdrew from the study.

The slip-up felt reflective of how Chemel and many blind users experience Facebook. Often, the company’s apps and websites trip up their accessibility software. Sometimes, they hear that Facebook is earnestly trying to fix the bug, and sometimes, it actually does. And then something else breaks.

Using Facebook while blind, Chemel says, is “a constant feeling of being devalued. It doesn’t matter about the stupid button that I can’t press in that moment. It’s that it keeps happening. … And the message that I keep receiving is that the world just doesn’t value me, and that people really don’t care.” While bugs and disruptions are a fact of life for blind internet users, the dozen whom I interviewed for this story say that Facebook and its subsidiaries offer some of the most frustrating experiences of all.

Browsing the web while blind is supposed to work like this: Screen readers like VoiceOver (an Apple product for mobile and desktop devices) and Talkback (Android’s equivalent) read aloud every option on a given page as users lightly flick the screen. In the Facebook app, it might run through options like “message friends,” “status,” “photo,” and “notifications,” and read the contents of news feed posts. When they encounter an image, the screen readers are supposed to read aloud an alt-text description—one that has been entered manually by a user or, increasingly, been devised by artificial intelligence software. When screen readers encounter an element they don’t understand, they might read “image” or “may contain text”—effectively locking the user out.

“Sometimes, I can go weeks or even months without having a problem on Facebook, but when something does break, it tends to be spectacular,” said Chancey Fleet, an affiliate at Data and Society and an accessibility advocate, who is also blind. “They’re not unique for their number of incidents, but the severity and unsubtleness of the problems that get through and the amount of time that they’re permitted to linger in a broken state is pretty notable.” The result is that blind users expect trouble every time they fire up Facebook. “Bugs are just part of the environment on Facebook,” Chris Meredith, a blind user who is an engineer at Barclays specializing in quality assurance, told me. “The bugs on Facebook are like the garbage on 57th Street. I’ve stopped noticing.”

An example: When Facebook first let users add a colorful background to posts at the end of 2016, it was an instant hit. News feeds were suddenly full of recommendations, new job announcements, and one-line jokes set against those prismatic and patterned backgrounds. Chemel couldn’t see these backgrounds, but her screen reader could still dictate the text on top of them. In June 2018, she noticed that other blind users were complaining that Facebook was now littered with posts that all said the same thing: “Awesome Text Status.” VoiceOver could no longer read posts with colorful backgrounds, rendering a large chunk of Facebook useless. The issue lasted about a week.

Taken alone, that may not sound like a big deal. But then there’s another bug, and another, according to blind users. For about two weeks in 2018, Facebook Messenger stopped allowing VoiceOver to read back to blind users what they had typed. There was a bug in which new notifications would interrupt VoiceOver as it read news feed posts, forcing the app to restart the passage. Over the past year, blind users who manage pages on Facebook have had trouble banning people and inviting people to like their pages. Since its debut in 2016, Facebook’s Marketplace platform for selling secondhand goods has had problems with unlabeled buttons and reading back listings. Instagram Stories are completely inaccessible to blind users, despite having been on the app for three years and being one of Instagram’s most popular features.

In response to questions from Slate, Facebook’s Director of Accessibility Jeff Wieland wrote, “We work hard to make it possible for anyone, regardless of ability, to access our family of apps. Many of the issues described focus on screen-reader compatibility, an aspect of accessibility that the tech industry is still working hard to solve. We know there’s more work to do and we’ll improve—but the issues raised don’t tell the full story of our contributions to accessibility nor the state of our products.”

Facebook has touted a handful of advances in recent years, like its alt-text feature that uses artificial intelligence to describe what’s in photos on Facebook and Instagram. It’s also promised to make Facebook and Instagram Stories accessible. But blind users stress that even the fixes that Facebook has made haven’t significantly improved the overall experience. “Having alt-text that says ‘image may contain child’ doesn’t help me participate in the conversation,” Chemel said.

In the U.S., there are thousands of lawsuits each year over accessibility online, but there remains ambiguity over what, exactly, operators of websites and apps must do for their blind users under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (For a broad look at this landscape, this law journal article about web companies’ responsibility for accessibility is worthwhile.) Still, it is generally accepted in the tech industry that websites and apps, particularly ones as important to participating in social life as Facebook, should be accessible—and an important part of that is screen-reader compatibility.

This takes testing to make sure that a site or app’s navigation cues are properly syncing with accessibility programs. It’s also understood to be the responsibility of every company, not just the ones that make screen readers. “VoiceOver is a static thing,” said one former Facebook employee with direct knowledge of how compatibility issues at the company are fixed. Because thousands of apps are available for Android and iPhone, it would be untenable for a phone’s features to be changed for each app that presented a new accessibility challenge.

As a result, every internet company faces issues with screen-reader accessibility. Among the larger tech firms, disability advocates say they’re impressed by the resources Google dedicates to accessibility, but even there, issues for blind users have abounded. “Google overall has become less accessible over the years. Android has gotten better,” says Sina Bahram, a blind user and the president of Prime Access Consulting, a firm specializing in inclusive design. (He stressed that Apple’s efforts on iOS far exceed Android’s progress on accessibility.) “Microsoft has gotten less accessible over the years. Office is less accessible. Skype has gone from usable and workable to a hot mess.” Even though Google, Microsoft, and Apple “have all made vast leaps forward” in working with disability advocates and pushing through lots of improvements, Bahram said, “I believe that in every tech company of scale there are going to be numerous pockets where accessibility isn’t happening or is under-resourced or inconsistent.”

Are Facebook’s problems with accessibility worse compared to its peers? Multiple former Facebook employees believe they are—and all of them questioned whether the company is doing enough. They said that the team that makes accessibility features at Facebook has rarely, if ever, comprised more than 10 people in recent years, and that this team works on issues across Facebook and Instagram. Instagram only had one employee whose responsibilities explicitly included working on accessibility at the start of this year, according to three sources who used to work at the company. Currently, it’s not clear if anyone at Instagram is specifically dedicated to working on accessibility at all. The former employees told me that Facebook and Instagram both have knowingly released features that aren’t accessible to users who are blind, and that at other times they’ve released features without doing proper accessibility testing. (They requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists about their previous employer.)

“Yes, they roll out new features on Instagram without doing any accessibility testing,” one recent former employee with direct knowledge of the accessibility efforts told me, adding that this has happened as recently as earlier this year. (Google has a dedicated team working on accessibility issues, as well as separate accessibility teams for many of its products, like Search, YouTube, Chrome, and more. It’s unclear how big those teams’ headcounts are, and Facebook did not specify how many people it has, or has had, working on accessibility issues at the company.)

On the user end, alerting Facebook to accessibility issues can also be difficult. There’s a page on the platform called Facebook Accessibility, but followers can’t post requests for help there. The result is hundreds of comments on nearly every post on the page. Below one announcing that a bug in Messenger had been fixed, commenters vented about other bugs affecting screen readers. (“I really feel so left out, I know that sounds silly but everyone else is able to share their friendversarys, And all that stuff that they put there and I never can,” a user named Jerri wrote.) There’s also a Twitter account, but it hasn’t shared an update on Facebook’s accessibility work since the end of 2018. There’s a form for flagging accessibility issues in the Facebook Help Center, but the link to it is nestled in the middle of a page about Facebook’s various accessibility options. Only one blind user I spoke to for this story was aware of the form.

One area where Facebook has improved—and still has a long ways to go—is Instagram. People who are blind like to document their lives with photography just like anyone else might. But they say that for years, they were barely able to create an Instagram account, edit their profile, or post pictures using screen readers. “As late as 2017, Instagram was basically a completely unusable app with screen readers. It had basically zero accessibility,” one former Facebook employee said. In 2016, workers at Instagram started to catalog screen-reader issues on top of their regular responsibilities, but some feared that doing so would hurt their performance reviews because they weren’t working on something that would have “actual impact,” one former Facebook employee told me. Only after this handful of employees started doing accessibility testing on their own did accessibility became a sustained project at Instagram, when Instagram assigned a dedicated manager to accessibility in Fall 2016.

Now, with screen-reader software, it’s possible to create an Instagram account, edit your profile, navigate using the buttons on the app, and edit and read comments, but those actions weren’t reliably functional with screen readers until November 2018, according to a former employee and two blind users. Blind people still can’t read text in Stories, edit photos with Instagram’s photo editing tools, use IGTV, or reliably use the shopping features, according to multiple blind users. When in-app shopping was added to Instagram earlier this year, employees pointed out to leaders at the company that the new feature was not accessible to blind users before its release, according to a former employee with knowledge of the rollout. A small handful of employees at Instagram tried to get the company to address the issue before its launch, concerned that a blind user might “think they’re buying something for $10 but it’s actually $100.” But Instagram released the new shopping feature anyway, the former Instagram employee said, opting to try to fix those problems as soon as possible after the new feature was released.

The accessibility work Instagram has done has been well-received. In November 2018, the app announced it had two new features for blind users, including image recognition in the main Instagram feed and the Explore tab, as well as an option for users to include an alt-text description of photos they upload, both of which could be read by a screen reader. Facebook has had A.I.-generated alt-text for its images since April 2016 and had an option for users to manually insert an image description before that. One lingering issue is that the text-generating feature can’t decipher text within an image. “I can take a picture on my phone of a restaurant menu and have it read to me if the menu isn’t online,” said Meredith, the blind user who works at Barclays. “But Facebook doesn’t even want to take a stab at guessing the text in a meme.” Blind users also lamented that the alt-text options on Instagram and Facebook are hard to find for sighted users if they don’t know to look for them as they upload a photo.

The problem involving images with text is so maddening to some blind users that they’ve made multiple groups on Facebook for posting memes and images of text that volunteers transcribe for users who are blind. One such group, Community Access (Captions, Transcripts, Image Descriptions), has more than 1,300 members, with multiple requests posted there each day. One user recently shared a flyer from the Facebook page of the Santa Clara County, California, government; the flyer concerned food safety after a power outage and how to know what to keep and what to discard. A sighted user on the page took the time to type it all out.

All of these issues involve engineering challenges at huge scale. As Bahram put it, it would be impossible for any tech platform serving billions and constantly adding features not to encounter issues. But it’s also a civil rights issue, blind users stressed, and Facebook itself is supposed to be a civil rights tool. “It’s important for Facebook to be accessible for people who are blind and in the disability community as whole, because social media has become a huge hub for advocacy and civil rights,” Claire Stanley of the American Council for the Blind told me. “It’s ironic that it’s this awesome tool but it doesn’t always work for us.”

Chemel believes that if the kind of bugs she and other blind users regularly encounter on Facebook were problems for sighted users, they’d be immediately fixed. In an open letter she wrote to Facebook last year about the “Awesome Text Background” posts, she wrote, “You have billions of dollars at your disposal. If your accessibility team is small and underpowered, it’s not because you don’t have the resources to make systemic change. It’s because you believe that shoddy accessibility is enough accessibility.”

Update, Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 4:11 p.m. This article has been updated to clarify iOS and Android’s relative progress on accessibility.