How Reddit's announced changes affects blind users

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Man using Braille keyboard and smart phone. (Getty/Johner Images)
Man using Braille keyboard and smart phone. (Getty/Johner Images)

Reddit has announced changes that will restrict the use of third-party apps. More than 8,000 subreddit communities shut down in protest, including r/Blind. Moderators for the community, which was created for users who are blind, say the change will drastically reduce accessibility.

Co-host Ben Brock Johnson speaks with two moderators of r/Blind — Sam Proulx and Noah Carver — about their concerns.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Sam Proulx: I keep thinking about Android, but I'm in the ecosystem. I have my Apple Watch. All of my stuff is HomeKit. I've got Siri speakers.

Noah Carver: I have the Pixel Watch and Google text-to-speech on it is so laggy that it's unusable. I actually had ADB Sideload eSpeak onto it.

Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, have you ever had to ADB Sideload eSpeak onto a Pixel?

Amory Sivertson: I was just doing that before we started this.

Ben: So, you know, I don't really know what it means, but I know it is a kind of technical workaround.

Amory: Mm-hmm.

Ben: So last week, I talked to a couple of guys who do complicated techie workarounds all the time.

Sam: I am Sam Proulx, u/fastfinge.

Noah: My name is Noah Carver, u/NTCarver0.

Ben: Sam and Noah, Amory, grew up adapting technology to suit their lives. They've had to because, unfortunately, most technology is not built with their needs in mind because they are blind.

So, Amory, Noah reached out to Endless Thread a little while back — I think you may have seen his email — because of this one change coming to the front page of the internet. We have heard from a lot of our listeners about this, I should say, and Reddit, I should also say, can be experienced a few different ways. One way is by using its app and website. But another very popular way to read Reddit is by using a so-called third-party app.

Amory: So this is another app that ingests the information from Reddit and then makes it more accessible or presents it in a different way.

Ben: Yeah, it sort of plugs into Reddit's API, which is a sort of way for a software to talk to other software. And it ingests all of this stuff and then resurfaces it for users in different ways. So like, for instance, there's like there's an app, Amory, that will almost make Reddit more like Instagram. It'll just show you images and videos from Reddit, for instance.

Amory: OK.

Ben: Another good example of this is the iOS app Apollo, one of the most popular third-party Reddit apps. It was developed back in 2017 as a way of making Reddit easier to read, more streamlined, and without ads. Apollo connects to Reddit using this API as we've been talking about — Application Programming Interface. Reddit's API was free, meaning developers could build third-party apps without paying anything. But, as I think you've been hearing about and I have been hearing about both from our listeners and from many others and in the news back in April, Reddit announced that it was changing that policy. If apps like Apollo wanted to continue on, Amory, they were going to have to pay Reddit a fee. A big fee. So, Amory, Noah, one of the two people I spoke with, saw this Reddit news not long after it was announced.

Noah: I woke up and did my morning doom-scrolling on Reddit one morning, and the first thing I saw was the post from Apollo for Reddit. And it basically said, I'm going to have to shut down because Reddit is charging me $20 million because of the API. And I knew instantly that this wasn't just about Apollo. This was about every single program that used the Reddit API. And I knew right then that that would be the end of my Reddit reading.

Ben: Noah Carver and Sam Proulx are moderators for r/Blind, a subreddit specifically for the blind community. They rely on third-party apps to make Reddit more accessible. Apps that, for instance, read the text of Reddit aloud. Or that audibly announce buttons like "upvote" and tools for moderators.

The change in API requirements suggested to Noah and Sam that they might lose access to Reddit. Or, at least, it was about to become a lot harder to moderate the subreddit, for instance. And that did not sit well with r/Blind.

I talked with Noah and Sam about this. But we also spoke more broadly to get a sense of how they experience the internet. Here's some of that conversation:

Ben: I just want to ask you both about each of your experiences with, I guess blindness would be the right term. Would you mind describing that to me?

Sam: Sure. I was born completely blind in '87, 1987. So to give you an idea of my age range.

Ben: Sure.

Sam: And I had the very unique experience that my father is also completely blind. And he was born completely blind, and he worked for over 30 years for IBM. And so I do not remember a time when there wasn't a computer talking at me. And that's very unusual if you think about screen readers in 1990, right? Most people didn't have access to that sort of thing. And so it's given me kind of an interesting and unique vantage point as somebody who's been at least vaguely aware of the accessibility industry for so long and sort of seeing some of the repeated cycles and how things are changing and the patterns in the industry. It's been really interesting.

Noah: I was also born totally blind in 2003. I grew up in a very rural area of Maine. I spent a lot of time working with my father on a lobster boat. He's a lobster fisherman. And I also was introduced to technology at a very young age by my parents. They believed that technology and competency and exposure to it is one of many keys to success for anyone, but especially for a blind person. And I've been very fortunate.

Ben: What has your experience been using Reddit as a blind person? I imagine it has evolved over time, just as Reddit has.

Sam: Reddit started off as a very text-based medium, yes. But it still has very text-based communities like AskReddit, like AskMeAnything. And so, in a very real way, some social media feels like a system for delivering images and video that also happens to support text, whereas Reddit even still feels like a system for delivering text that also supports images and videos, which is a subtle but important difference, I think.

Ben: Can you just talk about functionality from your perspective? Like, what is that like? As someone who's very ignorant of what your experience is of the internet generally and Reddit specifically — how are you consuming it? What does it sound like? Can you play it for me from your phone? Help me understand what that experience is like.

Sam: So a screen reader is an audio medium, and so it's taking whatever's on the screen and, you know, reading it out. And so the first thing to note about screen reader voices is that people who are blind and visually impaired generally prefer very robotic, very predictable screen reader voices.

Ben: Yes, a.k.a. not people in my line of business usually.

Sam: Right, right. But the reason being is because I have my voice set to something like 800 words per minute. So I'm going to press the hotkey that lets me jump from heading to heading.

(Screen reader example at 800 words per minute.)

Ben: Did you understand that?

Sam: Yes.

Noah: Both of us did.

Ben: That is wild.

Noah: That is built up. That strategy of being able to listen to speech like that is built up over years of hearing it. And then you wake up one morning, fire up your computer to check your email, and you're like, Wow, this voice is really slow for me now, and I have the impulse to crank this up by a lot.

Sam: It's funny because people will say, Oh, what? So you could listen to a podcast at 18x? Well, no, because it entirely depends on the very predictable characteristics of the voice. So when I sort of slow this down, it'll become obvious that this is not a human voice.

Ben: Right.

Sam: I'm going to go ahead and take it down.

(Screen reader example.)

Sam: There we go. Rate 20. And so now we'll keep skipping through headlines.

(Screen reader example.)

Ben: Got some GPT in there. You love it. "How to hide a body."

Sam: But now I want to demonstrate something where I'm; let's say that I'm interested in this post, and I would like to upvote it. So I'm going to go ahead, and I'm going to try and find the upvote button. I know that the upvote button is generally above the post because I'm an experienced Reddit user, so I'm going to cursor up.

(Screen reader: Toggle button downvote.)

Sam: Downvote. No.

(Screen reader: 3.7k)

Sam: That's the number of votes.

(Screen reader: Toggle button upvote.)

Sam: And so all of these buttons are labeled. Unfortunately, when you get into moderation, none of the buttons are labeled in that way.

Ben: Why?

Sam: Because Reddit hasn't labeled them.

Ben: It's really that simple? Reddit has not taken the extra step yet to add alt text to the moderator tools for subreddits? They've done it everywhere else. They have not done it —

Noah: There are some organizations that prioritize accessibility, and there are some organizations that kind of treat it as an afterthought. Reddit seems to have been the latter type of organization where accessibility was sort of something that they kind of went, OK, it sort of works now. And in any case, we've got these third-party apps, so it's not a big deal. Right? Right. And then, the API changes came along.

Ben: What happened after the API a minute.


Ben: Reddit’s decision to charge third-party apps for API access threatened to upend the way blind Redditors use the platform. It looked like apps that read text aloud and helped users navigate the posts would no longer be usable. In other words, Sam and Noah worried that Reddit was about to go dark for them.

Ben: Can you all talk a little bit about what it is like as a blind person to scroll Reddit and start to realize that a bunch of subreddits are going to go dark? Can you just sort of talk more about how this kind of played out for you, Noah, as you were consuming the internets?

Noah: Well, I mean, with that, I thought, Oh great, there goes another online community. Because we'd been through this before with Twitter. Twitter had done something just like this a couple of months ago in the new reign of Elon Musk in his great cost-saving — 

Ben: Genius, I think it's called genius. Yeah.

Noah: Genius. Yeah. He fired the entire accessibility team, and then he priced all API users basically out of Twitter. And by the way, according to the developer of Apollo, Reddit was not going to pull a Twitter. Their API pricing was going to be fair and equitable, and it would be something that everybody could live with, and it would be fine. And then they announced how much it would cost. And, by the way, the $20 million — admittedly, Apollo is probably the most used API using third-party app out there, and so the price is insanely high. But it was insanely high for everyone else. I believe the developer of RedReader — RedReader is the client that I use on my Android device — I think he was going to have to pay $1,000,000 a year.

Amory: After the news, the moderators for r/Blind decided to shut down the subreddit in protest. And they weren’t alone. More than 8,000 Reddit communities also temporarily shut down. That got Reddit’s attention. And the company started reaching out to some of the subreddits, including r/Blind.

Noah: After a lot of raising our voices and saying, wait a minute, this is going to be really bad for the blind community, and as that started becoming one of the things that was talked about in the context of protesting and in the context of the media, Reddit then said, OK, accessibility apps are exempt from these pricing requirements. And Reddit expects that, apart from donations, these developers should develop these apps on a noncommercial basis. And it's very frustrating to feel that accessibility is seen as something that someone should work on out of a labor of love rather than as something that is valid and something that someone should get paid for.

Ben: You guys are a pretty small sub, like, you know, 20,000 subscribers, I think, last I checked, or somewhere thereabouts. Were you reached out to pretty late in the game, or did one of your moderators get reached out to for another sub and flagged this? Can you give me at least maybe some of the ticktock of this, if that makes sense?

Sam: We were actually reached out to surprisingly early in the game. And what I will say is that I think that it is still one of the few Silicon Valley big tech companies that will engage in dialog when there is protest. All of the people internally at Reddit whom we have spoken to about accessibility do care deeply. But do they necessarily have the seniority and the power and the ability to change Reddit's course, given its various other goals in and around profit, in and around the IPO, in and around preventing AI companies from using Reddit's data for training without paying for it, and all of these other concerns that Reddit has? Again, I don't know.

Ben: R/Blind remained shut down in protest for 48 hours. By the end of that, it became clear that Reddit was at least considering amending its new API rules to keep the site accessible. But a lot is still up in the air.

Sam: After the 48-hour protest, r/Blind, we did reopen the subreddit. I will say that we're keeping on top of that to make sure that if we need to go, we will have a new home ready to go that is accessible and that not only is accessible and that meets our needs but that gives us a seat at a table in the same way that it gave us a seat at a table right now so that we can continue to participate and engage in community with other people, not just our fellow blind people, as critical as community with blind people is.

Ben: What would you say to somebody who says like, Look, sorry, there's maybe 20,000 of you, and this site is massive, and it needs to go public, and it wants everybody to use its own app, and don't worry, you're on the list for fixes, we'll get there eventually. Just trust us as we, you know, do this thing that we have to do to stay, you know, to bring in revenue and stay relevant. And sorry, this is just kind of the way things go when you're dealing with a behemoth like Reddit?

Sam: Accessibility and customizability are not just better for people who are blind or people who are visually impaired, or people who are experiencing disability. Those things are better for everyone. And I think that has never been more clearly demonstrated than by the support we have received from every single other subreddit involved in the protest.

Ben: Can you talk about how that has manifested? That support?

Noah: You know, as blind people, we have — I think both Sam and I can say — we've had the experience where we've just been kind of brushed off. We shoulder it and move on. But it can be frustrating. And tiring. And it's really quite heartwarming and lovely to see that this big, huge place is saying loud and proud that your voice is important for this community.

Ben: Have any other subreddits really felt like sister or brother subreddits in this experience?

Sam: TranscribersOfReddit, obviously.

Noah: Yeah, it's probably the biggest volunteer alt-text initiative on the internet that describes the content and the text in images and videos that we cannot access independently as blind people.

Ben: Can you talk about just r/Blind and when all of this stuff isn't going on, what that community is like?

Sam: Oh, boy. I mean, it's everything, right? It's everything from, you know, what are the workarounds that I can use to have fun with this latest mainstream game on PlayStation to, you know, one of my favorite questions that got a lot of engagement — this was a number of years ago. I don't know if I could track it down now — was from a blind cat owner who was saying, My cat keeps getting sick and throwing up, and I never know where she's thrown up. How do other blind cat owners deal with this? How do you find the cat puke?

Noah: Yeah. Or how do I get a job? I'm going into this field. What is your recommendation for how I can best market myself and get employed or, you know, I'm going totally blind, or I'm losing some of my vision, and I don't know what to do or how to deal with this, or what I should be doing or what my next steps are. And I don't have a community. And what do I do now?

Sam: Yeah, And also, I'm scared.

Noah: Yeah. That too.

Sam: Because if you think about yourself going blind, you might not think that you would be able to have a happy, productive, worthwhile life. And there is such value in people who are being diagnosed with oncoming blindness to see that like there are struggles, but we're OK. And you'll be OK, too.

Noah: Yeah.

Ben: You know, as a seeing person — so obviously like a very ignorant sort of point of view — thinking about blindness and the idea of "going dark," I just wondered if that struck you at all, Sam, as this was playing out.

Sam: So, to me, "going dark" is really a turn of phrase. Because I have been blind all of my life. People say, Oh, well, what do you see? Is it just black? Well, no, it's nothing.

Ben: Right. It's hard to know black when you haven't seen the other stuff.

Sam: Exactly. Right? But I think there are many people who have come to our community with a diagnosis of sight loss and who came to our community when they were still able to see and are now completely blind and continue with us today. And I think their experience of that is quite possibly more poignant than my own. To me, it's a turn of phrase that I grew up with and that everybody around me used, and so I also use. I don't consider my life to be dark now.

Ben: Sure.

Sam: Because my life continues on the way it has always been. Right?

Ben: Absolutely.

Noah: So I also share the experience of being born completely blind. And so, and I was sort of giggling in the background when he was talking about interacting with people being like, Well, do you see black or do you see white? What do you see? And I'm like —

Ben: I don't see anything, man.

Noah: Uh, well, I see nothing. I have had that experience happen to me so many times.

Sam: It is almost as common as the endless numbers of trolls who insist on coming into r/Blind and wanting to know how we all wipe ourselves.

Ben: Oh, boy.

Sam: It's like the most popular stupid question.

Ben: That's ridiculous because nobody's looking when they're wiping themselves. What a ridiculous question.

Sam: Why do people —

Ben: A lot of better questions to ask.

Noah: Come on, get creative, guys.

Ben: Put a little more thought into it.

Noah: Step up your game.

Ben: I guess the last question, which I warned you about, Noah, is you're a vocal performer, and I did say to you, Are there any songs that you feel like typify this experience? And would you be willing to sing me a couple of phrases? From an opera or something?

Noah: You know, the song that I think of is — and I'm not sure that I'm getting the words right on this — but: (Singing.) We'll meet again / Don't know when / Don't know how. (Talking.) You know, that song sort of rings a bell, and, unfortunately, I don't know any more of it.

Ben: That was beautiful.

[Music: "We'll Meet Again" by Vera Lynn]

Ben: Noah and Sam, thank you so much for spending all this time with me and talking to me.

Sam: Thanks for having us.

Noah: Thank you.

Ben: So, Amory, I want to tell you about sort of like a follow-up text that I got from Noah just earlier this week after there was more conversation between the moderators of r/Blind and Reddit administrators. The community, the r/Blind community and the moderators, came away with really serious concerns, which Noah says Reddit was either unable or unwilling to address during the meeting. So, you know, Reddit is currently prioritizing accessibility for users rather than moderators. Reddit representatives, Noah says, didn't seem aware that blind moderators rely on third-party applications. You know, because Reddit's moderation tools present significant accessibility challenges.

Amory: That's the part that's kind of shocking to me because we think all the time about, you know, public spaces needing to make public physical spaces accessible. And here is a public online space that is not accessible and should be.

Ben: And really, from the moderators' perspective, r/Blind will basically just effectively go dark because if moderators literally cannot do the moderation work, that makes the sub work — it'll be like an abandoned house. There will be no way for the subreddit to be moderated. And that's a big problem. Noah also said that Reddit's representatives refused to answer questions about formal certifications and accreditations for qualifications of employees tasked with ensuring universal accessibility. So basically saying that the people at Reddit that are working on this maybe are not from the community, maybe do not really have a lot of experience in dealing with accessibility issues. And that's another concern. Reddit also kind of refused to define this term — according to Noah — accessibility-focused app. So supposedly accessibility-focused apps are what Reddit is trying to allow through the gate with these API changes, trying to sort of support r/Blind and other communities that need these accessibility apps. But Reddit just didn't show — according to Noah — evidence that Reddit understands, that the administrators understand, what that actually means. And I think that's a problem. Reddit administrators also refused to make commitments as to, you know, when accessibility improvements would be rolled out to the website or apps. And it looks like July 1st is going to make Reddit and these moderation tools; it's just not going to be ready for disabled users and especially moderators.

Amory: I'll be really interested to see what happens here because this kind of inaccessibility on a platform as big and powerful as Reddit just should not be allowed.

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: So I hope that the members of r/Blind make some headway with Reddit administrators on this.

Ben: Before we go, we should mention that, yes, July 1st is still the cutoff date for all of this to start really happening in earnest. And that the transcription subreddit that Sam and Noah mentioned is now fully offline because the moderators just don't feel that they can continue to moderate the subreddit in light of the sort of lack of changes in understanding about accessibility that's been displayed by the admins, according to the moderators. So I guess that's all. We'll keep following this story.

Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston. This episode was hosted and produced by me, Ben Brock Johnson, with help from Dean Russell and some co-hosting from —

Amory: Amory Sivertson. Mixing sound design by Matt Reed and the rest of our team is Emily Jankowski, Samata Joshi, Grace Tatter, Paul Vitkas, and Quincy Walters.

Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.


Dean Russell Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Dean Russell is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.



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