17 July 2020

World Emojis Day: Are They Accessible? How do people with disabilities read them?

Every July 17, the networks celebrate World Emoji Day. These icons have become a language used around the world and easy to understand. We use them to express emotions, feelings and describe our day to day. In short, they are a universal language.

More than 700 million emojis are shared daily on Facebook and 250 million on Twitter monthly. Some of the most used are the red heart, the person who shrugs, the face crying with laughter or the one who sends a kiss, according to data from Emojipedia, the reference page of the emoji universe.

July 17 is World Emoji Day because, in most versions, the calendar icon marks that day. It all started in 1990, when the Japanese mobile operator NTT created a collection of 176 drawings that would be the origin of this universal language on the internet. But it wasn’t until 2008 that Apple offered the first catalog with these drawings, which became world symbols. There are now more than 3,000 approved by Unicode, the consortium that regulates its use.

The history of these drawings has not been without controversy. Early catalogs were criticized for the lack of racial or gender variety.

Emojis that represent disability and diversity

Since 2019 there is a group of emojis that gives visibility to people with disabilities and includes icons of people in wheelchairs, ears with hearing aids, mechanical arms and guide dogs or white canes. Emojis proposed by Apple in March 2018.

This update of emojis came after organizations and people with disabilities repeatedly expressed their complaints about the non-existence of symbols that represented their closest and everyday reality. And it is estimated that one in seven people in the world suffers from some type of disability.

Similarly, the latest versions of Unicode have made an effort to expand the inclusion of gender and race, through figures showing same-sex icons with their hands clasped, and the possibility of being able to configure these figures with the skin tone to be chosen.

The emojis update is based on a California-based consortium of representatives from computer companies, software developers and other companies. Its members include companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook and Twitter, which can adjust Unicode layouts to their liking, but ensure that a similar line is maintained across all platforms.

How can blind people access emojis?

Emojis currently do not cause accessibility barriers. Screen readers like Voiceover for Apple devices read emojis aloud. Some examples of the verbalization they do are: "face throwing a kiss", "face with tears of joy", "clock at 8 o'clock", "cat face", "computer", etc.

Until two years ago, if a person sent a message with 6 equal icons the screen reader user heard the same description 6 times. Voiceover currently reduces this verbalization and indicates the number of icons: "6 smiling faces".


Emojis, very useful for people with hearing and cognitive disabilities

Some people with hearing impairments, especially signatory deaf people, may have more difficulty understanding written text, complex sentences, or a wide range of vocabulary. The icons favor a more comprehensible communication for this group.

They also make it easier for people with cognitive disabilities to understand the messages, who need simpler language and who can often understand them better if they contain icons.

Emojis of a guide dog, a girl and a boy with a visual disability and a girl and a boy in a wheelchair.


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