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As Reddit celebrates its 15th anniversary online, Insider spoke to blind and visually impaired users about their experience with the platform.
Five blind or visually impaired people from all over the world told Insider that despite Reddit’s accessibility limitations, and lack of alternate text features, the website is their favorite social platform because of the culture and community found on the r/Blind subreddit.
According to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, the text-based platform is also structured in a way that’s easy to use.
Though the platform has had controversies over its more toxic communities, such as r/the_donald, members of r/Blind say their community is supportive and helpful.
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Samuel Proulx, a 32-year-old blind man living in Ottowa, Ontario, isn’t that interested in using traditional social media. Proulx doesn’t find Instagram and Facebook pictures of relatives’ and friends’ babies that exciting — but even if he felt differently, those images are usually inaccessible to him.
“I love my extended family, but that content is of significantly less value to me,” Proulx told Insider. Instead of spending time on Facebook or Instagram, Proulx prefers Reddit, a text-based, rather than image-centric, platform that offers him a community of strangers to interact with, and a community of users from all over the world who live with blindness or visual impairments.
On Reddit, Proulx has been an active user for a decade, where he has participated in different subreddits. Now, he spends most of his Reddit time moderating r/Blind, the main community for the blind and visually impaired on the platform. Because of Reddit’s design, which encourages users to talk to each other in various interest groups, it’s become Proulx’s favorite platform.
“I think there’s something culturally different about the space on Reddit,” he said, comparing it to other social platforms.
Beyond r/Blind, the r/TranscribersOfReddit subreddit is also popular among blind users. On the transcribers subreddit, people write image descriptions for inaccessible pictures posted on the platform.
Data provided by Reddit indicates that the r/Blind subreddit has seen massive growth in the last few years. Activity on r/Blind more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, and activity on r/TranscribersofReddit few more than 68 percent, according to the company.
As Reddit celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, Insider spoke to blind or visually impaired Reddit users about the sense of community on the platform that they say sets it apart from other interactive social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Reddit is not necessarily the most accessible platform, but its format is inherently easy to understand
Image accessibility is one of the main hurdles for blind and visually impaired people online, as image-based platforms, particularly Instagram, can be very difficult to access, as reported by TIME in January.
Reddit has no alternate text (alt text) capabilities, meaning users can’t provide an image description that the visually impaired community can use to identify pictures.
Facebook and Twitter, however, do have alt-text features, but each of those platforms’ alternate text programs function quite differently. On Twitter, users have to find the “ALT” tab when posting an image, choose to click it, and type out their own description. Facebook offers automated alt text, but users who spoke to Insider say the artificial intelligence isn’t as good as it could be. The AI will generate context for the image, describing various objects or backgrounds, but it won’t be nearly as descriptive as alt text written by humans.
Still, when images are shared on Reddit, the so-called Transcribers of Reddit are there to describe pictures for those with visual impairments. Without many of these transcriptions, Proulx said, “I would ignore this content entirely, because I know it’s inaccessible to me.”
While Reddit’s lack of alt text capabilities is frustrating to some users, the website’s use is text-based, rather than image-based. Most users aren’t encountering pictures as they scroll through subreddits, but instead are voting on polls, commenting on posts, and messaging.
J. Sekhon, a 24-year-old from Portland, Oregon, said he finds Facebook and Twitter to be more accessible than Reddit, which he said “has a learning curve” for users with screen reading software. But on Reddit, “there is also a significant amount of accompanying text and text-only information, and unlike Twitter or Facebook, that information is often more substantive,” Sekhon told Insider via email.
Marc Shapiro, the president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, explained that to make a website accessible for people of all sightedness, “Users have to have a reasonable level of confidence that there is a pretty good correlation between how they’re perceiving the content and how it’s presented.”
“Consistency in heading structure, order of information, and the labeling of navigation elements are key here. If users can’t be confident enough that they’re experiencing the content in the way it’s meant to be experienced, they’re less likely to use it or return to it,” Shapiro told Insider in an email.
Simon Wheatcroft, a 38-year-old runner and technologist who lives in the UK and is blind, said that this consistent structure is found on Reddit. The website’s “hierarchy generally works quite well when you’re using a screen reader to access information,” Wheatcroft, who has famously used wearable tech to run the New York Marathon, told Insider.
Beyond accessibility, some users credit the community on the website for creating a culture that’s welcoming of differently-abled individuals
The sense of community fostered within the r/Blind group differs from what many people might associate with Reddit, which has long been criticized for allowing toxic subreddits like r/the_donald to continue to exist. Reddit “quarantined” that subreddit in 2019, making its posts undiscoverable on search and unable to generate revenue, and eventually added further restrictions, inspiring a migration to an alternate platform.
Despite some toxicity on the platform, members of r/Blind say their community is both supportive and helpful.
Lexie, a 35-year-old from Minneapolis who is blind and asked that her last name be withheld, echoed Proulx’s sentiment, saying that the platform’s culture is what she loves the most. “[Reddit] is my favorite, because I’ve found the greatest amount of support from other individuals, when compared to other social networks,” Lexie told Insider via email.
Lexie added that in her experience with Facebook and Twitter, people often don’t engage with posts beyond reacting with a like. In contrast, on Reddit, the entire platform encourages conversation.
Sekhon noted that “knowledge about how blind people use the internet is generally sparse and out of date,” and that on text-based platforms, “people seem more willing” to learn and understand how blind and visually impaired people use the internet.
The subreddit’s community has also been a “resource for help,” Wheatcroft said. Currently, he’s using his own experience earning a master’s degree in machine learning to help someone else from r/Blind convert data into an audio representation. “I do try and give back to the community, so it’s been helpful in that respect as well,” he said.
For MostlyBlindGamer, a Reddit user who asked that both his first and last name be withheld, the r/Blind subreddit has given him a newfound sense of community. He is visually impaired and not fully blind, and his vision has worsened over the years.
“It’s really cool to be able to interact with people who have gone through similar experiences, and go through similar experiences every day,” MostlyBlindGamer, who is in his 20s and lives in Europe, told Insider. “Once in a while, someone posts about exactly this thing I’ve felt for a long time, like, ‘Hey, you know, my vision’s bad, but it’s not the worst, but I feel like I don’t fit.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, me too.’ I’ve been thinking that for years, you know — I don’t know anybody else in my life who’s like that.”
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