In November 2015, Oxford Dictionaries made history by not naming their “Word of the Year” after a word at all. For the first time ever, an emoji character known as “Face with Tears of Joy” was named “Word of the Year” for 2015.


Oxford Dictionaries explained that the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji was chosen because as a form of communication, it’s particularly unique due to its overwhelming use worldwide. Emojis can extend beyond language barriers to be used as a “nuanced form of expression.”

That’s pretty powerful stuff. A smile used to be universal, but now, you may have a better chance with emojis. Have emojis affected our day-to-day interactions to the degree of breaking down language barriers? Absolutely. Are they the new shorthand method of communicating, the golden egg to cracking the millennial demographic?

Maybe so…

But not for everyone.

Major brands are all aboard the emoji craze, from Chevy disseminating an entire press release in emojis to Coca-Cola sponsoring a special soft drink emoji on Twitter. Thanks to Domino’s Pizza, you can now have a delicious slice at your fingertips simply by tweeting a pizza emoji. In the past month alone, I’ve personally received three conference invites featuring breakout sessions on marketing with emojis. But while marketers everywhere are embracing emojis, they may be excluding a large portion of their audience.

"Why did you send me ‘House with a Yard'?"

BBC Radio recently hosted a podcast on how smartphone users with disabilities interpret emojis. The main interview featured a media professional who is blind and uses the iPhone VoiceOver software. To demonstrate, he asked his colleagues to text him emojis they use in everyday conversation. The podcast hosts quickly found themselves trying to explain the greater significance of several emojis, breaking down jokes and relating emoji's acceptable uses in pop culture. Like in the case of our “Word of the Year,” the “Face with Tears of Joy” wasn’t always used to convey that literal reaction. It could often be used in a “laughing until I cry” scenario, or “this is so good, it cracks me up.”

Wired explored this phenomenon more in-depth, noting that “Emoji is like any other language. It changes. It evolves. It reflects the times, and the people using it.” Although Unicode chooses which emojis to include on the Emoji keyboard and dictates their standards, emojis are constantly expanding beyond their definitions.

As the BBC Radio podcast hosts discovered, screen readers can say what an emoji practically is by relaying the Unicode definition; in one of their examples, iPhone VoiceOver interprets an emoji as “a house with a yard.” But how is a house with a yard relevant to the conversation? Is there a deeper meaning? Is there a greater social reference taking place that users with disabilities aren’t able to interpret because they can’t see it in its original form – a visual object?

On the flipside, many screen readers are getting better and better at interpreting emojis. The BBC Radio interview went on and the VoiceOver user was able to get the gist of an emoji conversation, with occasional context from the hosts. However, there isn’t much support when an emoji doesn’t work, either when the context is missing or it just shows up as the dreaded “image.”

"Image not found"

That’s where things get even murkier: remember Chevy’s emoji press release at the beginning of our post?  If you examine the press release page’s source code, the entire press release is just a picture of a string of emojis, without any alt text. If a screen reader attempted to interpret it, a blind user would likely just hear one word, “image.” No context, no further information. An entire marketing campaign now unreachable to them.

Dove also recently introduced “curly hair” emoji, yet when the iPhone deciphers them in VoiceOver mode, the emoji is again read as “image,” with no description of what appears on the screen. And Dove and Chevy aren’t the only ones – KitKat is even petitioning to get the word “break” recognized as an official emoji of two KitKat bars snapping in half. But if the Unicode description for the emoji is “break,” a blind user has no context for the emoji. Break what? Why? They have no way of knowing the greater social relevance or its evolving significance - that the emoji is actually of a KitKat bar - if it can’t be properly interpreted by a screen reader.

Why it matters

At Siteimprove, creating an accessible web for all is one of our most important values. It’s not only an ethical, but, in many countries, a legal responsibility. Higher education institutions in the U.S. have faced off with the Department of Justice just this past year due to lack of web accessibility on their websites. The State of California recently audited their government websites for accessibility compliance and discovered that the state’s official marketplace for healthcare coverage was completely unusable by people with disabilities who relied on their keyboards to navigate the site. In Canada, the clock is ticking down on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requiring all provincial websites to be fully accessible.

Emojis may seem less pressing in comparison, but for a user with disabilities, they can be another reminder of a web not built for them. As I mentioned above, technology has come a long way, and many screen readers can interpret emojis to some degree. Yet it isn’t always a guarantee, and what can seem like a creative marketing approach can end up excluding an entire audience. A smiley face isn’t just a picture of a smiley face anymore – it conveys a mood, a pun, or now, even social references. Odds are high that an emoji holiday campaign could be a fun approach to an endless season of shopping and sales, or spark a quick laugh.

But 39 million people may not be in on the joke.

To find out more about making your website accessible and to see why we advocate for accessible web for all, download The Must-Have Accessibility Handbook.

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