Instagram announced today that it’s rolling out new features that will make the app easier to use for people with visual impairments. The changes will allow screen readers to describe photos, either automatically using AI or by reading custom descriptions added by users.
These descriptions, known as “alt text,” are widely used online and are now being built into Instagram. Users will be able to enter their own photo descriptions so that people using screen readers — software that describes the elements displayed on a screen — can hear it read aloud as they browse their feed, Explore page, or a profile.
If there is no description, Instagram will automatically identify what’s in a photo using object recognition technology, then read its automated description of a photo aloud when someone scrolls by. The alt text descriptions won’t be visible, and users will have to go into a photo’s “advanced settings” to include one.
While this is a first for Instagram, Facebook has been using AI to describe photos to blind users for years. This video gives a pretty good sense of what it’s been like for people with blindness and other visual impairments to use the app up until now. It’s not the most seamless experience, and these new features will definitely make it easier and more useful.
Originally published in The Verge by Ashley Carman on November 28, 2018