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Emojis: Not always a smiley matter

Become an accessibility ally by making sure you use emojis in a way that can be understood and enjoyed by everybody

Jaimee Taylor
Author
Jaimee Taylor

Many of us love using emojis. Whether it’s adding a smiley face to the end of the text or sticking a thumbs up in your social media post, they can be a fun and friendly way to communicate.

But for those who use a screen reader, these little images can sometimes be more of a hassle.

Can screen readers read emojis?

Screen readers are a type of assistive technology designed for computer, laptop, smartphone and tablet users who have limited or no vision.

Screen reading software will read out the description of the emoji, for example ‘clapping hands’ or ‘smiling face with sunglasses’.

While emojis can be appreciated by screen reader users thanks to their help in making meaning more obvious or adding feeling, this isn’t always the case.

Just click on the emoji image at the top of the page to see why emojis can be an accessibility issue!

A collection of emojis on a mobile phone screen - Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

Why is emoji accessibility important?

Emoji accessibility is important because an abundance of the images can cause issues for screen reader users.

With the description of each emoji read out individually, having too many in a message or social media post can become annoying and time consuming.

Sometimes social media users will use the same emoji more than once to add emphasis, which might be easy to ignore if you see them all the time.

But it’s no fun for a screen reader user to have to listen to ‘clapping hands, clapping hands, clapping hands’ when using the emoji just once would have had the same effect.

And if an emoji is used in the middle of a sentence or instead of a word, the disruption to the sentence could mean a screen reader user misses the intended message completely.

While it might require a bit more thought to use emojis in an accessible way, with almost two million people living with site loss in the UK alone, it is worth it to make sure your messages are understood and enjoyed by screen reader users.

Click here to check out our short video showing why using too many emojis (like in the image below) can cause accessibility issues.

A message from Whizz-Kidz showing how NOT to use emojis

Are emoticons accessible?

Emoticons are representations of facial expressions, most often made using characters such as punctuation marks.

But while some screen readers will recognise them as a facial expression, others will read out each punctuation mark individually, such as ‘colon, hyphen, right bracket’.

In terms of accessibility, you’re better off sticking to emojis than emoticons.

How to use emojis in an accessible way

To use emojis in the most accessible way possible, just follow these simple dos and don’ts…

Do:

  • Use a couple of emojis if you want to
  • Put emojis at the end of sentences, after any important information
  • Make sure you’re using the right emoji for the intended message

Don't:

  • Put too many emojis in one message
  • Use an emoji instead of a word
  • Put emojis in the middle of a sentence
  • Repeat the same emoji multiple times
  • Use a string of different emojis in a row

A collection of emojis - Photo by Denis Cherkashin on Unsplash

How to choose the right emoji

Choosing the right emoji is all about understanding what description a screen reader will read out.

For example, crying face emojis could be read out as ‘face with tears of joy’, ‘loudly crying face’ or ‘smiling face with tear’ depending on which one you use.

As these emoji descriptions all show different emotions, it is important to use the right one so that a screen reader user will understand the feeling behind your message.

A really simple way to check this is by testing out the screen reader option on your smartphone.

On an iPhone, head to the accessibility option in settings and turn on VoiceOver.

On an Android, open settings, head to accessibility and turn on TalkBack.

You can then open up messages and test out some emojis to see how the screen reader describes them.

Different screen readers may describe emojis slightly differently, but this is still a great place to start!

Emoji meanings

As a helping hand, we’ve listed the screen reader descriptions of some popular emojis and some emojis that may have surprising descriptions - making them less accessible.

These are from the iPhone screen reader VoiceOver, but we hope you find it useful!

Tip: Click on the emojis to hear how the description would sound on a screen reader.

Popular emojis...

😂 Face with tears of joy

😊 Smiling face with smiling eyes and rosy cheeks

😘 Face blowing a kiss

🤣 Face rolling on the floor laughing

🤔 Thinking face

👌 OK hand

😭 Loudly crying face

🙈 Monkey covering eyes

😬 Grimacing face

👏 Clapping hands

Emojis that might not mean what you think they do…

🤗 Smiling face with smiling eyes and hugging hands

😥 Sad but relieved face with sweat

💁 Information desk woman

😣 Persevering face

🙆‍♀️ Woman with hands clasped above her head making the okay gesture

✋ Raised hand

😪 Sleepy face

😵 Dizzy face with discomfort

😕 Confused face

💓 Beating heart