- More than 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from some form of vision impairment.
- Many of those with access to a phone typically must rely on screen readers to read messages or to get information such as the news from social media.
- More than 6 billion emojis are used daily online, but screen readers struggle to interpret emojis.
- A critical problem with the interpretation of emojis by screen readers occurs due to the repetition of emojis, which a screen reader must replace with words.
- Messages which repeat emojis can become unintelligible and inaccessible to those who rely on screen readers.
- We developed a list of 3 golden rules that should be followed to make sure that tweets or messages remain accessible to visually impaired people.
- We then crawled 100,000 tweets to discover how many times these golden rules are broken.
- We have discovered that:
- 10% of tweets with emojis contain more than three emojis, making it very difficult for screen readers to interpret.
- 40% of tweets containing emojis repeat those emojis in series.
- Face with tears of joy, the world’s most popular emoji, is repeated 93% of the time that it’s used
- We encourage people to be more accessible with their use of emojis by following our three golden rules.
The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 2.2 billion people have some form of vision impairment. Approximately 285 million people have a severe visual impairment, impacting their daily lives, and at least 39 million are blind.
The actual number of blind people may be higher because the vast majority of the world’s blind live in low-and-middle-income countries. Over 80% of blindness in low-and-middle-income countries is unaddressed and untreated compared to just 10% in the developed world. Population growth and ageing are increasing the number of blind worldwide.
Technology is an economic enabler in low-and-middle-income countries, where cell phones and smartphones are creating access to opportunities, vital services and healthcare. Therefore, written content delivered on smartphones must be accessible to those with visual impairment not just within developed countries, but across the entire world.
There are several different ways in which technology has already enabled visually impaired users to interact with the internet. Ensuring there is sufficient contrast between foreground and background images, not just using colour to show information, and allowing interactive elements to be clearly distinguished are just some best practices.
Screen readers, a form of assistive technology that translates on-screen information into audible speech, are another way of ensuring access for visually impaired people. Tens of millions of people around the world use screen-readers, allowing all of the text on the internet to be ‘read’ through earphones or speakers for visually impaired users.
But despite the developments in technology, there are several ways that screen readers struggle to interpret text, particularly when it comes to the use of emojis.
An estimated six billion emojis are used per day online, and they have become a pivotal part of our communication across social media. However, because they lack a clear text input, screen readers struggle to interpret the full meaning of a tweet that features emojis.
Emojis can be read by screen readers, but each emoji has a single default description. Here is a sample of how they are picked up by the various screen readers on the market. We have taken the most common emojis used on Twitter, taking this data directly from Emojitracker.com, which does this in real-time:
Fundamentally, the length of some of these emojis descriptions means that when they are read by a screen reader the flow of a social media timeline can become distracting at best, and completely incomprehensible at worst.
This issue is subsequently compounded when emojis are used multiple times, especially when they are repeated in succession. As Beth Finke wrote on EasterSeals, a disability non-profit in the US, this issue affects all users of screen readers:
“A friend sent me a text the other day that said this:
“Wishing you a prosperous new year excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue. Are you guys free tonight? Give me a call…
Some of the blind people I know tweet and text using emojis, but usually just one per message. Multiple emojis might be easy to ignore if you see them all the time, but listening to multiple emojis? It’s time-consuming, and if you want to know the truth, kind of a pain.”
As she outlined above, because of the way that voiceover software engages with social media platforms, they read descriptions of every single item in the sentence.
For example, the Tweet:
Feeling pretty nervous about tomorrow’s job interview 😅 😅 😅
Would be read by a screen reader as:
Feeling pretty nervous about tomorrow’s job interview SMILING FACE WITH OPEN MOUTH AND COLD SWEAT SMILING FACE WITH OPEN MOUTH AND COLD SWEAT SMILING FACE WITH OPEN MOUTH AND COLD SWEAT.
Being cognizant of the multiple uses of emojis, especially when it doesn’t add to the tone of the tweet or the content, is a vital part of helping those with visual impairments in ensuring that their experience on Twitter and other platforms is as easy as possible.
To discover just how prevalent of an issue this is, we built a script to analyse a sample of Tweets from the United Kingdom. In total, we examined 100,000 Tweets from a 50km radius in the country and then discovered how many of those utilise emojis, analysing the results.
When we look at our sample, we find that there is still a lot more overuse of emojis in Tweets, with the repetition number higher for certain longer emoji descriptions.
What the data shows
Perhaps unsurprisingly ‘FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY’ is the most used emoji and is also the most repeated-when-used emoji. Typically used to demonstrate happiness, it is used repeatedly 93% of the time that it is used, making it the emoji most likely to cause disruption to screen readers.
Another wordy descriptor, ROLLING ON THE FLOOR LAUGHING, comes in at a second place in terms of causing issues, and is repeated 92.88% of the time when it is used. ‘LOUDLY CRYING FACE’ is also amongst four emojis that are repeated 90% of the time when used.
Shorter emojis, such as FIRE, RED HEART and SPARKLES is also often used multiple times, but they are less disruptive than the ‘longer worded’ emojis due to the length of time that it takes for a screen reader to read them out as words.
The most problematic tweets are those that repeat emojis over three times. We found that just over 10% of the total emoji tweets contained three or more emojis, with some containing as many as 11 in total.
In total 42% of tweets contained repeated emojis, meaning that two in five tweets are potentially difficult or even impossible to interpret for a visually impaired user who is relying on a screen reader.
Due to the average length of some of the emojis, we found that the increased number goes far over the character limit of tweets when a screen reader reads them, resulting in tremendous difficulty for the user and a dramatic change in Twitter’s service offering, too.
In reaction to this data, we have outlined some rules for using emoji that will enable a more positive experience for the user:
Golden rules when it comes to utilising emojis for accessibility:
1. Never use emojis to replace words.
Often the emoji alternative text descriptions that are used by the screen reader and text-to-speech software changes the way that these are interpreted. For example, the sun emoji is often used as a way to denote sunny instead, but the screen reader will always read it as ‘sun’. ‘It is very ☀️ today’ becomes ‘It is very sunny today.’ Ensuring that your emoji doesn’t replace words but instead adds to them, will prevent this issue in understanding for those using screen readers.
2. Put emojis at the end of sentences.
When emojis break up a sentence, it doesn’t just make it difficult to understand, but it also becomes tedious and difficult to listen to. The difficulty level in understanding a sentence increases significantly when you factor in multiple emojis within sentences, rather than the end, where it is easier to skip or to ignore.
3. Don’t use more than three emojis.
Repetition is the most problematic use of emojis. When using a string of emojis you are demanding a lot more of a screen-reader and the user. Similarly, when using several different emojis, be conscious of how easy they are to interpret and if they add to the meaning of your sentence. It takes a lot more cognitive effort to understand emojis when you are hearing them rather than seeing them.
Tej Kohli Foundation founder Tej Kohli said about the importance of technology and accessibility for visually impaired people:
Many people with visual impairment, especially those in low-and-middle-income countries, are prevented from participating fully in society. Thankfully affordable smartphones combined with accessible technologies such as screen readers are changing that for the better. But as well as improving the technology we also need behaviour change to ensure that information technologies – which can be a major catalyst for social mobility and poverty reduction – remain accessible to all, especially those who have a visual impairment.
You can read more about the Tej Kohli Foundation here: https://tejkohlifoundation.com/
About The Tej Kohli Foundation
The Tej Kohli Foundation is a not-for-profit that is focused on rebuilding people and communities and giving people a second chance at life. Founded by technologist Tej Kohli, the Tej Kohi Foundation has a long track record of supporting the development of technological solutions that can prevent and cure the needless blindness which arises due to poverty and inequality; whilst simultaneously making grassroots interventions to cure corneal blindness and cataract blindness.
Between 2015 and 2020 the ‘Tej Kohli Cornea Institute’ arm of the Foundation performed 43,255 free surgical procedures to cure and alleviate corneal blindness in India. In 2021 a new Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation project embarked on a mission to cure 300,000 to 500,000 people of cataract blindness by 2026 in low-income countries across Asia and East Africa.