Screen-reading software allows visually impaired people to use the internet, but it hits a wall when it comes to memes.
In January, a photo of a woman holding a probing cane and looking at a phone went viral on Facebook after the poster implied that the subject was faking blindness given that she was clearly able to see her phone screen. Though the image was shared thousands of times by people who believed the joke, commenters were eventually informed of the reality, which is that blind people and people with low vision depend on their phones just as much as anyone else.
Accessibility features can magnify a screen or verbally describe what’s happening on it; speech and modified tap commands make it possible to navigate software and websites without seeing them. A slew of apps for blind people make use of the smartphone’s camera to help with tasks like counting money and identifying colors, and they can even outsource a pair of eyes from a sighted individual. Specialized Braille and large-print keyboards and screen-reading software mean that low vision isn’t an obstacle to going online.
There is, however, an aspect of internet culture that blind people do have trouble grasping: memes.
Since the days of image macrosthose pictures stamped with a simple joke captionmemes have become a universal way of communicating online. Even the president tweets them. But as the medium has progressed into Dada-esque art, it’s become increasingly difficult to convey the jokes they contain to those not already steeped in web culture. If you’ve ever tried describing a meme to your friend who hasn’t seen it, you know how hard it is (and how dumb it can make you sound). Now imagine describing a meme to someone who can’t see it, period.
“I’m 25 and, like most people my age, I’m online,” said Des Delgadillo, a fully blind meme lover from Pico Rivera, California. “But when it comes to memes, those are so constantly changing, built upon each other, and tied to specific niche subjects, that they’re very hard for someone with no sight to understand. They become so highly visual so quickly. For a lot of people in my situation, I think this does lead to a severe kind of FOMO because [memes] are such a big part of the way people our age are talking to each other.”
Delgadillo, like most other low- to no-vision computer users, uses screen-reading software for the bulk of his web browsing. The software renders on-screen text, icons, and toolbars into speech or Braille output, trimming out aesthetic fluff like animations to help users focus on what’s important.
Where screen readers stumble, however, is in their attempts to capture the essence of images. A program might be able to recognize that a frog is on the screen and read the text around it, even without grasping that it’s looking at a Foul Bachelor Frog panel. But how could it hope to make sense of a 3D rendering of a frog on a unicycle, let alone the variations of Dat Boi covered in fire emojis?
In the past, the software would merely read a meaningless image file name, leaving the blind user with little to no information about what it contained. Today many online publications manually add alt-text descriptions to every photo to help blind readers understand what’s on their screens, but memes rarely, if ever, get such clarification. This process becomes more unwieldy and time-consuming for publishers when scaled beyond a couple images, which is why these efforts are likely to be just a stopgap while alt-text generating AI improves to a point where it can be universally implemented. But even then, memes may be hard to parse.
“When a company sends me a screenshot or photo with instructions or an infographic in it, I’ll put it into one of the many photo-reader apps we have that help us decode those types of images,” Delgadillo said. “Those don’t really work for memes. I think I once had one scan the meme and tell me, ‘This is a meme.'”
Because most screen- and image-reading software can handle text-based images with relative ease, written memes are relatively simple for the blind to enjoy. Delgadillo points to this as one of the main reasons why he and many other blind people are more active on text-heavy Twitter than other social media platforms. Resources like KnowYourMeme help fill in knowledge gaps, but when GIFs and collage-style photo compositions with labels, non-uniform text, and photoshopping are added to the mix, reading programs quickly reach their limitations.
Jon, a blind man from British Columbia who asked his last name be withheld to avoid harassment, demonstrated over Skype chat how far modern screen readers are from being ready to tackle the premiere art form of our era. When Jon had his reader analyze the below post from the Illegal Doggo and Puppo Meme Distribution Facebook group, it spit out the following:
Image may contain: 1 person
Analysis completed: black, darkness, white, sky
When given a readout so lacking in information, Jon uses context clues like the post’s titles and comments to help paint the rest of the picture. This is not always as easy as it sounds. On Reddit, his preferred meme consumption platform, the ambiguity of post titles offers an added challenge, because “titles for memes are not descriptive at all, more like punchlines or anecdotes, so I can’t know if the meme in question is super inappropriate or not.”
To test the software, I sent Jon some memes, had his reader analyze them, then described the memes to him so we could both see how wrong the reader got the jokes.
For this one, Jon’s reader mistook the word “garbage” for “carriage,” making the gag unintelligible.
Here the reader only gave Jon the punchline, which obviously isn’t great.
And it couldn’t read this text at all.
Even where his software does get it right, like with its accurate reading of emojis, Jon’s atypical relationship with the little symbols has kept him from being fully literate in this cultural phenomenon. When he informed me that he’d picked up that “eggplant and peach get used for butts,” I explained that he was half correct, describing to him how the eggplant is typically used. Years of half-understood jokes and comments appeared to suddenly click into place for him.
Like any subculture, the blind community has its own memes and inside jokes shared across chats and platforms that play on their most common struggles and experienceslike a rivalry between users of the two most popular screen readers, JAWS and NVDA (similar, I’m told, to the running commentary that might go on between a Mac user and a PC user, or Xbox vs. Playstation). On the more tactless end of the spectrum, there are snarky jokes about the perceived weird speaking patterns and lack of social graces among “sheltereds” or “blindies”fellow sightless individuals who are regarded as having been too coddled by their time in schools for the blind.
Another common trope is the scourge of well-meaning but bothersome individuals who insist on praying over the blind when they’re out and about in public. “They’re not invading your space, or grabbing you, but the gist is, ‘You’re broken, so let me fix you,'” said Reddit user MostlyBlindGamer, who declined to give his real name, citing his paranoia about online privacy. “It’s that and, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’ We love to hear that. I don’t feel brave. I also don’t feel not brave.”
There’s an Instagram account dedicated to creating and curating “memes for the visually impaired to relate to,” complete with text descriptions of each picture. Some people create audio skits from their own voices, screen reader speech, and files pulled from the web. The cruder of these creations are uploaded to anyaudio.net, which Jon likens to 4chan.
MostlyBlindGamer said he keeps meaning to set up a blind-memes subreddit to collect these shared experiences in a place where more blind people can enjoy them, because “being blind, there’s a lot of stuff you either cry about or laugh about. You get pissed off or you make it into a joke. I prefer this approach.”
Visual impairment is a spectrum, and for the legally blind who still possess some sight, keeping up with memes is a bit easier. MostlyBlindGamer’s 20/400 vision allows him to see them when using his phone and computer’s built-in magnification tools. He also praises the increased universality of night mode, with which you can invert screens’ white backdrops for black, as many low-vision users’ sight problems stem from light sensitivity. But even for him, videos and GIFs are hard to tackle.
“More often than not I’m going to be pausing and then zooming in and then playing again, then zooming and pausing and you just get tired of it after a while,” he said. “When that Hitler movie [ Downfall] was a popular meme, I freaking hated that.”
MostlyBlindGamer, like the other people I spoke with for this piece, is optimistic that AI will continue to improve to a point where he’ll eventually be able to enjoy the full breadth of memes like any sighted person. But at the moment, it’s a struggle for him to really get memes the way sighted people do. When someone attempts to show him something that he doesn’t quite grasp, he’ll often indulge them and pretend he did.
“Meme culture is really about sharing and spreading the joy and laughs,” he said. “You don’t really want to go, ‘Hey man, I can’t enjoy the thing that you can enjoy. It sucks. I’m sorry.’ And at the same time, you don’t want to go, ‘Hey, uh, would you mind pausing this video we’re watching at every line so I can read the subtitles?'”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.
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