Emojis and Accessibility

Before emojis, there were emoticons. Emoticon is short for "emotion icon."

Emoticons are "pictorial representations of facial expressions using characters — usually punctuation marks, numbers and letters — to express a person’s feelings, mood or reaction" (Emoticon - Wikipedia). Computer scientist Scott Fahlman used the first ASCII emoticons on a bulletin-board system at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982.

On November 1, 1997, J-Phone (now known as SoftBank) released the SkyWalker DP-211SW mobile phone with the first known emoji set. The set included 90 original emoji characters, "among them one of the most iconic emoji characters in the Unicode Standard, the poo emoji" (The Emoji Timeline). Unlike emoticons, emojis are pictures rather than typographic approximations. Emojis exist in various genres, "including facial expressions, common objects, places and types of weather, and animals" (Emoji - Wikipedia).

Emojis and Different Platforms

"Unicode — the standard programming language that allows communication between platforms — is pretty much foolproof for text. Words are words, and there are no cross-platform kinks to work out. But when it comes to emoji characters, things get a bit trickier. Because of licensing issues, many messaging systems on different platforms must develop their own interpretations of the corresponding emoji symbols, so an emoji on an iPhone may appear very different on an Android" (Lost in Translation, Slate.com).

Emojis and Screen Readers

Just like a screen reader reads ALT text to describe an image, so does it read the Unicode string, the description, which is the "ALT text" for emojis. And since "different platforms must develop their own interpretations (Unicode strings) of the corresponding emoji symbols," it stands to reason that, just as the visual look varies, the description varies as well. Note: Not all screen readers read emojis.

Screen readers that do read emojis do so in the order in which the emojis are encountered. Therefore, use strings of emojis very sparingly ... better yet, not at all.

This is how a string of emojis sounds:

And this is what your screen-reader users hear when you post a Tweet full of emojis.

Emojis and Low Vision

Many emojis look very similar. For example, this group of emojis on an iPhone, from left to right, are described as "kissing face," "kissing face with smiling eyes" and "kissing face with closed eyes." Even with good vision, these can be difficult to discern. Having low vision can make it almost impossible.

The 3 emojis, side-by-side against a black background.

Same emojis but viewed by someone with low vision.

The 3 emojis, blurred, side-by-side against a black background.

Using Emojis With Accessibility in Mind

Following these simple best practices when deciding to use emojis in your posts, emails and web content will make a big impact on your message reaching a much larger audience:

  • Don’t use emojis as a replacement for text.
  • Be mindful of placement of your emojis in your messages, social captions / posts, or sentences. To be more accessible, place emojis at the end of the text.
  • Use emojis sparingly, and do not use long emoji strings.
  • Check the ALT text descriptions – the Unicode string. Make sure the emoji you choose conveys the message you want to send. You can check the emoji description by visiting Emojipedia.

Resources

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
~ friend of DubBot, A11Y practitioner in higher ed