Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for those with low vision or the visually impaired, a big picture is missing. Two of our subscribers tell us how digital media’s online approach to self-care should involve inclusivity.
By: Natalya Anderson
Imagine exploring your favorite beauty products without being able to see them. For Kinder Beauty subscribers Samantha Beeney (who has low vision due to Optic Disc Drusen) and her friend Aziza Rodriguez (who has been blind since infancy due to childhood Retinoblastoma), it’s a daily reality.
Descriptive pictures are essential to the online experience of a person with low vision—whether it’s the daily requirements that technology use brings to all our lives, or the simple joy of exploring and selecting beauty products on their favorite sites. And yet, as Beeney and Rodriguez attest to, while most platforms like Apple, Google and their related hardware devices are fantastic with use of descriptive software, digital media could do better when it comes to pictures. It’s a frustrating and excluding feeling for the visually impaired, especially considering that adding a photo description is about as complicated as breathing.
“I have been encountering photo descriptions and closed captioning a lot more online now than I did, let’s say, 10 years ago, but it is still nowhere near where it should be at this point,” Beeney told Kinder Beauty. Beeney has been a Kinder Beauty subscriber since her admiration for co-founder Evanna Lynch, combined with her passionate veganism, made her an instant fan. “The bigger companies seem to be catching on a bit faster, but I feel this is because they have more people in their audience to bring their attention to it. Back in the days of newspaper journalism, photos always had a description next to them so all we really need to do is bring that tradition into digital media.”
While Beeney says she feels greater awareness of people with disabilities will lead to change and improvement, a fear of asking questions is standing in the way. This means dated, preconceived societal ideas about people with disabilities prevail. On one hand, major tech development companies like Apple and Google “go above and beyond” with inclusivity and accessibility, and most devices allow visually impaired users to employ voice-to-text which provides dictation and voice commands. There can be voiceover options too, which reads a description of what is happening on a user’s screen. When it comes to digital media, however, there is often more to the story.
“The place where things start to get more complicated is when it comes to documents like PDFs or JPEG’s or any sort of image file,” Beeney said. “Generally for PDFs, it can be easy enough to download a free or low-cost app or software addition for your device, but, unfortunately, since photos are not text-based, they cannot be translated for the blind or low vision individual. Social media of all kinds revolves around images and videos.”
Because they understand how straightforward adding photo description can be, Beeney and Rodriguez feel frustrated when there’s lack of progress. If, for example, a blog wants to post a cute dog and add a photo, the result should add descriptive text that a fully visual person might not need.
An example-post, from Beeney, would appear like this:
“I can’t believe what a princess my service dog Luna is! As soon as we get to our hotel she always gets first pick of beds!”
Photo description- Queen size bed with ridiculously expensive linens that Luna, my large black and brown brindled hound-mix has sprawled herself across making it clear that I’m to sleep elsewhere.
Facebook and Instagram both offer ways to manage alt text when uploading photos to posts, and web designers have tools to make their sites accessible.
“Many people forget to describe their photos, whether it be through an alt text tag or with accompanying text,” Rodriquez explained. “Other things that people with visual impairments struggle with are sites that do not allow them to adjust the font and contrast of the text. For some who have residual vision, too many colors, or not enough contrast, can make it difficult to read the screen. Too-small print can also be a barrier.”
If they don’t provide an audio challenge option, websites that require captcha verifications can also pose difficulties. Incorrectly labeled links, headings, and buttons can render a website or mobile application inaccessible. It’s about more than getting digital media “right”; it’s about what inclusivity brings to a person’s quality of life.
“Kinder Beauty brings other things to my life,” Beeney explained. “It allows me to be a part of an online community of similarly minded people and get to know people without them wondering why I’m always wearing dark glasses. It also helps a lot with the process of finding vegan products, since when I’m out and about I can’t read packages or necessarily trust the word of a salesperson. Plus, I get a curated box of goodies every month that certainly brings sparks of joy into my life.”
Rodriguez feels that, while she can be restricted by in-store shopping (“My product choices are based on what someone else is willing to read off a package for me, which can be very hard,” she said), Kinder Beauty allows her some freedom to explore products independently.
“The reveal blogs make it possible for me to read about each item, find the name and brand in case I want to research them further, or purchase them in the future,” Rodriguez said. “Through reading the descriptions, and going through the box as I do, I can use a method of elimination to determine what each product is independently instead of waiting for someone sighted to help me. It’s such a joy to be able to do this on my own, as each month's box is a reminder to indulge in some me-time, and not having to share that with anyone makes it even better.”
This kind of joy is at the very core of Beeney’s veganism.
“To me, the central tenants of veganism are kindness, compassion, acceptance, and the constant drive to make the world around us a better place,” she said. “In my mind, inclusivity is part of our responsibility to all of earth’s creatures. So it goes beyond just our treatment of animals into how we ought to treat all people.”
Because of her decreased vision and hand tremors, Beeney has streamlined her beauty routine. With some central vision, she can manage a typical skin care routine—including foundation, simple eyeshadow and lip colors. She avoids blush, bronzer, contouring, and false lashes, as they are more complex. Her favourite indulgence is extra time on moisturizing and polishing her nails.
“I am blessed to have my own personal stylist (my saintly husband), who does my mascara, eyeliner, more detailed eyeshadow, and my nails,” Beeney said, “because those are difficult to do without precise vision and with hands that like to shake. He is also kind enough to stop me before we leave the house and make sure I have blended my make up properly so I don’t look like a clown.”
For Rodriguez, who describes herself as completely blind, beauty involves different methods. When Rodriguez was a child, her mother would scratch an X into the lid of her shampoo bottle so she could tell it apart from the conditioner, a method she still uses occasionally. She also keeps different products—facial versus hair, for example—in separate areas.
“I can also rely on my sense of smell and touch to differentiate from products I'm already familiar with,” Rodriguez said. “Scent, texture and consistency can help me. I've learned to do my makeup and hair by touch, by asking questions, feeling the results of stylists and friends, and trial and error with trustworthy people around to judge my efforts.”
Whether it’s beauty products or the tools used to explore and enjoy them, blind, low vision or visually impaired people are individuals who deserve to be included in the journey of experience, just like anyone else. Preconceived notions about them must evolve.
“People tend to think blind people don’t use technology,” Beeney said. “This is actually a huge misconception because many of us actually use technology far more than any sighted person does […]. People with disabilities don’t want pity or more compassion than is given to other individuals. Essentially, we just want access to what other people have access to and to be treated like everyone else.”
Natalya Anderson is an award-winning writer, poet and former ballet dancer from Toronto.