Aesthetics for Birds

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Accessibility and the Problem of Alt Text: Who Is It For and How Could It Be Better?

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What follows is an essay by Aaron Richardson (Simon Fraser University).

One part of the internet is invisible to the sighted, but keenly visible to the blind: alt text. Short for “alternative text,” alt text improves accessibility for blind readers by describing an image textually. That text appears in the code, which can then be read to visually impaired users through a piece of technology called a screen reader. But this text is likely to remain completely hidden to sighted users, except for the relative few involved in coding and composing.

What are we doing when we write alt text? This is a broad, theoretical question, one suitable for a philosophy blog. The simple answer, that we are writing descriptions of images, turns out not to be a very good one. Discovering the real answer is in fact both difficult and confusing. This is especially the case for sighted individuals who, generally, have no idea what it might be like to navigate the world without vision. This is particularly problematic because they are the ones responsible for writing alt text.

The implications of this problem are vast. The internet is an intrinsically visual medium, and images are almost everywhere. These images often vary in the amount of information they carry, and in the importance they have for their surroundings. Sometimes, the image is the point, as in a meme; other times, the image provides crucial information — graphs or charts; and yet other times, images provide decorative flourishes. 

Recently, in putting together our reading list on disability and aesthetics, we became acutely aware that Aesthetics for Birds was failing to meet the accessibility standard of having full and complete alt text accompanying our images. It became a priority to remedy that problem and go through our archive to add in the missing alt text. However, because this is an aesthetics and philosophy of art blog, many of our images face an additional issue. Alt text is, by nature, text that supplements the content of an image. Numerous guides can be found across the internet on the basic standards, expectations, and norms for creating alt text for many of the most common types of cases (some of which are listed below in the Alt Text Resource List). But what should the alt text say for an image of a visually complex artwork, or an artwork that is imbued with necessarily vague elements, or a piece that is abstract or non-representational? There is comparatively little guidance for such cases, which make up a large collection of our own image archive.

As an example, consider the banner image for our blog, the flamingos standing in a marsh. “Flamingos standing in a marsh” seems like a perfectly adequate description of the contents of the image. But the visual experience of such an image goes far beyond such a simplistic description. Is there anything special about one of the flamingos, the colors, the depth of field, the composition? How about the number of flamingos? Are there other animals and vegetation, or is it sparse? Is it a photograph, a painting, or something else? Is the style cartoonish or realistic? Visually, we see the answers, but “flamingos standing in a marsh” gives no such information. What, then, would it require to replicate the visual experience we get from such an image in a linguistic mode? This is the alt text predicament, and it was the predicament we faced when we went through our archive. While many images across our site fall within the scope of guides you can easily find across the internet, many do not. Alt text for artwork requires something over and above simply alt text for images. But what?

The present project grew out of the absence of such a resource. It is our hope to provide an initial foray into the realm of alt text for artwork. The present essay will look at alt text in general, and an upcoming companion piece will examine the special case of alt text for art.

Alt-Text, Author, and Audience

On the Reddit forum r/blind, an unusual phenomenon appears. There, one finds a series of distinct threads in which sighted people who are responsible for writing alt text for their job, blog, or other kind of project ask for advice on writing alt text. The people mean well. They want to do the best job they can, and as the visually impaired community is alt text’s audience, they want to know what visually impaired readers want out of alt text. Their impulse to ask the community directly is often exacerbated by the fact that they are writing without helpful resources — to say nothing of the time and financial support that carefully excavating those resources would require.

There is a common pattern to these threads: an initial query, followed by two or three replies by blind users offering a brief response with links to roughly the same scattered resources across the internet, followed by a quick “thank you” from the original poster. After that, the thread becomes inactive. These questions have been asked so many times on the forum that there is little reason for the members of r/blind to continually have the same conversation over and over again. This is a perennial burden that people with disabilities must shoulder. And it reveals a particular irony in asking the blind for advice about how to write alt text.

The irony is that alt text cannot be written by the blind. Alt text is a means of communicating visual content through language, so a blind person can only be the audience of alt text, never its author. It is a remarkable situation in which the author of alt text cannot also, truly, be its audience, and the audience can never be its author.

This makes the creation of alt text a necessarily collaborative process in which the authors and audience must mutually inform each other. What problems do the authors face, and what needs does the audience have? This post will illustrate the problems of alt text as understood by its authors (i.e. the sighted). This is why the article will be a temporarily live document. If you are blind or visually impaired, and have opinions, or advice, or can in any way offer a better viewpoint from the audience perspective, please leave a comment below, and we will do the best we can to incorporate that into future versions of this piece. As it is, we are the sighted leading the sighted, and our blunders come from our inability to see the whole picture. 

The Role of Alt-Text

Perhaps the best way to understand the role of alt text is to better understand another means of attaching text to images: captions. Captions, the bits of text that appear alongside (typically below) an image, arose with the invention of photography. This makes it much older than alt text, which only came into existence with the invention of digital computers. In her piece “The Caption | The Mutual Relation of Words/Photographs,” the photography critic Nancy Newhall articulates the role of a caption with nuance and sophistication, and I highly recommend the piece to interested readers. For our purposes, the central point is quite simple: a caption is designed as a complement to a photograph. It is a means of further elaborating the contents of the photograph which has already been seen and experienced by the reader. In Newhall’s words,

“[The caption] makes use of the connotations of words to reinforce the connotations of the photograph. It loses half of its significance when divorced from its photograph.”

Two issues should be noted here. First, captions use language to further inform the visual experience of a photograph, and they are only meaningful when attached to the photograph. Alt text, on the other hand, uses language to reproduce the content of the visual experience which would be necessary for a caption to be fully meaningful. In this sense, captions are a medium of text which require visual experience, while alt text is a means of faithfully reproducing the meaningful content of that visual experience. This is the central issue of accessibility, and understanding this is an important part of creating any kind of alt text.

Second, Newhall presents captions as using the “connotations of words to reinforce the connotations of the photograph” (emphasis mine). But of course the connotations of a piece of visual art go far beyond its representative and demonstrative contents. This is true even in the case of straightforwardly representational images.

Captions, according to Newhall, play a central role in altering, reinforcing, and shaping those experiences of a photograph. In a case where a central element of the image could be missed on a first glance, or (as Newhall points out) if the audience is more adept at analyzing language than visual imagery, captions play a central role in drawing the attention of the audience to the appropriate visual elements of an image. It is through this process that a caption both gains its own meaning and enriches the meaning of its corresponding image. 

Alt text is markedly different. As alt text provides meaning when the image or artwork is itself inaccessible, it cannot combine with the image to create its own meaning, nor is its purpose the enrichment of one’s experience of the image. If captions “use the connotations of words to reinforce the connotations of the photograph,” then alt text uses the connotations of words to reproduce the connotations of the artwork. In creating alt text, part of the goal is to reproduce those elements of an image which go beyond its determinate, representational contents.

Context and Alt-Text: Merely Decorative Images and Redundant Information

Two pieces of oft-repeated advice in alt text guides show how context is the strongest determining factor in deciding what one should put in the alt text, if anything at all. The first is that the alt text of a “merely decorative” image should be left empty. If an image is not essential to understanding the text that it is embedded in — and could therefore be easily ignored by sighted readers — one should not subject blind readers to descriptions of those inessential images. 

The second is that, if the image is so central to the content of the piece that it is already completely described in the main text, then it is unnecessary to include any alt text whatsoever. After all, blind readers can already access information in captions and in the body of the text. To add alt text that reproduces that information would only add redundancies. In fact, this piece of advice falls under a more general rule, that one should avoid repeating in the alt text anything that is already present in captions and other body text.

Most cases, however, are more complex than these. The image often plays some central role in the piece, but the main text takes for granted that the reader has been able to visually experience the image. It also takes for granted that the reader can (as with captions) read the article visually, seeing the layout and moving quickly and comfortably back and forth between text and image, and as a result can use each to better understand the meaning of the other. We use images such as charts and graphs because it is easier to communicate some information in a visual mode. Visual art, on the other hand, indulges in the visual mode of expression itself. In either case, readers who can visually experience an image gain something — which I’m calling a kind of information — from that experience. It is in these cases that alt text is necessary. This is when the visually impaired reader is put at a disadvantage, because it is in these cases that the meaning of the piece as a whole goes beyond the meaning of the text on its own. We can use this to articulate a general rule for when alt text is necessary, and what specific informational content it should provide:

Alt text should provide the reader with information that the text assumes is communicated by the image.

This reveals one of the central predicaments of alt text. Alt text exists because some body of text is already unequally accessible by visually impaired readers. You only ever need alt text if it accompanies a body of text which cannot be fully understood without the visual experience of an accompanying image. While the point of alt text is to improve accessibility, it is only ever required in cases where a body of text is insufficiently accessible. As such, the most reliable means of effectively making a piece more accessible is not through the skilled application of alt text, but through structuring the text of a piece in a way that does not take for granted information that a reader could only access through the visual mode. Alt text is by its very nature a non-ideal solution.

What the Blind See

The above talks about vision as if it were a stark binary. On the one hand are sighted people who comfortably employ the full range of visual experience, use visual information, and deploy visual concepts. On the other hand are fully blind people who do not possess any of those abilities to any degree. This is far from the case, and that fact has significant implications for alt text. 

The work of writer and disability scholar Georgina Kleege, in particular, is indispensable in making the implications of this assumption explicit. Her book More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art is an analysis of museum access programs for the blind. It is a remarkable book for many reasons, but it stresses two points that are important for any discussion of alt text. 

First, most people classified as “blind” do not fall into the extreme category above. They are either partially sighted, and so have some visual experience, or they lost their sight during or after childhood, and so still remember the structure of visual experience and can deploy visual concepts. Furthermore, because alt text is designed to be read by screen readers, the audience of alt text might visually perceive a great deal of things, but simply lack the visual acuity to read print.

In short, users of screen readers fall all along the spectrum of blindness and visual impairment. For many of these users, the alt text for our banner image — “…the head and legs of a deep pink flamingo in the foreground…” — may help them see the rough and perhaps fuzzy visual experience of three disorderly pink lines of varying thickness descending from the top of the image as a flamingo, rather than as three disorderly pink lines of varying thickness descending from the top of the image. One might therefore try to think of alt text as a means of making sense of vague and indeterminate visual phenomenology, rather than as necessarily providing for the reader the entirety of a visual experience of an image. 

A small percentage of people do, of course, fall at the end of the spectrum. These people are congenitally blind from birth and have no memories of color experience whatsoever. Still — and this is the second point — because they are embedded in a society where vision plays a central role in structuring the way we talk about the world, they possess and understand a wide variety of visual concepts. For such readers, it is not a fatal flaw that the alt text for our banner image invokes the word “pink” or even the concept “deep pink.”

If you are, like me, a sighted person responsible for writing alt text, I hope that this all comes as a bit of a reprieve. Yes, our job is to translate information expressed in a visual mode into a linguistic mode, but that does not mean that we must forgo the use of all visual concepts, terminology, or expressions. Which visual concepts blind people do possess, and which ones are the most useful for the practice of alt text is beyond the scope of this piece. But, for the curious, there is likely no better resource than Kleege’s book. 

Conclusion

The problem posed by alt text is unique in that its authors and its audience are necessarily distinct groups of people. If we are to develop a productive means of creating standardized and equitable alt text, sighted authors need to develop a richer understanding of what it might be like to navigate the world without vision, as meeting the needs of blind readers is the fundamental purpose of alt text. When composing alt text, one should understand it as reproducing the content of the image in a different form. 

Alt text is always a function of its context, usually the rest of a body of text. When the main text already describes the content of an image precisely, alt text may be unnecessary. If you are hoping to create content on the internet and want it to be genuinely accessible, you should understand that the ideal outcome is one where alt text is entirely superfluous. But, if you must include alt text, know that the information it should convey is the information which the rest of the piece takes for granted as given by the image. 

It’s important to see that the problems posed by alt text are instances of a more general problem. Visual and linguistic information are incommensurable; they do not readily and straightforwardly translate into each other. One will necessarily run up against walls in trying to communicate fundamentally visual information through words. This is particularly difficult (we have found) when writing alt text for artwork. It is that problem specifically which we will address in our upcoming companion piece on alt text for (and as) artwork.


Living Document: 

Here at Aesthetics for Birds, we are in the process of inputting alt text for all of our images. We are currently working through our archive of over 500 posts dating back to 2013. Since beginning this process, we have included alt text for all new posts. Otherwise, we are working our way from our oldest posts to our more recent posts. We wanted to release this prior to completing our own alt text for a couple reasons. 

First, everyone here at Aesthetics for Birds is sighted, including the author of this post (and resident inputter of alt text). We wanted to invite any blind readers we might have to offer suggestions, alterations, or opinions on either the information included here or the alt text which we have already entered. We are aware of the burden this places on our disabled readers, but it is our hope that this becomes a constructive resource that others can refer to in their own implementation of alt text.

Second, we wanted to formally articulate our methods and stylistic choices. This is to allow our methods and choices to be subjected to criticism and revision as we go forward. We have done what we could to put together a strong and inclusive rationale for how to appropriately structure alt text. But there are surely ways to improve.

As such, we have decided to make this a temporarily live document that will undergo changes over the course of the next month or so as the remainder of the alt text for our site is filled out. We will do the same for the upcoming companion piece. That piece will provide a list of hard cases that we encountered going through our archive. That list will be expanded as we continue to find such cases the further along we go in the process. Furthermore, we hope to take the advice of our readers to heart as we continue to fill out our alt text. As I will argue in the companion piece, alt text itself is best understood as an artform that requires a style, and which audiences have a variety of needs and preferences for. As such, if we are to have a style for the alt text which we use on our site, we would ideally like that style to be suited to the needs and preferences of our readers. We are, if anything, writing this blog for you. 


Alt Text Resource List

There are numerous resources across the internet about alt text. These resources were used in developing this piece, and they are listed here for those readers curious to know more.


Aaron Richardson is an MA student in philosophy at Simon Fraser University and a long-standing Research Assistant at Aesthetics for Birds (who has recently started collecting bird-themed shirts in honor of his time here). His research focuses on what we can know about the experience of other minds, with special attention to the visual systems of non-human animals. He spends a great deal of time thinking about visual concepts, especially the ones we do not have. 

2 Comments

  1. That there may well be a problem I would not care to dispute. Accessibility for people with all sorts of limitations has lumbered along, with all deliberate speed since the ADA of 1990. I was still working in that area then. There were always people who down-played the idea of accessibility for all. They were, usually, those who were among the able-bodied: they were OK and did not ‘ger’ what all the fuss was about. Didn’t need to. I was not disabled—few of my associates/colleagues were, but we did ‘get’ it. Now, I am officially in the population we were advocates for them. My eyes were failing, and surgery fixed that, so, I still ‘get’ it. Wheels of progress turn slowly. If you are sincerely on board, I have no doubt you can and will fix your alternative text problem. That accessibility tool was in infancy on our watch years ago. Carry on. Take good care of your business. Others will appreciate that.

  2. This was an interesting read, it’s heartening to see digital accessibility being thought about so carefully.

    I’d like to recommend Leonie Tinks’ work to you, for instance https://tink.uk/text-descriptions-emotion-rich-images/

    > Like sighted users, we’ll skip around the content of the page until we find something that interests us. If the first few syllables of an alt text sound promising, we’ll pause to read. If they don’t, we’ll move on to the next element on the page. Also like sighted users, we’re often likely to pause on something unimportant, but which captures our imagination.

    Good luck with the image describing.

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