Can blind people read emojis?

October 29, 2015 • Posted in blindness, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized by

“Smiling face with squinty eyes.”

That’s what my talking iPhone called out after the Cardinals beat the Cubs in the first NL playoff game a few weeks ago. The text message came from Tom, a St. Louis fan who’s a friend from Hackney’s. He’s been known to say some goofy things after imbibing a few too many Anheuser-Busch products, but “smiley face with squinty eyes?” It just didn’t sound like Tom.

Life imitates emoji.

Life imitates emoji.

And that’s when the lightbulb went on over my head. He’d sent me one of those pictures you can text to show how you feel.

Wait. I need to look up how to spell it.


Ah, yes. Here it is. It’s called an “emoji.”

Two years ago I published a post here about how some people who are blind access a program called VoiceOver to use an iPhone — VoiceOver parrots every letter we type into a text, but it wasn’t until I upgraded to IOS 9 last month that I came face-to-face with an emoji.

A key next to the space bar on the iPhone keypad lets users choose from lists and lisps and lists of emojis to use with texts. VoiceOver reads the images out loud for those of us who can’t see them, and to show you what I mean, here’s a sampling of what I hear when choosing from the list of “Smileys and other people” emojis:

  • ”Smiling face with sunglasses”
  • “Unamused face”
  • “Winking face with stuck-out tongue”
  • “Sleeping face”
  • ”Nerdy face with thick horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth”
  • ”Neutral face”
  • ”Excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue”
  • “Expressionless face”
  • “Smiling face licking lips”
  • “Slightly smiling face”
  • ”Smirking face”
  • “ Face with rolling eyes”
  • ”Face with no mouth”
  • “Flushed face”
  • “Thinking face”
  • “Angry face”
  • “Pouting face”
  • “Disappointed face”
  • ”Grinning face with clenched teeth”

Wait. Can a person clench their teeth and smile at the same time?


I guess you can! But would I ever want to see a picture of that on a text message? Dunno.

After the powers that be added 150 new emojis to their operating systems last week, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Ouch blog asked Damen Rose, a BBC reporter who is blind, to demonstrate what emojis sound like on his Smart Phone. I listened to the podcast and found myself agreeing with Damen when he lamented how the emoji craze is just one more example of how the technological world is becoming more and more visual. “We’ve sort of arrived at this glance culture, haven’t we, where we take in so many things at a glance on a screen,” he said. “We’re supposed to keep up with various events, understand different memes, get the references, et cetera, and it all happened soooo quickly and sooooooooo visually.”

I gotta admit, I do feel left behind sometimes. People doing quick smart phone checks for sports scores or news. Looking real quick at Facebook. Checking text messages at a glance. I just can’t keep up. Without being able to see, I’m not part of the “glance culture.”

But wait. Maybe there’s an “Eyebrows up!” emoji, and if there is, I need one right now. I mean, maybe I can’t just glance at a written description of an emoji, but isn’t it pretty incredible that technology companies have come this far with accessibility? That they actually found someone somewhere to write hundreds (thousands?) of emoji descriptions for people like me, who can’t see them?.

If there isn’t an “eyebrows up!” emoji yet, I nominate my nine-year-old great niece to be the one to describe “eyebrows up!” once it’s added — she’s already pretty good at describing emoticons. I’ll end the post here with the closing of an email message she sent to her old blind Great Aunt Betha recently:

“Love, FLOEY :);) (smiley and winky face) I<3U (that means “I love you.”)

Shelley On October 29, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Thank you, Beth. I’ve been wondering about this. I’m pretty sure I’ve inserted emojis/emoticons in emails I’ve sent you over the years, out of habit, perhaps assuming your software would handle the rest. (Glad to know the ADA is on top of it, making sure you get your descriptions on your iPhone.)

bethfinke On October 30, 2015 at 6:12 am

Yes — the other day I was planning a rendezvous with a friend who is hard of hearing. She texted me back to confirm simply by using the “thumbs up” imoji, and I had to laugh –doesn’t “Thumbs up” mean “yes” in Sign language? Happy birthday, ADA! _____

ginnystar On October 29, 2015 at 9:04 pm

I have found a few that I’ve used like a tag (_)? coffee image show a coffee cup, via a friend, (__) is a bowl, and [__] is cake. Its had made a few folks day.

bethfinke On October 30, 2015 at 6:12 am

Thumbs up, Ginnystar.


bethfinke On October 30, 2015 at 6:08 am

Not sure I’d want imojis to utilize The sense of smell, though. The BBC “Inside Ouch” podcasst pointed out that there is an imoji that reads “Smiling pile of poo.”


Sheila A. Donovan On October 31, 2015 at 10:15 am

I’ve wondered if your computer could “translate” emojis. Now I know.

bethfinke On October 31, 2015 at 10:24 am

“Smiley face with cup of coffee on leisurely Saturday morning.”


Monna Ray On October 31, 2015 at 11:19 am

Interesting! Monna

bethfinke On October 31, 2015 at 11:33 am

Yeah — I find myself wondering who the person is who looks at these things and decides what words to use to describe them…


Deborah Darsie On December 19, 2015 at 2:56 pm

Yes, there is an emoji with a raised eyebrow and a smirky, sideways smile. Often labeled as a sarcastic smiley on applications like Facebook & others.

The way to make the ‘smiling pile of poo’ is quite easy – bracket the word poop with a colon and no space before or after the word.


It is a good way to make people smile – and its odor-free!

bethfinke On December 22, 2015 at 9:25 am

Rats. I just tried :poop: and texted it to myself, all Voiceover says is poop — I was hoping it’d call out “smiling pile of poop!


bart On March 24, 2016 at 4:46 am

there’s still no emotion in voice-overfunction. A Dutch foundation called Dedicon stands for for accessible information for the blind. They are working on a solution. Watch this video:

bethfinke On March 24, 2016 at 6:02 am

Fun! And I could almost understand the Dutch, too. Thanks for sending…


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