Every time I turn around, I feel like I am seeing people use emoji, which have become a defining pop culture element of today's society. People of all ages are using emoji to convey different messages, and as someone with a vision impairment, it can be hard to keep up with understanding what they are and how they are used. In honor of World Emoji Day 2018, I will be sharing how people with vision impairments use emoji and explain how they should be used in communication.
What is an emoji?
An emoji (pronounced e-moh-gee) is defined as "a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communication." While they have been around since 1998, they have become extremely popular in this last decade and can easily be found on social media, in text messages, and even in advertisements. Some common examples of emoji include a smiley face, face with heart eyes, fire, and airplane, though there are over 1800 different emoji available.
Learning emoji meanings
Each emoji has their own unique meaning, with some meanings that may not be so obvious. Whenever I am confused as to why a certain emoji was included in a text, I run a web search with the emoji followed by the phrase "definition" or "use." I have found that the website Emojipedia is accessible with screen readers and I found it fairly easy to follow- check out Emojipedia here.
My favorite emojis
Since this post is for World Emoji Day, I've decided to list some of my favorite emoji for fun, along with their meanings
• I like using the purple heart because it looks unlike any of the other emoji colors so I can distinguish it easily, and purple is my favorite color because it is the color for migraine and Chiari Malformation awareness (read more about Chiari Malformation here)
• Since I wear tinted glasses, I jokingly say this sunglasses emoji describes me perfectly (read more about my tinted glasses here)
• I often use different colors for the thumbs up emoji depending on the background of my text message so that I can see it easier, or ask my friends to make the thumbs up and thumbs down emoji two different colors (read more about colored backgrounds and the readability of text here)
• I like the tiger emoji because tigers are my favorite animal. Not all emoji preferences have in depth reasons as to why they are awesome.
How emoji show up with screen readers
Many people with blindness and low vision use screen readers, also known as text-to-speech, in order to interpret information on the screen. When reading a message with an emoji, a description of the emoji is read out loud. For example, if my friend sends me a message with a yellow heart at the end, my screen reader would read the message and identify the emoji as "yellow heart." In a more frustrating example, if my friend sends me five cake emojis, the screen reader will read "cake cake cake cake cake." This also applies for Twitter usernames, so if someone has a bunch of emoji in their name, the screen reader will read all of it. Read my post on my favorite low vision Twitter accounts to follow here.
What emoji look like to me with low vision
Sometimes I use screen magnifiers or large print in order to read emojis instead of a screen reader because of one reason or another. While emojis are often high quality images, I can have difficulty distinguishing which emoji is which without the assistance of assistive technology, which has led to me sending several random emoji that make no sense. If someone sends me a bunch of different emoji that are the same color, I may have trouble distinguishing which is which with my eyes alone, so often times I turn on the screen reader or ask my friend what they just sent me. While I can handle emoji in small amounts, having an entire text with them is not good for me, and can be disorienting with double vision- read more about double vision here.
People who use screen readers such as VoiceOver (iOS) or TalkBack (Android) have their emoji keyboards narrated to them so they are able to read all of the emoji on the display screen and choose the perfect one. The emojis are not very large, so it's easy to accidentally type the same emoji several times. My preferred method of using emoji is inserting them via dictation, though this is not a perfect method since sometimes it will insert the phrase I ask for instead of the actual emoji- a few of my friends have been recipients of texts that read "sunglasses emoji." It's not a difficult process to insert emoji, but it may take some extra time. Speaking of keyboards, read more about keyboards for vision impairment here.
Emoji vs Emoticon
Emoticons can be used as another word for emoji, but when most people think of emoticons, they think of symbols such as being a smiley face. Many screen readers read that smiley face as "colon right parenthesis" so people who are less familiar with texting may not immediately recognize it as a smiley face. If I am using a screen reader, it is easier to receive and understand an emoji than it is for an emoticon. If I am not using my screen reader and instead just using large print, I will type out emoticons and can read them if my friends send them with ease. Sometimes my friends will include additional descriptions at the end of texts to ensure I am able to read the emoticon properly- my friend will write a description of an emoticon in parenthesis after sending it for example. In case you're surprised that people with vision impairments can text, read more about this in my post about how I can read my phone but not small print here.
Should I avoid texting my blind/low vision friends emoji?
Unless your friend has explicitly stated otherwise, it is perfectly fine to text them emoji, but as mentioned, typing several in a row may be annoying. Also avoid putting emoji in the middle of words, as this will affect how messages are read by screen readers- a great example of how this sounds would be how singer Kesha's stage name was pronounced Key-dollar-sign-ha since the "S" in her name was replaced with a "$." Read more about texting etiquette for vision impairment here.
A blindness cane emoji
At the end of March, Apple debuted new emojis that feature people with disabilities and aspects of disability life. They include hearing aids, prosthetics, mobility aids, and my personal favorites- guide dogs and blindness cane emoji! This makes me very excited because I am glad to have my disability represented in emoji form, and the proposed cane emoji even looks like my cane. Speaking of my cane, learn more about decoding the colors of blindness canes here.
A fun way to communicate
Emojis are just another fun way to communicate expressions to friends and family over text, so if you don't understand them very well, that's okay. I'm very grateful that accessibility was considered when creating emoji so that people with vision impairments can join in on the fun of sending and receiving messages with the colorful picture icons, and I can't wait to see what other emoji come out in the future.