Facebook has created a new way for its users who are blind or have low vision to know more about the photos they encounter. For instance, people using screen readers can identify who are in pictures on Facebook.
Facebook also has new, optional tools to help people better manage their identity using face recognition. Powered by the same technology used to suggest friends you may want to tag in photos or videos, these new features help you find photos of you that you’re not tagged in and help you detect when others might be attempting to use your image as their profile picture.
Matt King, Facebook’s first blind engineer speaking to ABILITY Magazine:
By 1986, while an engineering student in college, my Retinitis Pigmentosa had progressed to the point that I needed to use a screen reader. As soon as I was using assistive technologies, I was tinkering with them and getting to know their developers. While working as an electrical engineer and later as a software developer in IBM’s main frame manufacturing business, I used a lot of my free time to collaborate with the developers of IBM screen reading technologies. In 1998, those relationships led me to my first full-time job as an accessibility professional, working for the IBM CIO to help improve accessibility for IBM employees. Eventually I became a senior technical lead there, and was responsible for accessibility across all of IBM’s web sites and workplace tools.
Today as an accessibility specialist on the accessibility engineering team, I help designers and engineers across the company understand how to build accessibility into the products they are developing. I see facilitating the ability to connect with others for every one of the more than a billion people in the world who have a disability as a powerful catalyst for breaking down all barriers imposed by disability, especially social barriers. So I am very passionate about helping our teams strive for accessibility that makes our products not just technically accessible but equally enjoyable for all people. Enabling that level of accessibility at the scale of billions cannot be achieved by one company operating alone so Facebook has a variety of industry-wide accessibility initiatives. One aspect of that is standards development, and I also lead Facebook’s contributions in that space as a member of working groups in the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, helping shape standards like WAI-ARIA.
Tapping the potential of AI to describe photos and other forms of visual communication is unlocking access to such forms of communication for people who are blind and visually impaired. We are still in the early days so there is still a lot of room for improvement. For example, this announcement that Facebook’s automatic alt text, which provides photo descriptions to screen reader users, will now include names of friends who are in a photo is another major step toward providing people who are blind with equal access to information.
Disability can be isolating. And connections with others who have overcome disability is often one of the more significant determinants of success for people with disabilities. By building products that give people equal access to information and help them make beneficial connections, we can build a society that is healthier because all people can participate and everyone feels they matter. This is a fundamental aspect of Facebook’s mission to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.
Disability Rights Advocate Janni Lehrer-Stein states, “Because we know that inclusion of people with disabilities makes life better for us all, the innovation with face recognition that Facebook introduced will most definitely make a more inclusive, participatory and compassionate future for us all. Where we were previously left out of social media conversations because we couldn’t conceive the people and content of photographs, we now will be able to contribute our insight, creativity and make contributions to the global venue that Facebook has created. Bravo to Facebook, and I do so hope that all websites will follow their lead and become fully inclusive for all, including people with disabilities”.
Know When You Appear in Photos on Facebook
Now, if you’re in a photo and are part of the audience for that post, we’ll notify you, even if you haven’t been tagged. You’re in control of your image on Facebook and can make choices such as whether to tag yourself, leave yourself untagged, or reach out to the person who posted the photo if you have concerns about it. We always respect the privacy setting people select when posting a photo on Facebook (whether that’s friends, public or a custom audience), so you won’t receive a notification if you’re not in the audience.
Profile Photo Safety
We want people to feel confident when they post pictures of themselves on Facebook so we’ll soon begin using face recognition technology to let people know when someone else uploads a photo of them as their profile picture. We’re doing this to prevent people from impersonating others on Facebook.
New Tools for People with Low Vision or Blind
We’re always working to make it easier for all people, regardless of ability, to access Facebook, make connections and have more opportunities. Two years ago, we launched an automatic alt-text tool, which describes photos to people with vision loss. Now, with face recognition, people who use screen readers will know who appears in photos in their News Feed even if people aren’t tagged.
How it Works and the Choices You Have
Since 2010, face recognition technology has helped bring people closer together on Facebook. Our technology analyzes the pixels in photos you’re already tagged in and generates a string of numbers we call a template. When photos and videos are uploaded to our systems, we compare those images to the template.
You <control> whether Facebook can recognize you in photos and videos. In the coming days, you will begin to see a simple on/off switch instead of settings for individual features that use face recognition technology. We designed this as an on/off switch because people gave us feedback that they prefer a simpler control than having to decide for every single feature using face recognition technology. To learn more about all of these features, visit the <Help Center> or your <account settings>.
We are introducing these new features in most places, except in Canada and the EU where we don’t currently offer face recognition technology.