On the accessibility of Memes - TLDR: They aren’t

On the accessibility of Memes - TLDR: They aren’t
Meme image depicting angry/frustrated charicature with the words: Big Ass Websites / Y U No Make it easy to understand your content.

Memes* have become one of the major modes of online communication; up there with blogging, twitter, and Facebook (see Reddit and it’s 1 billion page views a month).

Unfortunately, as an image-based medium, they are not terribly accessible for users with low vision.

To consume images online, these users rely on site owners to provide descriptive alt text tags for each image. Otherwise, the screen readers they use to navigate will either pass over the image or read something unintelligible/ useless.

Fortunately there are steps that sites can take to present Memes in a way that these users can enjoy them.

Can Memes be made accessible?

Memes in general adhere to a pretty strict form. There is an image which provides the context, a top line of text which provides the set up to a joke, and a bottom line of text which provides the punchline (I promise Memes can be more entertaining than this description implies). For example:

  • Context: Bad Luck Brian  
  • Top line: Self employed
  • Bottom line: Fired

With such a strict form it’s fairly straightforward to provide a text based representation of a meme and provide in a readable format for screen readers.

There is one website, memegenerator.net, that puts the full description of the image in the alt text of an image automatically when a meme is generated. Unfortunately, none of the major Meme based websites, such as Reddit, imgur, or 9gag, do the same.

Easy improvements for other websites

  • Imgur - Allow users to edit the alt text of an image when uploading a file.
  • Reddit Enhancement Suite - Honor the alt text of the original image.
  • Quickmeme.com - Append the top and bottom lines of text to the image’s alt text.

Image Recognition?

Another approach could be to use image recognition and OCR to identify and read the Meme to the user. While this wouldn’t be too difficult to do technically, I don’t know that anyone would take the time to build it (CS undergrads I’m looking at you).

Memes are a powerful means of communication and are only going to become more central to online communities as time goes on. As with all digital media, we should make sure that they are made accessible to all users.

*Memes can refer to more than just text over images (ex. double rainbowRick rollingHow is babby formed, etc), but it’s often used as a synonym for an image macro (memegenerator.netquickmeme.com).