I occasionally stand in front of my mirror and talk. Wielding my phone as a camera, I record these talks and post them online for people to see. It’s a marvel of technology and modern life that my childhood self would have been delighted by. As a kid, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the talk show circuit in the role of guest, host, and audience of one. My bedroom mirror saw laughter and tears, even standing ovations.
In lots of ways, my adult mirror talks are not so very different—me, mirror, furrowed brow, exaggerated eye rolls—but they diverge in one critical and obvious way. I’m not the only audience. On any given day, any one of the people following (or not) my account on Instagram could be tuning in to hear what I have to say.
That other people living in far-flung places (and right next door) might be reading this site or following along on Instagram, is a fact that’s honestly still hard for me to fully imagine, even after ten years of writing publicly. And the reality is that beyond the most basic statistics provided by Instagram or Google Analytics, I don’t really know very much at all about the folks who follow along—at least not in all of the ways that really count.
At the beginning of the year, at the urging of a few of the folks watching, and further encouraged by one of my personal heroes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I started experimenting with the captioning app Clipomatic. It’s a video editor that turns spoken words into written captions so that my videos will be more fully accessible. Using a captioning software on videos is helpful for folks in the Deaf community, for folks who don’t speak English fluently, or who might have difficulty understanding my accent. It’s helpful for parents watching videos while they nurse babies, or for folks who otherwise can’t turn up their phone volume. It’s a tool that expands the possibility for my work to be accessible to a wider group of people and using it has been a huge lesson for me in doing better to imagine the humanity and needs of the folks who might be engaging with my work.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me so long to think about accessibility and ableism in my online work, but here are a few concrete changes that I’ve committed to:
Mentioned above, I’ve been using the Clipomatic app for adding captions to my Instagram videos. The software isn’t perfect. Because I don’t typically use any kind of voice recognition software on my phone, when I first started to use it, the captions were wildly wrong. Over time though, the captioning has gotten stronger and stronger as the technology learns my voice. The app also makes it possible to manually edit the text and fix any spelling or transcription errors. I’m hopeful Instagram is able to implement an in-app version of the same thing soon, but until then, this is a solid alternative with immediate benefits to a whole lot of people.
Most simply, alt text (short for alternative text) is a written description of a visual image. It’s a kind of meta-data that enriches the usefulness of images online for lots of reasons, including access. Last fall, Instagram began embedding automatic alt text to posts so that folks with visual impairments who use a screen reader can hear a list of items that the image might include. For a more detailed description, Instagram has also developed a manual alt text tool. Before sharing a new post on Instagram, you’ll see a small prompt that reads ‘Advanced Settings.’ If you click there, you’ll see a prompt for alt text where you can embed your own description of the image that you’re sharing. This image won’t appear as part of your caption, but it will be saved as part of your image data and accessible to folks using screen readers. Succinct descriptions are most helpful. I’ll be adding my own descriptive alt text from now on.
Unlike alt text, which gets embedded as meta data, an image description is a written description that’s visible in your Instagram caption. For folks with visual impairments who don’t use screen readers, this is really helpful. Image descriptions should be written inside closed brackets and should start with the words image description. Here are a few more guidelines. Starting today, I’ll be adding image descriptions to my Instagram posts.
Capital letters in hashtags:
I don’t use very many hashtags, but when I do, I never capitalize them. Turns out, adding a capital letter to the beginning of each new word makes it easier for a screen reader to decipher and read out loud. Done and done.
Access is love:
More important than implementing any of these simple, easily adoptable logistical habit shifts, I’m especially moved by the call-in from the folks at the Disability Intersectionality Summit…to “understand access as not only about logistics, but about deepening our shared humanity and dignity, growing access intimacy with each other, and an opportunity to create more justice and love in our world.” In her keynote address at last fall’s summit, Mia Mingus urged folks to see access as a practice of love: “Access for the sake of access or inclusion is not necessarily liberatory, but access done in the service of love, justice, connection and community is liberatory and has the power to transform. I want us to think beyond just knowing the “right things to say” and be able to truly engage. I want us to not only make sure things are accessible, but also work to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place. To not only meet the immediate needs of access—whether that is access to spaces, or access to education and resources, or access to dignity and agency—but also work to make sure that the inaccessibility doesn’t happen again.”
I’m so grateful for the work and resources available at the Disability Intersectionality Summit. This month (and next!) they’re encouraging folks to use the hashtag #AccessIsLove and to join conversations about access, solidarity, and disability justice as a practice of love. I’m glad to witness and join the conversation and to shift my habits. Far from being something reserved only for folks with disability, or the special purview of activists and politicians, this is something that each of us can do.
What else? Are there other things you guys are doing to increase access in your online (or offline!) lives?