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accessibility

What is Alt Text And Why Is It Important?

On February 18, 2022, the New York Times published an article that explained how blind people learned about images on web pages and in social media posts. The solution is to add brief descriptions to images that can be read aloud by  screen readers.

For background information, read this post. How do blind people use the internet?

What Is Alt Text?

Alt text is a brief description of a picture. Here are some examples of good alt text taken from the New York Times article.

•            Cute puppy lying on sofa.

•            Neon sign reading, “open.”

•            A firefighter leans on an axe in a burning forest.

The examples listed above are clear. They briefly describe what is in the picture.

The article also gives unclear examples of alt text.

•            final_final.jpg

•            image

When I hear my screen reader say .jpg,” or another file extension like .tif or .png, I know that the alt text is the file name of the photo that was uploaded to the web page. If I hear the word “image” I know that no alt text was associated with the photo upload.

How To Add Alt Text To Images

Alt text can be added when someone associates a description with a picture that they are uploading to a web page or social media post.

Content management systems like WordPress have edit fields labeled for alt text that appear when I edit a photo in my media library. Once I add it, the alt text is included when I put the photo on the page.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram let users add alt text to photos that they upload. Searching the help pages should bring up the correct settings for each platform.

Another way to include alt text is to type a description into the caption of a social media post. I sometimes comment on my friends’ posts asking them to describe an image.

Finally, those who use html to code their content can add the alt text to code that associates the description with the image. Programmers can search the W3Schools Online Web Tutorials for sample html code.

Resources for Writing Alt Text

The Cooper Hewitt Guidelines for Image Description.

“This document outlines types of descriptions, the structure of a description, and recommendations to help guide writing descriptions (with examples).”

The Guidelines for Verbal Description  published by Art Beyond Sight explain how to describe art works like paintings and sculptures.

“Generally, a coherent description should provide visual information in a sequence, allowing a blind person to assemble, piece by piece, an image of a highly complex work of art.”

The Poet Training Tool “is a web-based image description resource that helps people learn when and how to describe various types of images frequently found in educational books.”

Using alt text to make science Twitter more accessible for people with visual impairments is an article published by Nature Communications in November 2020.

“Scientists increasingly post images and photos on social media to share their

research activities. However, posting images and photos could potentially

exclude people with visual impairments. Here, we outline actions that should be

taken to foster accessibility and inclusion in posting scientific images on

social media.”

Alt Text As Poetry is a collaboration between artists Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan. They write about the language used in image descriptions.

Finally, I recommend downloading and reading this academic paper about representing race and gender in image descriptions. Cynthia Bennett and her co-authors interviewed

“screen reader users who were also Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Non-binary, and/or Transgender on their current image description practices and preferences, and experiences negotiating theirs and others’ appearances non-visually.”

Call to Action

Writing alt text that describes images is a crucial step towards making web pages and social media posts accessible to everyone. The absolute best way to learn to write alt text is to do it. It is a skill that people can learn to do well with practice.